By Mark Chen
I saw the Japanese island of Hokkaido from the airplane window when my family and I moved from China to Canada while I was in eighth grade.
From as far back as I can recall, Japan was always portrayed as the land of evil in my Chinese propaganda-filled school textbooks.
I wanted to take a look at the Japanese culture for myself. However, after living in the Lower Mainland for a while, I found a “Little India,” a “Chinatown,” a “Koreatown,” but no “Little Tokyo.”
After starting to volunteer at the Pitt Meadows Museum, I found that the old Japanese Canadian Hall on Advent Road was once filled with hundreds of Japanese Canadians before their internment to Manitoba in 1942.
However, how are these people now?
How were their lives like in Pitt Meadows before internment?
At the museum, I spent much time searching through both the museum archives, local Japanese Canadian community centres, as well as the Rare Books and Document Archives at UBC.
Having started not too skilled in the Japanese language, I found that the need to read cursive writing and archaic language in Japanese forced me to spend more time studying to maneuver the language.
Through these documents and letters, I found that I started to dig up some interesting documents depicting a vibrant Japanese farming community in Pitt Meadows.
I even came across a letter describing Pitt Meadows as a farming community where discrimination toward the Japanese as nearly non-existent.
Nevertheless, the first major break in my research project happened when former Japanese Canadian residents Lillian Shimoda (nee Kimono Kubota) and Roy Kaita came to visit the museum earlier this year from Winnipeg.
It was amazing seeing these seniors who grew up in Pitt Meadows come to visit the city after nearly seven and a half decades of separation, since their internment in 1942.
I learned from them about a community of Japanese Canadians in Winnipeg, so I utilized my summer break from school to travel to Manitoba and interview some of the Japanese Canadians there, including Mr. Kaita and Mrs. Shimoda.
From them, I heard of their bucolic childhood memories on the strawberry farms in Pitt Meadow, and also their gruesome experience harvesting frozen sugar beets from the winter fields in Manitoba.
With the research and oral history interviews I have done, the museum created a ‘listening centre’ in the Japanese section of the “Buildings through Time” room at the museum.
As the 74th anniversary of the event that would be the stimulus for the internments draws near, here at the museum we are only starting to learn about the lives of those who once had a large footprint in the community.
Mark Chen is a student at Meadowridge School and a weekend assistant at the Pitt Meadows Museum. He has a passion for history with a particular interest in Japanese Canadian culture and internment, so much so he has learned Japanese and travelled to Manitoba to research the subject.