MASUI MITSUI AND TOKUTARO IWAMOTO
Adiminutive waiter and labourer, Masui Mitsui was among the many Canadians of Japanese origin who ached to join the war effort. The 29-year-old son of an Imperial Japanese Navy officer, he had once hoped to follow in his father’s footsteps. But he failed the entrance exam in his home country, and so, emigrated to Canada. In 1916, his military dreams were bolstered by a broad eagerness on the part of Japanese Canadians to prove their patriotism in an era when they could not even vote. Simply offering to enlist was an uphill battle: Turned away in Vancouver, many headed to Alberta, where recruiters were more open-minded.
Once in France, the Japanese-Canadians faced additional burdens. Some officers believed them to be lazy and untrustworthy. But the men fought hard.
“The battle has been fierce,” Private Mitsui wrote in a 1917 letter sent home in the wake of the battle of Vimy Ridge and of a follow-up operation in nearby Arleux, where he suffered a wounded finger after a bullet struck his rifle’s bayonet. “I am glad to report that the Japanese Canadians have a good name as soldiers,” he said in the letter, later translated by the Japanese Canadian author Roy Ito.
Four months later, in August, the Japanese Canadians would distinguish themselves even further at the Battle of Hill 70, most notably during an assault on a fortified quarry known as the Chalk Pit. Private Tokutaro Iwamoto, a carpenter from Calgary, was praised in the 10th Battalion’s diary for his “remarkable keenness and fearlessness,” attacking several German dugouts by himself and capturing 20 prisoners. Pte. Mitsui, meanwhile, salvaged one of his battalion’s Lewis machine guns after its crew became casualties and, to quote the unit’s diary, “put the gun into action, causing the enemy many casualties. He afterwards did excellent work in mopping up and assisting the wounded.”
He was promoted to sergeant and both he and Pte. Iwamoto were awarded the newly created British Military Medal for bravery.
The following year, Pte. Iwamoto was killed in action, on Sept. 2, during the final offensive of the war. Later that month, another comrade, Corporal Joe Kimakuchi Oura, a B.C. fisherman, was killed by machine-gun fire – a casualty that, even amid the relentless carnage, hit Sgt. Mitsui hard. “Since his death I have been very depressed,” he wrote. “Of the original volunteers, 16 have been killed; 17 have been wounded or become ill and returned to Canada. Five or six are in hospital in England. There are only seven left.”
After returning to B.C., he campaigned for Japanese Canadian veterans to get the right to vote, which they did not gain until 1931. Still, during the Second World War, his farm was confiscated and, like thousands of other Japanese Canadians, he was interned. The family eventually moved to Hamilton.
“He did not discuss anything about the war,” says his grandson David. However, every Nov. 11, his grandfather would put on his uniform and medals at home, to honour the memory of his comrades.