I filmed Sumi Kinoshita speaking about her book in June, 2017
Sumi Kinoshita wrote about her experience being interned in her gripping memoir, Shikataganai: It Can’t Be Helped. Her writing is crisp and dispassionate as she recounts devastating losses and discrimination endured. The vivid descriptions and archival and family photos paint a fascinating picture of British Columbia in the 1940s and 1950s.
We learn about a dark history of discrimination against those of Japanese descent in Canada, but there are bright lights. The title, “Shikataganai,” is translated in the subtitle, “it can’t be helped.” The expression was often repeated during the internment, reflecting resignation that when circumstances can’t be changed, one must make the best of things. And they did: communities came together, they worked hard and endured.
The memoir is also the story of the Morisawa family. Sumi's parents endured early challenges like adjusting to an arranged marriage while living in a shed in Kelowna, B.C., raising small children during the Great Depression. Her mother “ate so many cantaloupes; she couldn’t face eating another one for the rest of her life.”
Everything changed with Japan’s devastating attack on Pearl Harbor of Dec. 7, 1941. Following the lead of our American neighbours, the federal government considered everyone of Japanese descent “enemy aliens” and called for their removal from the west coast. In 1942, over half of the 21,460 people interned were Canadian citizens by birth.
Sumi’s family was included, with six small children nine years old and under. They were given 48 hours to evacuate their Victoria home with just two suitcases. All property the evacuees couldn’t carry was seized: land, homes, businesses, boats, vehicles; even schools, temples, churches and hospitals in the Japanese-Canadian community. A photo showing some of the 1,200 seized fishing boats appears on the book’s cover.
As a child, my family often visited Vancouver's Pacific National Exhibition at Hastings Park. My favourite place was the animal barns, with watching fluffy baby chicks, beautiful bunnies, and even large animals proudly presented by 4-H club members. I was appalled to learn that during the 1942 fair, the animal stalls housed over 1,000 people, while a German shepherd helped guard the entrance to the barbed-wire enclosure. Soldiers made up straw-filled mattresses, placed on bunk beds offering little privacy. Sumi’s family stayed there for six months.
The family's next destination was an internment camp in New Denver, north of Castlegar, B.C. They lived in uninsulated shacks with communal outhouses. Nevertheless, arts and crafts flourished and the community was strong. Sumi’s mother, Naoye Nakata, found an outlet in writing poetry.
After the war ended in 1945, conditions didn’t quickly improve. The former evacuees were given two options: to relocate eastwards or “return” to Japan. Finding neither option acceptable, Sumi’s father found work at a nearby logging camp. Japanese-Canadians were finally free to return to the coast in 1949, but not to their former homes. All confiscated property had been sold.
Sumi’s family eventually settled in South Surrey. They bought fifteen acres covered in massive Douglas Fir stumps, which they cleared with dynamite. They developed a large strawberry farm. For some income outside strawberry season, they grew vegetables like corn, tomatoes, and spinach, and raised chickens and a few pigs. Sumi attended Sunnyside Elementary School, followed by Semiahmoo Secondary School, then located in White Rock. I filmed Sumi when she returned to White Rock last June to share her story at Semiahmoo Arts' literary open mic.
The book loses some momentum when including writings of other family members. I would have liked to see those stories organized separately, or perhaps with more of their content threaded directly into the memoir. The story of Sumi's brother George Morisawa appears in three separate chapters that could have been merged. I would love to see an index and a family tree in a future edition.
Sumi felt shame about the humiliating conditions she endured, but found a brilliant way to overcome it with faith. She thought of Jesus, who was also housed in a cattle stall. It was inspiring to hear how his example of forgiveness also led her to forgive those who had caused so much injustice.
When I mentioned this book to a friend who lived through wartime, she opined about the internment, “It was badly done, but it had to be done.” I pointed out that the government of Canada apologized for everything. In 1988, Canada apologized and offered some financial compensation to survivors. In 2012, the government of British Columbia apologized. Sumi’s story is a valuable contribution to our understanding of Canadian history. It is also a cautionary reminder that we should never allow fear to strip friends and neighbours of their rights, property, and community. Perhaps we can learn.
- Irene Plett
Details: Sumi Kinoshita, Shikataganai: It Can’t Be Helped (2014: FriesenPress; ISBN 9781460214497)
Topics: Japanese-Canadian Internment, Pearl Harbor, New Denver, Hastings Park, Pacific National Exhibition, South Surrey, Victoria, Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada, history, forgiveness, Sumi Kinoshita, Naoye Nakata