Japanese veterans receive tribute
Men suffered heavy casualties after fighting to serve Canada
On April 9, 1920, the Canadian Japanese Association dedicated a war memorial in Stanley Park to the 54 Japanese-canadians who died fighting for Canada in the First World War.
“To the accompaniment of Chopin’s funeral march and with a background of towering Douglas firs and cedars, the Japanese war memorial was solemnly dedicated today in Stanley Park,” the Province reported. “The mountains across the inlet in all their glory, bathed in bright sunshine and caressed by a gentle breeze, seemed to join in this last tribute to the Japanese soldiers who willingly laid down their lives for their adopted country and for the cause of right and justice.”
Ironically, Japanese Canadians had to fight to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force overseas.
The local Japanese community had rallied on Jan. 3, 1916, after the federal minister of militia “decided to authorize the raising of a number of special regiments.”
The Vancouver World noted “these will include one or more Indian battalions, a Metis battalion, a coloured battalion and a naturalized Japanese-canadian battalion.”
Two days later, The Sun reported 55 Japanese Canadians had passed the medical examination for the army, and “it is expected a full company of Japanese may be mobilized in 30 days.”
The Japanese started drilling in Japantown, and on March 16, the World reported “1,300 Japanese of Canadian citizenship” were ready to form a battalion. It also said military leader Sam Hughes “has given a strong assurance that the Japanese battalion will be authorized.”
But B.C. had a history of anti-asian racism, and there was behind-the-scenes pressure against a Japanese battalion. On May 5, 1916, the Province reported “the Canadian government has declined the offer of the Canadian Japanese Association of Vancouver to raise a battalion for overseas service.”
Maj.- Gen. John Hughes told the Province that while the community had been able to raise a battalion (300 to 800 men), “the question of reinforcement of men of the same nationality presented difficulties.”
The organizers of the Japanese battalion announced they intended to “make representation to having the men attached to the British forces.” It didn’t happen, but at least 222 Japanese Canadians wound up enlisting, many by joining up in Alberta rather than B.C.
“The first group shipped out to England and was fighting on the front at the Battle of the Somme in October 1916,” says a history of the Japanese memorial.
“Reinforcements arrived in time for the battles of Vimy Ridge (April 1917), Avion (Aug. 1917),
Lens (Aug. 1917), Hill 70 (Aug. 1917), Passchendaele (Oct. 1917), Amiens (Aug. 1918), Arras (Sept. 1918), Cambrai (Oct. 1918), Denain (Oct. 1918), Mons (Nov. 1918) and Valenciennes (Nov. 1918).”
According to a story in the journal Discover Nikkei, 13 Japanese-canadian soldiers received military medals for bravery in the First World War. Two- thirds of the 222 volunteers were either killed (54) or wounded (92). After the war, the local Japanese community raised $15,000 for a memorial designed by James A. Benzie.
“Standing on a 12-foot polygon base of chiselled granite, the 34foot column of Haddington Island white sandstone, surmounted by an exquisitely executed marble lantern, fashioned after a Japanese model, presented an imposing and artistic appearance,” said the Province.
The memorial included the names of the soldiers who were killed, the names of all who fought, and the battles in which they took part. It was dedicated on the third anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
Hundreds of people attended the unveiling, and many attended a banquet afterwards at the Hotel Vancouver. Swept up by the moment, the popular Capt. Ian Mackenzie gave a short speech in support of giving Japanese veterans the right to vote.
“They offered and gave their lives in the fight for liberty,” Mackenzie said in The Sun, “and they are entitled to the freedom and enjoyment of the elementary rights of democratic citizenship.”
The veterans were granted the right to vote in 1931, the first Asians to vote in Canada. Mackenzie went on to become one of B.C.’S most powerful politicians — he was the federal minister of defence in the late 1930s and the minister of pensions and health during the Second World War.
But, he changed his tune with regards to Japanese Canadians. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbour and Hong Kong in 1941, Mackenzie successfully lobbied for Japanese Canadians to be deported from the west coast, including veterans.
In September 1944, he unveiled the racist slogan, “Not a single Japanese from the Rockies to the Sea” at a speech in Vancouver.