Wartime Toronto
and Japanese Canadians

From: Polyphony Summer 1984 pp. 199-200
© 1984 Multicultural History Society of Ontario


INTERVIEWER: "What were your impressions of Toronto when you first arrived in 1942?

GEORGE TANAKA: I got off the train at Union Station, and it was in the morning, a cloudy and overcast day and cool, in fact cold. I remember going across the street to Murray's Restaurant. I don't know if it still exists, I doubt it. And you had to go downstairs a few flights to the restaurant and Billie was with me, we were together, and we ordered breakfast. The waitress, a blonde waitress-I imagine she was in her late twenties-she came over, took our order, bacon and eggs, toast, so on, coffee. Then she said, "What nationality are you?" And she said it with a friendly expression. We said we were Japanese Canadians, and she said, ''Oh, I've never met a Japanese person, a Japanese before." But she said it with friendliness, and that was a nice welcome. She was curious, but harboured no animosity at all. So in most cases, that was our experience. Many people were kind, considerate. A few times when we knocked on doors of rooming houses to see if we could rent a room that people would ask, ''What are you, Chinese?" And we'd say we were Japanese Canadians and the door would be slammed in our face.

In one case, I was then working, this was '42 fall. It must have been early in '43,1 was working at Stark Electric, and Mr. Stark had-with Mr. Truman the placement officer- arranged to employ some niseis that were coming to work for him. It may have been four or five. One was Tosh Moriyama, I remember, and he told me to go down to the Union Station and meet them. But before that he asked me to find rooms for them. So I spent a day or two knocking on doors of rooming houses, and when I'd see a room to let, I'd go there and I'd mention, ''Could I rent a room for my friends?" I'd say these people, Japanese Canadians, are coming to Toronto to work. And when the landlady or landlord would ask, ''Well, how many and what are they, what age?" I knew there would be rooms to let; some just said no. But some of them said yes, and I remember a man, middle-aged man, said oh yes, he'd reserve the rooms. So I arranged the rooms, it was very easy. So I didn't experience extreme prejudice.

INT.: "Please describe your search for work."

TANAKA: Yes. Well, the first thing, after Murray's Restaurant we finished breakfast, we walked up Bay Street. I didn't know the city, but just Bay Street happened to be there so we walked; and I remember seeing the City Hall tower far ahead, and I knew it must be somewhere in the centre of the city because of Toronto's tall buildings. To me they were tall in those days. Coming up from the country and from Vancouver, Toronto was a larger city, and I kept saying to myself-in my mind I was saying, I am free, I am free, I am free. I said it at least three times to myself, in my mind, because suddenly, I said, I can do what I want, I don't have to do what I'm told. And the sense of freedom, it was a profound sense. Up until the time of Pearl Harbor, I knew complete freedom, personal freedom of movement despite racial prejudice. For a period, that was denied me, and suddenly I was given that privilege again, and I now know what freedom means truly.

In any case, we were able to come to Toronto because a friend, Dave Watanabe, who was with us in the camp had a friend in Toronto. That is why we were permitted to come to Toronto. Otherwise we would have had to go up to Kapuskasing, work in the logging up there. But with a sponsor, we could come to Toronto.

So then we went to the address, 84 Gerrard Street East, which we had been given. We finally got there, and a Scottish man by the name of Macdonald who was the landlord let us in. He had rented this three-story house, he lived in the back of the first story, and he rented the rooms out. They were single rooms. Dave was there already, living in one of the rooms up in the top, third floor. So we came and Mr. Macdonald was really a sympathetic Scotsman, and he was for many years a friend in that respect, that he would let us use the rooms in the house because 84 Gerrard Street East is a very famous name. It's the headquarters of the Japanese Canadian Committee for Democracy (JCCD) from 1945 to '46. It was the headquarters of the National Japanese Canadian Citizens Association (JCCA) from 1947 to about 1950, thereabouts. The headquarters was either my bedroom, or, yes, I think it was mainly my bedroom, and we would hold our meetings there. But we would have famous names like Rev. Shimizu, who's passed away now. He was a member of the committee of the JCCD in the early days and also, I think, for a short time the national JCC; Mr. Shinobu whose father, Dr. Roy Shinobu, then living, was a member of the committee; there was Mr. Sasaki, a nisei-I think he's still living, Fred Sasaski's father; Fred is a very high executive in Canadian Tire Corporation; and we had Kunio Shimizu, Eiji Yatabe, Dave Watanabe, Nora Kubota, Irene Uchida, who is now Dr. Uchida, and a number of other names, Roger Obata. These were members through various periods, executives of the JCCD, later on, the national JCC.

It was in 1943, 1943 I think it was. I arrived in Toronto in '42, so '43 there were a group of niseis living in Toronto and they, I became involved with them, and this is the first glimmerings of beginning of the niseis getting together, banding together to help themselves, and they called it the Nisei Men & Women's Committee. There may have been about twelve members or fifteen members, and I became involved in that committee and our concern of the committee, was to try and seek help from the churches, various churches like United church and others, that expressed, were interested in our welfare, Japanese Canadians settling in Toronto. And so it was a very practical object of the committee to try to better fellow Japanese Canadians as well as ourselves in housing, employment and overcoming racial prejudice and things like that. And then from that, in 1944 there was again this group, and the group felt that something further beyond that-a truly political action organisation-should be created.

So then in Toronto was formed the Japanese Canadian Committee for Democracy, that was what we called it, and I remember being nominated to serve as secretary, and I had absolutely no experience of what a secretary should do except to try and use my common sense. But I and George Tamaki- who was then studying at the University of Toronto, I think it was postgraduate studies, he had majored in the study of constitutional authority or something or other-were asked to draw up a constitution for the JCCD. It was George Tamaki that wrote it and that formed the basis, foundation for the organisation. And later it was the foundation for the constitution of the national JCCA and again, further than that, the basis of the structure of the constitution was very helpful to the Japanese Canadian Culture Centre forming their constitution.

As the impact of the influence and work of the JCCD was recognised by other groups, the committee was very active in Toronto in the beginning. This is 1944 or '45. The committee felt very strongly about the circumstances then in politics where the federal government denied us, the Japanese Canadians and niseis, the right to volunteer in the Canadian armed forces and here there' s a war going on . It was before, certainly before V-E Day or V-J Day, and so we felt that if we were to strive to gain the privileges-because this is the way it was stated then-the privileges of Canadian citizenship, then we should be ready to accept the responsibilities, and one of the responsibilities which was very, very obvious at that time, in a wartime condition in Canada, was the right to volunteer.

We were arguing the question, the issue, and during this period, of the latter part of '44 and '45, we held about three meetings-public meetings-at that time, I think twice at the Church of All Nations on Queen Street, just east of Spadina, and once at the Carlton Street United Church. At that time, what I might stress is that the issue of whether niseis should be allowed to volunteer in the Canadian armed forces, that issue was a very, very strong one, and there were pros and cons. Many of the Japanese Canadians felt that, why after having been treated in the manner they had-to lose their homes, the niseis, their life' s work and to be denied the basic rights of Canadian citizens -that it seemed preposterous, or unfair, or not right for niseis then to be expected to volunteer. And they were quite, many of them, quite bitter about that. But there are others that felt they should be. So there were two sides, and this is what created the spark or fire that kept these meetings going for three times, and it was a real hot issue, very strong, strong views on both sides. And the members of the JCCD committee had to face up to these people during those three meetings-very, very strong comments.

The third meeting, I remember attending a meeting of the JCCD executive committee, and we had had to decide what should we do because during the earlier meetings we discussed approaching this as an issue, but not yet coming down to the fundamentals of taking a vote or issuing a statement that the JCCD was in favour of making representations to the federal government to permit Japanese Canadians to volunteer in the Canadian armed forces. So at this one particular committee meeting, we had to decide and each one-oh, I recall now. At the meeting previous, we had stated that next meeting we're going to decide, and by a show of hands, who are in favour and who are not in favour of this principle. So there was a lot of soul-searching, and I recall, just prior to the second meeting, I thought, well, if I vote in favour, then I'm going to have to volunteer. So I decided, all right, I'm in favour, I'm going to volunteer. And so at this meeting that was then held, the vote was taken and everybody was in favour in the show of hands 100 per cent, yet none of us, the members of the committee knew how the other members had arrived at this. And not until thirty years later, in fact it was last year I spoke to Roger Obata about this very question, and he agreed that his thinking was very much along the terms of mine in coming to that decision. And then when the time came a few months later that the federal government did allow us to volunteer, the proof was there, every member volunteered, and the only one that was left was my brother, as I think I mentioned previously, Kinzi, and he because he had been born in Japan and he was being investigated. He volunteered, but he wasn't accepted, and the RCMP were investigating him. It was not until 1946, late in 1946 when we were being discharged, that the RCMP then had approved his application, but it was too late.

After I was discharged from the Canadian army, this was August-September 1946, then I was pretty much a free agent at the time-although I had plans to undertake studies in landscaping and architecture and so on-but I started to help out as an interim gesture, or whatever, committed to serve as chairman of the JCCD, and as I became involved I decided to help out, and I was doing the work full-time. So this continued from October 1946 right through to the end of August 1947, and during this period I was chairman of the JCCD-Japanese Canadian Committee for Democracy-and at the same time undertaking this work as chairman on a full-time basis. During this period the organisations-I might stress this, that while the JCCD was being formed, there were similar organisations being formed, small and large, all across the country, and it just so happened that probably the JCCD'S work-perhaps because its actions were more noticeable and Toronto being closer to Ottawa-that the JCCD was gradually becoming recognised by the other groups as the forerunner of all of the organisations. And the JCCD then undertook the commitment to try and hold a national conference in Toronto to form a truly national organisation of Japanese Canadians.

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