"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Friday, August 04, 2006

Kobi's Sakura

Long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away....well, okay it was Port Dover, Ontario in 1989 or '90 when I was just starting out in the newspaper trade, I interviewed a very old Japanese-Canadian gentleman by the name of Kobi Kobiyashi, who was one of the town's leading citizen. The occasion was a gift he was presenting to the muncipal government of a couple of dozen Japanese sakura cherry blossom trees. At the time it seemed to me to be a bit of an odd gift, though now that I live in Tokyo I realize what a big deal sakura are to the Japanese. They bloom magnificently in spring for about ten days, turning whole parks bright pink before the blossoms wither and fall. In Japanese culture, they are said to symbolize the transitory nature of life. Once I learned that Kobi's story made a lot more sense.

See, he paid for the trees with some money he got from the Canadian government. Shipping a couple of dozen trees from Japan is not a cheap proposition, but he had a few extra grand to spare. The federal government had just cut him a cheque for $21,000. Why? Because they had locked him up for four years, stolen his house, his business and everything else he owned, threatened to send him back to a country he had left 15 years earlier and treated him like a slave and a criminal --all because of the government of the country he had come from all those years ago had attacked Pearl Harbour.

I never liked Brian Mulroney, but the one thing he did do right was pay compensation to the Japanese interned in Canada during the Second World War. Those of you who have read David Neiwert's Strawberry Days know that Japanese internees in the United States often lost their homes, land and most of their belongings when they were sent to the internment camps. In Canada, the internees lost everything--all their property was forfeited to the Government. In the US, internees were provided with food and shelter in the camps, albeit meagre. In Canada, the internees were expected to pay for their own food and shelter, either out of their savings or out of the money raised by the government auctioning off their homes, businesses and personal property. In most cases families were split up with the men being sent to work as virtual slaves in road camps in the interior of British Columbia.

Kobi had come to California in the 1920s as a teenager after his family in Kyushu disowned him when he converted to Christianity. He eventually found work as a gardener and chauffeur for a wealthy widow that had a vacation home in Port Dover on the shores of Lake Erie --a popular summer spot at the time, Al Capone was another summer resident. When the old lady died, she left him a few dollars and he settled in Port Dover, opening a little grocery store on the main street of the small town.

The newspaper there, The Port Dover Maple Leaf, was (and still is) run by the Morris family. The editor had lost a leg in WWI and was as patriotic as the name of the paper implies. When Canada and Japan went to war after Pearl Harbour, he refused to let Kobi advertise in the newspaper, a measure he later felt ashamed of, according to his son - my boss at the paper. When Kobi was arrested a few weeks later, his store and his home and all his belongings were auctioned off and he was sent off to a road camp where he stayed for the duration. In 1946, about 6,000 of the 20,000 Japanese-Canadians internees, many of whom had become naturalized citizens or had been born in Canada, were shipped back to Japan.

Kobi was not among them. Despite the shabby treatment he had received in Port Dover at the outbreak of the Pacific War, he returned to the shores of Lake Erie, worked as deckhand on fishing boats and as a hired farmhand until he saved enough to buy a fishing boat of his own and eventually bought back his grocery store. He raised a family in town and, in time, became one of the village's leading citizens. But he never forgot the camp. When I spoke to him, he was in his 80s and shed bitter tears when he described the brutal conditions there. Inadequate clothing and shelter and sub-zero weather, working from dawn to dark, eating lousy food and not nearly enough of it -- and having to pay for it all out of his own pocket.

And yet....in time he was able to forgive. That's what the trees were all about. He told me that when they bloomed in spring they reminded him of Kyushu and his childhood, but also that no hardship lasts forever, nor does any good fortune and they we should all be thankful for what we have while we have it. Most of all, he hoped the trees would stand as monument to peace and as a reminder to to what had been done to so many people, so many years ago, in the hope that such a thing would never happen again.

You can read more about the internment in Canada here or listen to David Suzuki (from "the Nature of Things") talk about his terrible experiences as a child during the internment. To learn more about the effect of the internment in the US, there is no better book than Dave Neiwert's Strawberry Days.

(cross-posted at Firedoglake, where we will be discussing Strawberry Days on Sunday at 5 pm EST)

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Blogstardom beckons
I'll be blogging up a storm on Sunday night (5 pm EST/ 2pm Pacific/ way too damn early Monday morning Tokyo time) over at the heavy hitting Firedoglake blog (see blogroll). The lovely, gracious and hyperintelligent Jane Hamsher has invited me to post, host and otherwise sound off as part of a discussion of "Strawberry Days" during Firedoglake's weekly Sunday book salon. Author David Niewert will also be taking part in the discussion as we look at the internment of Japanese in North America during WWII. Longtime readers (hi Mom!) will remember that I reviewed the book last fall and interviewed the author, who also runs the fantastic Orcinus blog (again, see the blogroll) that tracks the extreme and not-so-extreme right in the U.S. - that and orcas. If you haven't read it, you obviously just don't read blogs enough.

For those of you too damn lazy to click the links and read the review, Strawberry Days is an extreme close up of the effect the internment had on the Bellevue, Washington area, David journalistic home turf more or less. He started out interviewing internees and their descendants back when he was in the newspaper biz and the book grew out of that. It is insightful, exceptionally well sourced and researched and damn compelling read. Go buy it through my amazon ad down below and join us on Sunday.