The White Man’s War

When World War One started, Ryoichi Kobayashi was 23 year years old and a stranger in Canada. The Great War brought out Canada’s strong ties to England as a Commonwealth nation and men flocked to join the army to show their support for the mother country. Kobayashi, who had left his native Hiroshima as a teenager to come to Canada was ready to lay down his life for his new land.

ryoichi kobayashi canadian japanese soldier wwi

Ryoichi Kobayashi in WWI. Photo via Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre

Kobayashi was not alone in being a stranger to Canada. The young country, likes its cousin, the United States, was a land of immigrants. Settled by British and French, the country soon had Eastern Europeans, Chinese, Indians and Africans settled in the lands where the native population had been pushed out. The Japanese came to Canada in the 1870’s and found themselves, like every group that was not French or British, treated like second class citizens.

The Japanese had settled in British Columbia is Western Canada and began to work in fishing, logging and farming. As more Japanese came and took roots in Canada, the country, like the United States, passed laws restricting their immigration and the jobs available to them. Japanese were denied the right to vote in 1895 and following race riots in 1907 their immigration quota was lowered to 400 a year. Canadians viewed the Japanese as untrustworthy and impossible to assimilate, much in the way it viewed every other non Western European immigrants.

The Japanese viewed Canada’s entry into World War One as a way to show their patriotism. Canada however, viewed itself as a white country and did not want to have non white faces in its ranks. From 1914-1916 Canada turned away any volunteers who did not fit their racial ideal of soldiers. The Japanese, so eager to fight for their adopted homeland, formed a unit of more than 200 men called the Canadian Japanese Volunteer Corps who trained themselves under the guidance of the Canadian Japanese Association paid for by the Japanese community. Their hope was that by shedding blood for Canada, they would gain the acceptance they sought.

Losses on the Western Front forced Canada to overlook its prejudice, and in 1916, Chinese, Black and the native Indian Canadians were taken into service. Still unwanted in British Columbia, the men of the Canadian Japanese Volunteer Corps traveled at their own expense to Alberta where they were finally accepted into the Army. Of the more than 200 Canadians of Japanese ancestry that fought in World War One, 54 died in action, 92 were wounded. 13 men were decorated for bravery by the British and two more by the Russian government. Ryoichi Kobayashi found himself at Vimy Ridge, one of Canada’s most hallowed battles of the Great War where he was shot in the arm. He was sent back to a hospital in England where he was wounded a second time in an air raid.

An Unwelcome Return Home

When Kobayashi returned to Canada after the war, he took a job as a taxi driver then as a fisherman. Kobayashi was proud of his service to his new country and felt he was ready to put down roots. He took a trip to Japan, brought back a wife and prepared to live a life in the peace he fought for. The Japanese community, especially the veterans themselves found a new voice and sense of belonging after they shed their blood.

In 1920, on the third anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the Japanese community raised enough money to buy a war memorial cenotaph in Vancouver’s Stanley Park. The monument featured an eternal flame lit in memory of Canadian Japanese war dead who died for Canada. The Japanese veterans organized themselves into a veterans legion that continued to crusade for their rights as well as the rest of the Japanese community.

Despite their hopes, what Kobayashi and his fellow veterans really found when they returned to British Columbia was that nothing had really changed for the Japanese in Canada. A few weeks after the memorial was unveiled, public outrage forced the withdrawal of a motion to give Canadian Japanese war veterans the vote. Canadian Japanese received a further blow when fishing and logging licenses quotas given to those “other than white” was reduced.

In 1923, the reduced quota of 400 Japanese immigrants allowed into the country a year was reduced further to 150 men a year and amended in 1928 to include wives and children in the total. Still deprived the right to vote, Japanese had little say in the decisions made regarding their community.

The campaign of Japanese veterans for their right to vote finally ended in 1931 when a motion was passed in their favor by one vote. The right to vote granted to the veterans did not carry over to the rest of the community who was still barred from participating in elections. Even after winning their right to vote, Canadian Japanese veterans continued to campaign for their rights as citizens and for the advancement of their people. All of this was soon to change in the next few years.

World War II

Canadian Japanese relocation wwii

Photo via the Library and Archives of Canada

On December 7th, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and Canada declared war on Japan. Japanese in Canada were classified as “enemy aliens” and their rights came under duress. Within days of the attack, the Canadian Pacific Railway fired all Japanese employees with other industries following. 1,200 fishing boats owned by seized by the Canadian Navy, along with cars and radios. Japanese were forced to register with the police, their movements were restricted by a curfew and they were barred from owning land or growing crops.

Ian MacKenzie, the federal cabinet minister from British Columbia pushed the Canadian government to take action against the Japanese community and spearheaded the campaign against them by saying:

“It is the governments plan to get these people out of B.C. as fast as possible. It is my personal intention, as long as I remain in public life, to see they never come back here. Let our slogan be for British Columbia: No Japs from the Rockies to the seas.’

Even though the Canadian Military and Royal Canadian Mounted Police concluded that the Japanese community posed no threat, the government was able to cite “military necessity” to accomplish its goal of ridding British Columbia of Japanese. Starting on January 14, Japanese men aged 18-45 were rounded up and sent to work camps inland.

Canadian Japanese relocation wwii

Canadian Japanese being processed for forced relocation. Photo via the Library and Archives of Canada

On February 24, 1942, the federal Cabinet used the War Measures Act to order the removal of all Japanese Canadians residing within 160 km of the Pacific coast. More than ninety percent of the total Japanese population of Canada, 21,000 people were removed from British Columbia, of which more than seventy percent were Canadian by birth or naturalized citizens. Deportees were allowed to bring one suitcase and in some cases were notified of their deportation only 24 hours in advance.

Canadian Japanese relocation wwii

Photo via the Library and Archives of Canada

Unlike American Japanese families who were deported together, Canadian Japanese families were split up with many men being sent to work gangs and the elderly, women and children were sent to old logging camps, livestock barns or shanty towns in the wilderness. All camps shared poor sanitation, had little protection against the cold Northern climate and lacked privacy. The general conditions so bad that the Red Cross transferred food shipments from civilians affected by the war to the Japanese internees. Families were only allowed to stay together if they agreed to work on sugar beet farms or in logging camps to fill the chronic worker shortage due to the war. Although the work camps did not have barbed wire, they did not have electricity or running water. The internees at the working camps lived in uninsulated granaries, chicken coops and tiny shacks. Those who resisted evacuation or work were sent to Prisoner of War camps or to jail.

War Veterans Under Attack

Service to the country in World War One did not sway any hearts in the Canadian government regarding the treatment of Canadian Japanese in World War Two. After the deportation orders, the eternal flame of the Canadian Japanese war memorial was extinguished and the veterans lost their rights as citizens. One veteran, Masumi Mitsui, threw his medals on the floor of the British Columbia Security Commission office, asking what good they were when he learned his poultry farm was to be seized and he and his family were to be forcibly evacuated.

Ryoichi Kobayashi also resisted, citing his war service as proof of his patriotism to Canada. He stayed in Vancouver, British Columbia until the fall of 1942 when he finally decided it was better to be evacuated after seeing the discrimination his children faced everyday.

The Kobayashi family was among the last Japanese families to leave Vancouver. They were sent to the Tashme internment camp, a camp infamous for its harsh conditions.

Another internee, Yukiharu Misuyabu recalled the living conditions in another camp, Lemon Creek, where 2,000 Japanese lived in shacks:

“The walls of our shack were one layer of thin wooden board covered with two-ply paper sandwiching a flimsy layer of tar. There was no ceiling below the roof. In the winter, moisture condensed on the inside of the cold walls and turned to ice.”

Canadian Japanese relocation wwii

A Royal Canadian Navy officer questions two Canadian Japanese men. Photo via the Library and Archives of Canada

Loss of Property

The forced evacuation of Japanese in America and Canada left their communities with the problem of what to do with their property. In the US, people were given the option to store their property under the watch of the US government or they could sell it before they were evacuated. In Canada, all Japanese property was seized and put it in a protective trust watched over by the government.

Canadian Japanese relocation wwii

Photo via the Library and Archives of Canada

Most American Japanese chose not to leave their property to the US Government since the American authorities offered no guarantees their property would remain safe, in good repair and offered no compensation or insurance against damage or theft. Most property was sold off by the owners before their relocation at a great loss. Others lost their property because it was vandalized or declared “abandoned” by the authorities and “claimed” by someone else. The Japanese in Canada lost their property in a more bureaucratic fashion.

Both Canada and the US had to deal with the cost of interning large amounts of people. The United states, which interned around 120,000 people found that running the internment camps was a waste of money and resources. By 1944, it was clear that Japan would not invade the US and that the American Japanese posed no threat. The US government began encouraging American Japanese leave the internment camps to take the financial strain off of the America government.

Canadian Japanese relocation wwii

Photo via the Library and Archives of Canada

In Canada, the war came as a Godsend to British Columbia’s bid to rid itself of the Japanese. Although the war allowed the Japanese to be forcibly removed, the government still needed a way to pay for their internment and prevent the Japanese from coming back once the war was over. On January 19, 1943, the government solved all its problems with a single stroke. It authorized all confiscated Japanese homes, businesses and property to be sold without the owners consent with the proceeds of the sale going pay the Japanese internment camp costs. While the Canadian government paid for Nazi prisoners of war to live in camps free of charge, Canadian born citizens of Japanese descent had to pay for their own imprisonment.

From 1943 to 1946, the sale of personal property, boats, homes, businesses and financial commodities also accomplished Canada’s goal of destroying the roots the Japanese community had in British Columbia. After World War Two, houses owned by Japanese were sold to Caucasian military veterans to solve a housing shortage and encourage the growth of the white population in British Columbia.

Canadian Japanese relocation wwii

Seized Canadian Japanese fishing boats. Photo via the Library and Archives of Canada

Canadian Japanese relocation wwii

Photo via the Library and Archives of Canada

In response to complaints from the Japanese that their property was sold far below its real value, Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King responded by saying: “The government is of the opinion that the sales were made at a fair price”

Japanese Men in the Armed Forces

During World War 2, soldiers of “oriental racial origin” as well as the aboriginal people of Canada were not required to do compulsory service for the military, though many did so to prove their loyalty. Some Canadian immigrant groups like the Chinese and Ukrainians gained respect for their service during the war which helped them gain rights after it. Canadians of Japanese ancestry however, were turned away by the military and thus deprived of their chance to prove their loyalty.

While American born Japanese did invaluable intelligence work in the Pacific, it was the highly visible 100/442nd Regimental Combat Team that proved the loyalty of American born Japanese to the American public. Although a few Canadian Japanese managed to get into service, most were not allowed to enter the military until 1945 when the British government requested that Canada let Canadian Japanese join the struggle. Only around 200 Canadian Japanese served in the military, 150 as translators in the Far East and not in combat roles.

Deprived of the chance to prove their loyalty in combat, Canadian Japanese found themselves with little voice and no war record to point to after the war. Even Canadian Japanese veterans who returned to Canada after World War 2 found themselves unable to return home to British Columbia despite their service to their country.

Repatriated to a Foreign Country

In 1944, as the US was trying to decrease its internment camp population and let its Japanese go home, Canadian politicians began to push to permanently get rid of the Japanese presence in British Columbia.

The end of World War Two did not mean the end of restrictions on Canadian Japanese. When the legal restrictions under the War Measures Act expired at the end of hostilities, Canada passed a National Emergency Transitional Powers Act to keep rights from returning to Canadian Japanese. Canadian Japanese were given a “loyalty” questionnaire and the choice of settling east of the Rockies or being “repatriated” to Japan. Repatriation for many Canadian Japanese meant going to a country they had never been to or had left decades before. Unable to return to their homes in British Columbia, their community dispersed, without rights and facing terrible racism, some saw deportation to a war ravaged country as a better option than staying in Canada.

On May 1, 1946, the first boatloads of Canadian Japanese left North America for Japan, in December of that year the legality of repatriation was taken to the Supreme Court where it was upheld in a 5 to 2 decision. The deportation of Canadian Japanese continued until January 1947 when public outcry ended it.

As a young man, Ryoichi Kobayashi had spilled his blood fighting for Canada in hopes that he and his people would gain acceptance. All he had struggled for as a young man in Canada was taking away from him during World War Two. Kobayashi had lost all his rights and property and spent years in one of the most inhospitable internment camps in Canada. After nearly 40 years in Canada, Kobayashi and the Japanese had not gotten any closer to being accepted than when he first arrived. When Kobayashi was given the choice of making a new life “East of the Rockies” or going to Japan, he chose Japan. In May 1946, Kobayashi with his wife and seven Canadian-born children became some of the first of the 3,964 “repatriates” to leave Canada.

Kobayashi left behind a shattered life for a country destroyed by war. He returned to his hometown of Hiroshima which had been wiped out by an atomic bomb the year before. In 1952, during the Korean War, he and his four sons applied to serve in the Canadian Armed Forces. Although Kobayashi was rejected because of his age, his sons were among the nearly 40 repatriated Canadian Japanese who were accepted. In 1955, his son Yukata had been posted to Western command in Edmonton and two years later, the rest of the family returned to Canada.

After World War Two, Canadian attitudes began to soften against immigrants and a new government took over. Canada had become part of the United Nations in 1944 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 put Canada’s racist policies under scrutiny. Based partly on their wartime bravery in fighting for Canada, Chinese and South Asians were given the right to vote in 1947. Laws banning Chinese immigration were repealed but still only allowed wives and children of existing Canadian citizens to immigrate. While American born Japanese in the US tried to rebuild their lives and communities with their rights restored to them after the war, Japanese in Canada continued to be oppressed by the same wartime restrictions until 1949 when they were finally given the vote and their rights as citizens were restored.


With the sale of their property by the government and memories of the intense racism they felt there, few Japanese found reason to return to British Columbia after they were legally able to in 1949. As the politicians in British Columbia had planned, Canadian-born Japanese settled east of the Rockies after the war. Without a community like they had in British Columbia, many Japanese lost their cultural identity and few continued to speak Japanese or have much connection with their cultural heritage.

In the 1980’s Canadian-born Japanese, like those in the United States, began to seek a redress for their forced incarceration as well as to ensure similar things would not happen in Canada again. Added pressure was put on the Canadian government to apologize and compensate when on September 17, 1987, The U. S. House of Representatives passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1987, offering an acknowledgment and $1.37 billion in Redress to Japanese Americans interned during World War II. America would give $20,000 to each of the estimated 66,000 survivors and create a $50 million fund to educate the American public about the internment camps. On August 1988, American President Ronald Reagan signed the redress into law as the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.

On September 22, 1988, after America had apologized and given redress, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney signed the law giving compensation to the survivors of the more than 21,000 Canadians interned.

Ryoichi Kobayashi, the young man who came to Canada as a teenager and fought at Vimy Ridge did not live to see the redress. Seeking Canadian citizenship in the 1950’s he was rejected by the presiding judge because of his poor English. The judge only relented when Kobayashi’s son, Yukata, then serving in the Canadian Military, pointed to the World War One veteran’s insignia Kobayashi wore on his lapel.

Ryoichi Kobayashi died in 1979 at age 88, and is buried in the veterans’ plot at Vancouver’s Mountain View Cemetery, finally placed among the other men of his nation who fought for their country.

For Further Reading on Canadian Japanese Internment Check Out:

Righting Canada’s Wrongs: Japanese Canadian Internment in the Second World War


Dear Canada: Torn Apart: The Internment Diary of Mary Kobayashi, Vancouver, British Columbia, 1941

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