The events, times, and places in this story are all true, but the characters are fictional. It’s the story of Canada’s mistake in letting fear of other humans who look and sound different become the underlying motivation for the implementation of a brutal set of racially discriminatory laws.
24,000 Japanese Canadians were uprooted from the West Coast and placed in internment camps in the interior while at the same time having their properties and material goods first confiscated and then sold off. These dark days for Canadians who happened to be Japanese took place during World War 2 after the Japanese Empire attacked Pearl Harbor.
The book itself traces the comings and goings of a young Japanese Canadian reporter from Vancouver who traces the lives of an emperor worshiping Japanese patriot (whose kind were the justification for Canadian fears surrounding the Japanese). A local Vancouver Japanese gang leader, and also a local business leader from Steveston. All four of these characters get intertwined in a story of loss, anger, death, duplicity and misunderstanding. The book is bleak and refuses to end on a hopeful note.
The following snippets from the book give you a sense of that frustration:
- Buttons: Chinatown was next to Little Tokyo in Vancouver. The authorities responsible for collecting the Japanese couldn’t distinguish between the two types of Asians, so some Chinese were getting caught up in the dragnet. The ever industrious Chinese created a solution; They pinned big “I am Chinese” buttons on their clothing to avoid getting arrested.
- What you look like and the language you spoke mattered: There was a tiny minority of Japanese in Canada who would have gladly switched allegiances to the empire had the Japanese war machine reached our coasts. But the vast majority of the Japanese were Canadians enjoying the freedoms and privileges of Western society. They were no threat, yet they couldn’t be trusted because they looked like and spoke the enemy’s language. Canadians of German and Italian heritage didn’t face the same trouble. They were white and Christian. They spoke English and celebrated the same holidays as “normal” Canadians. Because they didn’t look and sound like the enemy, it was assumed that they weren’t, so they were not locked up like the Japanese.
I wonder if we will ever get to a place where fear doesn’t take center stage in determining how we interact with people who don’t look and sound like us.
I wonder if we will ever get to a place where what we look like and the language we speak doesn’t prevent us from loving and respecting each other.
I hope we get there. But tribalism remains strong. Fear of the different other is such an engrained survivalist mechanism that I think only the most determined can rise above it.