‘1942: A Year in My Father’s Life’ by Terry and Matsujiro Watada20 min read

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Matsujiro Watada Jikemura logging camp 1940

Matsujiro Watada at the Jikemura logging camp, circa 1940

My father was a handsome, rugged man; tough, fairly tall (five–foot-ten in his youth) and quiet.  He was a lumberjack before WWII.  In 1920, he was abandoned in Vancouver at the age of fourteen by his father.  Since the inheritance would go to his older brother, Grandfather thought setting up his second son with a job and a place to live in Canada was the best plan.  Dad became homesick, of course, but he put on a brave face, according to a letter he wrote home at the time.  He never spoke of his feelings about that period.

‘Quiet’ best describes my father.  At dinners with friends, my mother was the conversationalist while my father sat back drinking his favourite Canadian Club Whiskey and enjoying the company.  Every evening in Toronto, he came home from his construction company job, covered in dust, said hi to Mom and me, before going upstairs to bathe and wait for dinner.  At the table, Mom  did the talking.  No mention of the day’s activities, current events or inquiries into my day.  Father was a cave of silence.

When it came to my eighteen-year-older brother Hideki and me, he never offered advice, never said a cross word (though I knew when he was angry), and never offered an opinion.  He never offered a word of praise or note of encouragement.  It wouldn’t have mattered much to me anyway since he spoke Japanese at home (and a little broken-English on the job) and I comprehended very little at that time.  My mother spoke less English than he did.  As for my brother, I felt, he resented our parents and my presence in particular, and only said words of scorn to me.  He called me “stupid” so many times that I thought it was my middle name.   Hideki spoke Japanese but didn’t speak much to our father.  My dad only said one thing about Hideki later in life. “He’s a man now”. It was as if to say, “He’s grown up and doesn’t need to hear from me.”  Within the family, my brother was mostly angry and resentful, with only a few periods in his life when he experienced true happiness.  The only clue about his  inner state of mind  that I ever heard was when he called me and his son “Lucky”.

On the other hand, I knew Dad loved me.  The gentle concern he displayed whenever I was sick, the extra money he put in my pocket from time to time, his presence whenever there was a crisis or a time of celebration, all told me of his feelings.  I’m sure he felt the same about Hideki, but I don’t believe my brother knew or wished to acknowledge it.  When Hideki’s son was born, he expected our parents to visit his family as often as possible to see their grandson, never mind that they had no car and he lived in the distant suburbs.  My brother once confessed it was a test to see how much they cared for their grandchild.  And they failed miserably.

I knew he was a poet, but I only possessed two of his poems.

When Father died in 1987, I realized I grew up without a confidante or an advisor.  I had no idea if he had an interior life.  I had no idea how he felt about events that affected him and us.

I was cleaning out the basement a year or two after my father had passed when I came across a cache of notebooks filled with his handwriting.  My wife recognized that some contained religious tracts.  He had just copied the text, but it was interesting to know he was curious enough to have read them, and I assumed that he copied them to understand them better.

Somewhere in the piles of notebooks  I found a diary from 1942, the first year of the Japanese Canadian internment.  Now this he wrote himself.  There was precious little English inside.  One amusing and charming passage concerned my brother:

My son Hideki he had first time dance tonight at Hotel.  He said to Mama, “Mama, I had dance tonight” and he was very joyful.  We are just smile.

March 30, 1942, Minto BC

I had to get the book translated, but I was soon dismayed by the cost.  Professionals discouraged me with their rates.  I gave up until someone told me about Michiko Abe-Kozlowski, whom we knew from my son’s Japanese school days.  She was a professional translator, but I suspected she had a strong interest in the Nikkei [i] community in Canada.  I contacted her and found that I was right; she was intrigued by the prospect of translating a Japanese Canadian’s account of that critical year.  She agreed to take it on at an affordable cost.

Michiko’s first impressions encouraged me.  She perceived that my father was “a very intelligent man, using many difficult Chinese characters”.  Though he had a grade-six education, either Father was self-taught or the system in Japan was rather rigorous.  It is comforting to know why his descendants have excelled academically.  Michiko also said he composed haiku from time to time.  I knew he was a poet, but I only possessed two of his poems.  Both facts were a revelation to me; much of his character began to fall into place.

As I read through the translations, I learned more about the man.  I had never felt as close to him during our lives together.  What I offer below is an excerpt of that translation with additions and adjustments coming from my imagination, since imagination is a wondrous interpretation of translation.


Powell Street Vancouver Japantown

Powell Street, Vancouver, formerly known as ‘Japantown’


January 1, 1942   Thursday   Clear sky

Today, after getting out of bed shortly after 8 a.m., we prepared ozoni and welcomed the New Year, the first time in wartime, together, wishing happiness for this year.  As soon as I was ready, I went to see Mr. Jikemura [ii].  While I was there, Mr. Morii [iii] came, then Shiba.  While we were enjoying a great meal offered there, other guys came too, so I dashed out of the house and went over to Mr. Idenoue’s.  After that I returned home, remembering they had told me they would come by my place.  At my house, Messrs. Jikemura, Shiba and Nishi were drinking.  They said Konishi [iv], Tanaka and the guys from the same hometown in Japan had just left, so I kept them company.  When they left I went over to Konishi’s, but he wasn’t there…  So I returned home and then visited the landlord with my family.  We returned home around 8 p.m.  I felt sick because of too much drink so I stayed in bed…

I am grateful that we can still drink and eat freely in this wartime.  We cannot thank the soldiers enough, who are working hard day after day, sacrificing their lives.

If I had stayed in Japan, I would have also been fighting on the front line.  A little suffering now should be nothing for me.

Vancouver BC

The custom of visiting one another’s houses on New Year’s Day came from Japan.  Only husbands and single men made the rounds while wives stayed home to greet the visitors.  It was an opportunity for the single man to participate in the practice of paying tribute to friends and co-workers (especially the boss).  The tradition is no longer observed.

This was the first time I saw that my father had his philosophical moments and his gratitude to his adopted country.  He did return to Japan in 1928 to marry my mother.  He was promptly told that he would be conscripted into the army and sent to Manchuria to fight if he stayed.  He wisely left for Canada.  He did state he had no quarrel with the Chinese.  Unfortunately, his wife could not go for two years because of Canada’s restrictive immigration policies.  As it turned out, my sixteen-year-old mother didn’t mind.  Going to a gaijin [v] country held no appeal.

There is a hint of foreboding in the last line.

January 2, 1942   Friday   Clear sky.

It has been especially cold and the Oshogatsu [vi] period will soon be over.  I got out of bed before 9 a.m. but somehow felt sleepy all day.  I don’t know why but lately I enjoy being in bed.  I spent the morning doing nothing in particular.  Chisato (my wife) went out to run some errands in the afternoon so I stayed home as there might be visitors.  Mr. Yonemura, Kawai [vii] and Midori came over but they left by 1 p.m.  When I was having a nap on the sofa, Hideki came home.  Around 4:30 p.m., I started preparing dinner.  Then my wife came home, so we, the three of us, enjoyed dinner together.  After dinner, we thought of going to the bathhouse…but went to a bar together instead.  After the bar, we played gaji [viii] and had tea at home.  It was a pleasant day.

The Japanese Canadians in wartime talk big, but they seem to be restless in their heart.

Vancouver BC

I enjoyed the passages of domestic bliss.  Makes them seem real, somehow.  The last sentence is puzzling and obscure.  Perhaps the Japanese Canadians were nervous about the future.  Turned out, they had a right to be.

All other single Japanese men were encouraged to go voluntarily.  It seemed all the single men were deciding to depart on their own.

January 23, 1942   Friday   Overcast and rain

After getting up around 10:30 a.m, I peeled potatoes and was cooking them when Shiba came.  Sure enough, he wanted to borrow money from us.  Who would lend him money, anyway?  He had been indifferent to us when he had had money, spending it freely on drinking, eating and gambling.  How could he ask for money now?  Nowadays, we cannot even afford the food we want to eat or the things we want to buy.  Where would we find the money to lend to others?  Later I went to BC Hardware to do some shopping.  Just as I left the shop, Konishi happened to be outside.  He wanted me to come over to his place, but I declined and headed home.  I was not particularly in the mood for having fun.

Vancouver BC

I don’t know this Shiba, but his example points to the character of the Issei [ix] in pre-war BC.  I presume he enjoyed his drink and gambling.  With clubs like the Raku Raku [x], the Showa Club and the Nippon Club (all owned by Morii Etsuji), there were plenty of opportunities. The passage also hints at the deprivation the Japanese Canadians were beginning to experience at the beginning of the war.

January was low season for the lumber industry so it’s no wonder my father was in Vancouver, waiting for the next employment opportunity to come alongRemarkably for the time, that he saw to the household chores like cooking.  I suspect my mother was working somewhere.

January 30, 1942   Friday   Cloudy

As usual, I got up around 11 a.m.  After lunch, I went to see Oyaji-san [xi], but left there soon together with Sera and Yonekura to visit Shimizu-san.  We stayed there playing rummy [xii] till almost 5 p.m.  When I returned home, Konishi came to inform us that, as suspected, it had been decided that Japanese men would be sent to camps.  That troubled me, so rather than staying home, I took the family and Konishi together out to the Beacon Theatre [xiii] to see motion pictures.  It was almost 11 p.m. when we returned home.

Vancouver BC

Funny to learn he slept until 11:00 “as usual”.  He used to laugh at me for sleeping in on weekends. This is the first mention of the exile of able-bodied Japanese men to labour camps in the mountains.

January 31, 1942   Saturday   Overcast and then rain

I woke up at around 10 a.m., startled.  Wondering what had happened, I found two letters delivered to us.  I took three dollars to Mrs. Tsubota right away.  When I was eating lunch at home, Oyaji telephoned and asked I come over.  Wondering what this was all about, I went to his place, where all the camp members [xiv] were gathering and talking about the Japanese who were to go to Alberta, as Kitamura, Inaba and others were going.  All other single Japanese men were encouraged to go voluntarily.  It seemed all the single men were deciding to depart on their own.  At night, I went to a see a movie with my wife and son.  On the way back, we each had an ice cream.

Vancouver BC

My father must’ve had a false sense of security since he was married and had a son.  The call was for single men after all.  Later on, Alberta became a refuge for families to travel out of Vancouver together.  Unfortunately, they encountered harsh conditions.  My parents and brother experienced freezing temperatures and no insulation, green water and deep snow drifts.  My brother often complained about walking to school no matter the weather (about six miles).  When he found the place closed he turned around and struggled to get back home.  I guess that’s one of the reasons he considered my nephew and me “lucky”.


Hideki Watada Minto 1942

Hideki Watada, aged 10. Minto, 1942.


There is a major gap in events from the first week of February until May 19, 1942.  This must’ve been when my father was kidnapped to a road gang to work for a dollar-a-day digging a road through the mountains.

My brother and father told me a few tidbits about that time.  At around midnight, a knock on the door awakened everyone in the house.  A couple of Mounties stood outside, ready to take “Matt” Watada into custody.  He was not told why he was being taken that night, where he was going or how long he was to be gone.  He was not to have any contact with his family once he left.  And the officials never informed my mother.

My brother, who was ten, remembered our father in tears as he said goodbye.  That was the only time he saw our father cry.  He told me this while he  was in palliative care.

Of course, my parents had to have expected this, but when it happened, it also must’ve been a shock nonetheless.

Dad and the others lived in tents at the side of the road.

Morii Etsuji, the Black Dragon gang leader… received Minto for his treachery.

My mother did try her best to find out where Dad was.  She sought help from Reverend Tsuji [xv], the Buddhist Church minister, but to no avail.  The government was not releasing any information.

Then the order came for all Japanese Canadians to be evacuated to ghost towns or settlements in the Interior.  Some families, like the Jikemuras, could go to self-supporting camps in intact family units.  They just needed $1800 in cash.  Of course, my mother had no such savings, but she was resourceful enough to ask…maybe beg Jikemura to sponsor her and Hideki to go with them.  He agreed (such is the power of obligation to the Japanese) and so they departed Vancouver for an abandoned mining camp called Minto.

The Minto Mine opened in 1934 after the discovery of gold.  Warren A. Davidson built a town a few miles away from the mine and Bralorne.  Two rows of houses were situated at the intersection of a side street and the main road.  There was only one general store in Minto.  A post office shared the ground floor and apartments occupied the second floor.  The Minto Hotel with fifteen rooms stood nearby.  By 1942, the gold was mined out and the mine was closed.

Morii Etsuji, the Black Dragon gang leader, had made a deal with the BC Security Commission to gain a camp of his own if he would help deliver Japanese nationals for the labour gangs or arrest.  He received Minto for his treachery.


Sayoko Jikemura Minto 1942

Sayoko Jikemura. Minto, 1942.


May 1942

I will never forget the joy I felt when I saw Hideki and Sayoko [xvi] waiting for me in front of the hotel; they ran toward me calling, “Daddy!” and “Oji-san!” respectively, as I got off the bus with two suitcases at 10:30 a.m. on May 19.  It was like walking on air.  We managed to see each other again in one piece!  When we parted in Vancouver, we had shed tears,fearing we would never see each other again. I had felt as if I had been heading to the battlefield.

After lunch at the Jikemuras, I went to see the house [xvii] that had been allocated to us.  It didn’t look like anyone had ever lived in this house, as there were mice nests, debris and even old pants inside.  My wife [xviii] and I tidied up inside the house and installed beds.  That night, we slept together–parents and child–for the first time in months.  The next day, we started making partitions and installing a sink in the house.  Since there were sounds of hammers and saws everywhere mixed with voices of people and children, it was as noisy as war. As places for hundreds of people to sleep were being made in a very short time, it was extraordinarily noisy.

Finally, our house was ready.  May was warm and we needed to start a vegetable garden, but there were pebbles everywhere.

While motion pictures started playing in the town hotel’s lobby, we dug down to the long pipes and kept fires blazing above them in order to melt the ice.

I worked as a carpenter’s helper for the village during the day. I spent my after-hours preparing for a vegetable garden among the pebbles and also adding a washroom, shelves and a bathroom for my family.  I felt overwhelmed, for back in the road camp, I had had no such troubles [xix].   After three months of hard work with no time for relaxation, I got a job at the mill.  I earned fifty-cents an hour working as a lumberman.  I used to come home after work where a hot bath and supper were waiting for me so all I needed was to eat and sleep.  Eventually, I watered the vegetable garden and chopped firewood as soon as we finished supper.  I tried to remain optimistic.  How you manage situations totally depends on how you take them.

A hot summer was coming and we never knew how severe winter would be.  Although we were growing vegetables, there was no place to store them, so people everywhere started making a basement; some by just digging under the floor, others built one. We didn’t have money to buy boards but somehow managed to gather enough to make a small addition for a bathroom and a basement at the side of the shack.  When we finally stored our harvest, we gave a sigh of relief.

I still clearly remember that December when our water pipes froze. While motion pictures started playing in the town hotel’s lobby, we dug down to the long pipes and kept fires blazing above them in order to melt the ice.  At the beginning, people helped me, half in fun, but they left one after another.  I myself left halfway to see the motion picture, only to feel terribly uneasy.  In the middle of the night, I was at it again  burning a fire over the water pipes alone and watching.  It was so hard that I was nearly in tears.

I was delighted when water gushed out with steam at 5 a.m. at dawn.  Water was back at last.  Relieved, I tidied up the mess.  Since then though, water pipes froze from one house to another and almost every day people were digging the ground and lighting fires over the pipes.

On Christmas Day, although it was our first Christmas without alcohol, we had a good time, but just as I thought I would go pass water before going to bed, a fire broke out not far from us, followed by a wailing siren.  I rushed outside.  It was as if the fire was scorching the sky.

“Chisato, keep the most important things at hand. I am going to the fire site”, I said, dressing in haste.  I rushed out into the bitter cold night.  The fire, which was said to have started in the basement, partially destroyed the house of Mr. Davidson, a chief of the village, and killed a dog, but fortunately no person was hurt.

Because too much water was used all at once, our water, which had been holding out till then, stopped completely.  From the next day, we had to get water from other places.  At night, we took water from the Fire Ranger supply [xx].


(i) A member of the Japanese diaspora
(ii) Jikemura was my father’s boss. He was my Courtesy Grandfather
(iii) I am guessing this Morii is the infamous gangland boss for two reasons: My grandfather was a frequent customer of his, and Morii’s right-hand-man, Rikimatsu, was a good friend to my grandfather and my father
(iv) My father’s co-worker and one of his best friends. He is in many family photographs
(v) Foreign
(vi) I remember that we greeted guests at New Year’s for at least a week afterwards
(vii) A particularly close friend of my father’s. Dad was the go-between for and the Best Man at Kawai’s wedding in Minto
(viii) Japanese card game similar to bridge. Also known as hanafuda
(ix) Immigrant generation of Japanese Canadian
(x) Literally “Happy Happy”
(xi) Literally “Old Man”. It may be a reference to Jikemura, my dad’s lumber-camp boss
(xii) Rummy seemed to be a popular card game among Issei men. Groups of them came to our house during holidays to play. Money was bet and won with each game. I know of other Issei who staged games in their houses, providing drinks and snacks for an entry fee and a portion of the pot
(xiii) Like all Vancouver theatres before and during WWII, the management restricted the Japanese to the balconies
(xiv) Likely the lumber-camp crew who worked for Jikemura. My father was the foreman
(xv) The first Canadian-born (a Nisei) Buddhist minister
(xvi) Jikemura’s youngest daughter. I understand that it was thought that my brother would one day marry Sayoko. He didn’t
(xvii) It was a miner’s shack hauled from miles away. Very crudely built and perfunctory. The Jikemuras lived in an already-established and well-constructed house with running water and electricity. There was even a picket fence around a garden to the side. As the saying goes, beggars can’t be choosers
(xviii) I believe that my mother and brother lived with the Jikemuras until my father returned
(xix) The prisoners lived in government-issued tents. The overseers also provided food
(xx) It is not clear what the Fire Ranger supply was. My guess is an amount of water held in reserve, perhaps stored in tanks, in case of fire

Read the rest of Matsujiro Watada’s recollections, as interpreted and translated by his son Terry and Michiko Abe-Kozlowski respectively in 1943.

Terry Watada is a Toronto writer with many publications to his credit including two novels, four poetry collections, two manga, two histories about the Japanese Canadian Buddhist church, and a children’s biography.  His latest books are The Three Pleasures (Anvil Press, Vancouver, 2017), a novel about the Japanese Canadian Resistance Movement during WWII, and Nishga Girl (HpF Press and the Toronto NAJC, 2017), an illustrated book about the friendship between Judo Jack Tasaka (a BC fisherman) and Eli Gosnell (a chief of the Nisga’a nation).  He is considering a full book version of the diary.

Photographs courtesy of Terry Watada.


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