Irene Tsuyuki is a second generation Japanese Canadian. She was born in Vancouver near the heart of the Japanese Community of Powell Street where her father, who immigrated from Japan in the early 1900s, had a shoe repair shop. Irene's memories are infused with typical girlish hues. She remembers Strathcona public school and piano lessons that her mother enrolled her in, instead of ballet. But life's daily routine was shattered when World War II broke out in 1941.
On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and Hong Kong. Twelve weeks later the Canadian federal government used the War Measures Act to order the removal of all Japanese Canadians residing within 100 miles of the Pacific coast. They had been prompted to do so by B.C. politicians who had long been looking for an excuse to rid the province and Canada of the Japanese minority(1).
Many Canadians were very much dismayed, if not shocked, at the federal government's treatment of the Japanese Canadians. People reached out, often through Anglican, Catholic, United and Quaker churches, to help the Japanese Canadians in whatever way they could. Winifred Awmack was among those who went to teach or minister at internment schools and churches. Winifred was asked to teach high school because the government was only providing public school education at the internment camps. It was here that Winifred Awmack met Irene Tsuyuki as her student.
Awmack felt that if the Japanese Canadian children didn't have a high school education they would always be second class citizens. And so, despite the lack of facilities, a curriculum was set up designed not only to educate, but to comfort and to strengthen students emotionally bruised by being considered enemy aliens by their country of birth. Each Saturday, for example, the school was broken into small groups to discuss any problems or confusions. Many students probably weren't able to communicate their feelings to their parents. The school sessions gave them a chance to express their anxieties, share the burden and to keep hope that there would be a better life after Tashme.
When the news came that the war had ended in Europe, Japanese Canadians thought this might be the end of the camps and time at last to return to regular communities. The school kids at Tashme declared it a holiday and celebrated with a hike into the mountains. But it soon became apparent that things were not simply going to return to normal. The B.C. politicians who had pushed for the internment of Japanese Canadians were still determined to keep them out of their communities. As a result, in 1945, the Japanese Canadians' choices for post-war freedom were limited. They could stay in Canada, but only if they moved east of the Rocky Mountains and settled in Ontario, Quebec or the Prairie provinces. Otherwise they would face deportation to war-ravaged Japan(5).
Irene Tsuyuki's father decided to return to Japan. She remembers the day she left. It was August sixth. Winifred Awmack recalls taking the school children, most of whose families had chosen to stay in Canada, down to see Irene and the others off.
In repatriating to Japan, Irene's parents lost their Canadian citizenship. In Japan, Irene was considered a foreign national of Canadian birthright. Many returnees like Irene felt they didn't belong in Japan. Irene remembers that as soon as they arrived, her father took her aside and said, "The first chance you get, you'll go back to Canada." Finally, in 1949 Canadian-born were allowed to return to Canada, provided they had a sponsor. Irene was sponsored by her future father-in-law. Her parents accompanied her to the Japanese port and she headed back home to Canada alone. She would never again see her own mother and father.
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