‘The Japanese maple,’ Koyama embraced service
Ken Koyama fell in love with Canadian Navy despite treatment during WWII
In January, 1942, the Government of Canada invoked the War Measures Act, legalizing the internment and detainment of all Japanese Canadians as “enemy aliens.”
All “enemy property” was confiscated; the RCMP impounded 1,200 fishing boats, shut down Japanese newspapers, Japanese schools, and incarcerated 23,000 Japanese Canadians launching the largest mass exodus in Canadian history.
Then prime minister William Lyon McKenzie-King’s Liberal government directed all Japanese-Canadians be moved east of the Rocky Mountains, reacting to political pressure caused by Canadian losses at Hong Kong, the American reaction to Pearl Harbour, and based on speculative evidence “they could be Japanese spies.”
One of the 23,000 Canadians affected by this displacement was Kiyosbi (Ken) Koyama, an 11-year-old boy.
Born in Calgary in 1931,the youngest of a family of four children, Koyama spent his early years on Mayne Island, one of British Columbia’s Gulf Islands, where his father was a successful fisherman.
His family was “housed” in horse barns in Vancouver’s Pacific National Exhibition in 1942. From Hasting Park, Japanese aliens were shipped to work camps in the Kootenays where there was no schooling for children.
After being interned at Lemon Creek in the Slocan Valley for 18 months in the spring of 1945, the Koyama family were drafted to Okanagan at the south end of Kalamalka Lake. There, Ken and his father laboured growing tomatoes on poor soil in Oyama. Strictly monitored , Koyama’s father was directed to report to the Vernon government office once a month. Too late for school in September 1945, Ken worked and saved.
“My father died in Oyama that year an angry man mostly from the devastation of losing three fishing boats, our Mayne Island home and property.
“Around 1945, I saw my first Navy man, my first sailor in Oyama, B.C., home on leave wearing bell-bottom trousers and the rest of the uniform. I fell in love with the image.”
Koyama was the first Asian to join the Royal Canadian Navy after the war.
He became a “Sick Bay Tiffy” — the ship’s “Doc” — and it suited Koyama’s independent nature. Koyama spent countless hours reading medical journals which accounts for his successful RCN career, from ordinary seaman to petty officer first class in 10 years was an impressive accomplishment.
Koyama enjoyed his job. His strength as a Sick Bay Tiffy was his ability to diagnose. But his horizons were expanding. In his late 20s, he left the regular Navy, transferred into the reserve and was accepted into university as a mature student at UBC, then U of T. Commissioned in the early 60s, Koyma’s last job in the navy was as staff officer to oversee public health on the West Coast. He left the Navy in 1962.
Fifty years after his time in the senior service, Koyama reflected on how Canadians reacted to him after the Second World War.
“Almost without exception, the officers and the men of RCN during my time were kind and accepting of my Oriental background,” he said. “As the ‘Doc’ aboard ship, I was treated like gold.”
Ken Koyama in a Naval uniform, circa 1964.