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Frank Moritsugu during his speech at the Nikkei Veterans Memorial and Luncheon at Toronto’s Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre on Nov. 6. Photo credits: Kelly Fleck.
TORONTO — This past November, I gave two talks, first during the annual Nikkei Veterans Memorial Luncheon at Toronto’s Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre, as well as during the Remembrance Day Sunday service at Bayview United Church in North York. The JCCC event was naturally a modest one with few surviving Nisei Second World War vets plus a few Korean War vets and relatives.
The Bayview United Church service was an elaborate event, attended by 91 members this year. During that service I was the guest speaker. The church has a congregation with many Japanese Canadians, and Rev. Cindy Cooper has been the minister since that congregation was previously at the Centennial Japanese United Church in North York.
Not being at Bayview United for some time, I was quite impressed by the updating of the church chapel. A large screen at the front showed the words of hymns and Bible extracts, so no one has to carry heavy hymn books. The sound system was excellent as well. I found speaking to the entire congregation was comfortably easy and clear.
My Remembrance Day talk came after symbolic items such as a reading of In Flanders Fields, the singing of O Canada, the Last Post, played perfectly on trumpet, placing of poppies on wreaths in front and singing of hymns plus Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind.
Church member Barbara Marshall introduced me. She is a good friend of ours, since we lived in the North York neighbourhood, where the church had been until its move to Bayview Avenue. Following Barbara’s introduction, I went up to the podium wearing my medals and khaki beret with the Canadian Army Intelligence Corps badge. Some kind friend behind me said, “For someone who’s in his 90s, he walks pretty straight.” That may have helped to boost my confidence as I spoke about celebrating Remembrance Day by commemorating those who died for our country, like during the First World War, when 54 of 184 Issei from Canada died in battles in France and Germany.
The annual remembrance also reminds us of the 148 Nisei who volunteered to serve with the Canadian Army when the ban against us enlisting was finally lifted. Most of us served in Southeast Asia attached to British forces fighting the Japanese. Our role was to be Japanese-language interpreter-translators dealing with Japanese prisoners of war and also doing propaganda campaigns aimed at the Japanese troops in the nearby jungles. The Nisei who enlisted finally had a chance to prove that they were 100 per cent Canadians, no matter what racists in BC government insisted. Our postwar futures gave us opportunities that once seemed impossible in the province where most of us had lived.
After the service, I was asked to stay by the exit of the chapel so that persons, young and old, could talk to us. It was amazing how many smiled and thanked me, and several of them mentioned that they appreciated learning about Japanese Canadian history. The welcoming nature of the Bayview United Church members and their reactions and feedback made this talk one of the best-ever received. Ironically, I had been thinking as I prepared the speech that it might be the last Remembrance Day talk I would give.
After all when I did the talk on Nov. 10, it was less than a month before my birthday, which will be my 97th. At my advanced age, I’ve already had to slow down and do less public events. So much so that I had stopped my Japanese Canadian history talks to high school audiences—usually tenth graders—because that’s when the Canadian history textbook mentions our mass expulsion in 1942, in two meagre paragraphs. I spoke at the above mentioned events in Toronto because there are so few of us Nisei Second World War veterans left. I am one who can still speak publicly.
For me, the purpose of these talks is to remind those of my generation about the good and bad of our lifetime. As well, to pass the information on to younger generations beyond our community. As I did in my last Northern Secondary School talk two years ago, which was my last. To quote from that speech:
War is a terrible thing. And in any war, there always are many innocent victims. They are killed or severely injured by the usual fallout of deadly fire which hits many people who are trapped within range when guns blast off or bombs and missiles explode. It’s bad enough that able-bodied men and women in their prime, serving in the military, are killed or permanently injured doing their jobs. What is worse is that many innocent children, women, and men are often also killed or injured.
In addition, war often allows other negative side effects. In the past, going to war has allowed normally decent-thinking nations, even ours—Canada—to elbow aside the democratic civil rights and freedoms that we take for granted in peacetime. So the story I have to tell you today, provides a reminder, I hope, of what should never, never happen again. Especially in our own country.
Another quote from the same talk aimed at tenth graders:
Let me tell you what sort of person I was back then, the kind of guy the authorities decided was an “enemy alien” and had to be expelled from the Pacific Coast. First, as I’ve mentioned, I was born in this country. In the spring of 1942 when I was about to be sent away, I am this 19 year old, a former Boy Scout troop leader, a judo green belt, a baseball nut. I am also a bookworm. I love jazz and swing music (that was way before rock’n’roll came along.) I’d pretty well gotten over acne on my face, after having it bad during Grade 11 and 12.
I wanted to help young listeners relate with the youngster who like 22,000 other Japanese Canadians, was just a normal person like them, who was mistreated by the provincial and federal governments. It seemed to work, judging by some of the questions that came after my talk.
Now as I consider how to get this “campaign” to get historic truths out to would-be interested listeners, if my declining physical ability prevents me from future public appearances, I plan to send copies of my talks. They would be the one aimed at high-school students in their Canadian history class and the other brief talk, which I used in such events such as the annual Nikkei Veterans Memorial and Luncheon.
By the way, during the Nov. 6 event at the JCCC, I added a bit of wartime recollection that I hadn’t mentioned before in any talks.
In May 1945, I was among the Nisei soldiers based in Toronto who got an embarkation leave before being sent to Britain and then to Southeast Asia. I naturally spent the leave at the family home in St. Thomas. On the final night, my father and two brothers had gone to bed because they had to get up at 5:30 a.m. to do the morning chores with the dairy cows, work horses and chickens.
My mother and I stayed up in the kitchen talking, when she finally said (in Japanese), “Frank, if you get captured by the Japanese, kill yourself. Because like those people in B.C., Japanese soldiers won’t think you are a Canadian but a Japanese traitor and will probably kill you. So please, kill yourself first.”
So I replied (in English), “Okay Mom, I will.” And then I said good night and went to bed.
But not a single Canadian Nisei soldier was captured by the Japanese because the war ended suddenly after nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As a result in Southeast Asia we didn’t have to be sent on dangerous operations.
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