The mass incarceration of Japanese Canadians began in 1942 and didn’t end until 1949, four years after the end of the Second World War. Indiscriminately and unfairly categorized as enemy aliens, Japanese Canadians, including many UBC students, were uprooted from their homes, stripped of their belongings, and forcibly relocated to internment camps in the BC interior, or to sugar beet farms in the Prairies. In May 2012, 70 years after the start of internment, UBC acknowledged its unjust treatment of 76 Japanese Canadian students and welcomed them back with honorary degrees.
The Japanese Canadian Students of 1942 Fund was created to champion community-based research, preserve historical materials and the stories of Japanese Canadian elders for future generations, and to support current students whose academic endeavours further the fields of Japanese Canadian and Asian Canadian studies.
Thanks to the generosity of donors and dedication of community members who joined the call for justice, two emerging UBC historians, PhD candidate Nicole Yakashiro and MA student Bailey Irene Midori Hoy, are able to continue to expand the field of Japanese and Asian Canadian history with new perspectives on the past.
Nicole Yakashiro has previously written on the dispossession of Japanese Canadians in Vancouver’s Powell Street neighbourhood, and in Bradner, BC, once the “daffodil capital” of Canada. Building on this foundation, Yakashiro continues to examine the history of Japanese Canadian property possession and dispossession in the context of settler colonialism. “I’m particularly interested in how colonial property logics and ideas of Asian racialization informed how neighbourhoods and property owners articulated neighbourly relations, complaints, and disputes in 20th-century British Columbia,” she says. “Rather than view Nikkei history in isolation, my dissertation interrogates the meaning of Asian-Canadian property possession – or lack thereof – on unceded, occupied Indigenous lands throughout the province.”
Going into the fifth year of her PhD, Yakashiro looks forward to being able to tell more histories with the financial support from the 1942 Fund donors, many of whom belong to Asian Canadian communities. “I know this fund is the result of tireless activism from scholars and community members like Mary Kitagawa, who wrote the original letter to the UBC Senate, advocating for the honorary degrees.”
“For me, a fund like this represents the power at the intersection of historical knowledge and relentless activism, a power which ultimately drives my own work. I do not take this opportunity lightly.”
For History MA student Bailey Irene Midori Hoy, receiving the 1942 Fund is made even more meaningful by familial ties. Hoy’s great-uncle Fred Yoshihide Sasaki, one of the honorary degree recipients, was a Commerce student at UBC before internment derailed his life in 1942. Sasaki was then forced to complete his studies by correspondence while working in Calgary. During this time, he kept in contact with one of his professors, E.H. Morrow. These letters are now housed in the Japanese Canadian Students Collection at the UBC Library.
Hoy’s current research is about the relationships that Canadian Nikkei had with the kimono in the 1940s, and expands on her previous work on beauty pageants in internment camps and the kimono in the lives of Japanese Canadian women. Thanks to the 1942 Fund, she will be able to travel to and conduct research on several internment camp sites in the BC interior this summer. “I am very aware of the privilege of education, and how lucky I am to pursue what I am passionate about,” she says. “Receiving the honorary degree in 2012 meant so much to Uncle Fred. Receiving this funding now truly feels like a full-circle moment.”
Mobilizing Knowledge for the Community
Growing up in a town that had few Japanese families, Hoy didn’t think she was going to pursue Nikkei history academically. Then, she did a project on Nikkei food that involved family and community during her undergraduate program at the University of Toronto, which changed her trajectory.
“I saw how much sharing stories, cookbooks, and objects meant to my family and friends who participated, and I realized how fulfilling this work can be.”
“Now, I try to write for my community and loved ones. When I wrote about haunting studies and Nikkei, I wrote the paper for my Dad.”
Working with a community one holds so close can be cathartic, but it can also be delicate and emotionally complex. “Doing research about and belonging to any sort of community can sometimes feel like an exercise in self-doubt,” reflects Yakashiro. “As a Japanese Canadian historian, I feel a deep sense of responsibility to push the field and my community in directions that, I hope, fundamentally challenge the historical narratives we have come to rely on. I believe that one of the most important contributions I can make to my community is to mobilize historical knowledge beyond the trappings of 1942, and to inspire us to think about what lies beyond histories of victimhood.”
Reflecting on the long rally for the recognition of the Japanese Canadian students of 1942, Shirley Nakata, who was the Co-Chair of the original Japanese Canadian UBC Students of 1942 Tribute Committee, feels bittersweet. “I am still awed and inspired by the perseverance, tenacity, and sheer stubbornness that were required to move UBC to right one historical wrong,” she says. “When the 1942 students were finally honoured in 2012, they created from their stories a legacy and gift for future UBC students. The leadership of Mary and Tosh Kitagawa, our community elders who led the call for the recognition, fostered a network of relationships across and beyond UBC that still thrives and continues to nourish generations of new leaders in the Asian Canadian community.”
UBC History professor Dr. Laura Ishiguro, who works closely with Yakashiro and Hoy, is hopeful about the future of the field. “In different ways, Nicole and Bailey are doing bold, difficult, and powerful work to challenge the expected bounds of Japanese Canadian history. By asking critical and innovative questions, they are changing our understanding of what it has meant to be Nikkei in northern North America. Their work is propelled by a commitment to the idea that the work we do, and how we do it, matters in the world. I am enormously honoured that I get to work with and learn from these students.”