As It Happens

The story behind one man's letter from inside a Japanese Canadian internment camp

CBC Radio

November 10, 2017

Geniche Hanazawa was sent to an internment camp during the Second World War. (Submitted by Judy Hanazawa)

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Hundreds of letters written by Japanese Canadians protesting the sale of their possessions during the Second World War have been discovered. Judy Hanazawa's father wrote one of them.  6:35

Judy Hanazawa says there's so much more than meets the eye to a letter her father wrote 70 years ago disputing a $14.68 cheque the government sent him after selling all his possessions against his will. 

The Feb. 10, 1947, letter to the federal Office of the Custodian in Vancouver is written in a very formal style, listing Hanazawa family items — a sewing machine, a record player, a dresser, a doll and more — with an estimated value of $224.95. 

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It's one of 300 such letters discovered in a federal archive written by Japanese Canadians protesting the sale of their homes, businesses and heirlooms while held in internment camps during the Second World War.

"My first thought and feeling actually was that I was proud of him for writing it," Hanazawa told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"Everything is in what he's not showing. My dad wasn't really a person to go out and really complain. He, as lots of Japanese Canadians, they got on with it and worked hard. And he was like that.

"So for him to write this and to detail the worth and so on, there was a lot said in that whole exercise he undertook."

Geniche Hanazawa's letter to the Office of the Custodian disputing the sale of his family’s furnishings and personal belongings. (Landscapes of Injustice)

Historian Jordan Stanger-Ross of the University of Victoria came across the letters while researching federal archives as part of a project examining the dispossession of Japanese Canadians. 

About 22,000 Japanese Canadians were sent to internment camps in Canada from 1942 until 1949.

Stanger-Ross said many Japanese Canadians were prepared to accept being sent to internment camps during the war, but losing everything was not expected.

The federal government promised to keep the homes and businesses for internees, but the policy changed during the war and the properties were sold.

"For the most part, Japanese Canadians lost everything and were compensated in a very minor way," Hanazawa said.

"Not only did they leave behind the life they had, but everything that signified that life was gone. So they went forward with nothing, nothing to go on, and they had to make their way."

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CBC archive video showing Japanese Canadians who are forced to sell major assets and relocate to internment camps in B.C.’s Interior.  3:36

The letters reflect the sense of loss and betrayal Japanese Canadians felt towards the government for selling off their possessions and life's work without consent, Stanger-Ross said.

"They wrote these really remarkable letters, some of them are long and lay out life stories of migration to Canada, building a home, building a business, raising children," he said. 

"Some of them are very short and just say, 'I received your cheque, which I tore up.'"

Sherri Kajiwara, director and curator of Nikkei National Museum, and Jordan Stanger-Ross, UVic historian and project director, in October 2017 at UVic’s downtown public art gallery, with some of approximately 300 letters now part of the Landscapes of Injustice project. (Chorong Kim)

Hanazawa said her mother was pregnant with her when her father wrote the letter.

"I'm just trying to imagine, you know, their frame of mind, thinking that there's going to be another child, and needing money and getting this outrageous letter from the government with $14.68."

She said the Canadian government also sold her family's home and boats, and nothing — not even the Japanese doll, listed in the letter as being worth $10 — was ever returned.

"It's a sad matter to have nothing from that time before the war," she said.

Judy Hanazawa is proud of her late father for writing to the government 70 years ago to dispute the value of his possessions that were sold while he was being held in a Japanese internment camp. (Submitted by the University of Victoria )

One chilling detail in the otherwise formal letter, she said, is her father's signature. 

"I could see he's  trying to be businesslike and be respectful and have some dignity in the way this letter is written, but he does sign off with his number next to his name," she said.

"It just brought home to me the fact that our community members, our people, were registered. They had their numbers."

The letters are set to become part of an online historical exhibition called Writing Wrongs at the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre in Burnaby, B.C. The exhibit is scheduled to open in 2019.

— With files from Canadian Press

Story transcript

Many Japanese Canadians were uprooted from their homes along the West Coast and relocated to internment camps in the B.C. interior and across Canada during the Second World War. (Tak Toyota/National Archives of Canada/Canadian Press)