This year’s Sakura Gala dinner on November 22nd will be honouring the special relationship that started developing over 70 years ago between the Japanese and the Jews.
At its annual celebration in November, the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre in Toronto will be posthumously honouring Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara.
By quietly defying orders from Tokyo, he courageously issued visas to Jewish refugees through his consulate in Lithuania so they could travel to Japan and escape Nazi persecution in 1940. His story is outlined in greater detail elsewhere in this paper.
Probably of more significance is the importance Sugihara’s deeds. His heroic actions have become known the world over among Jewish communities.
That was especially so in Toronto, where Jews were showing their thanks to Japanese Canadians, who were leaving detention camps in B.C. and, like the Jews, were finding themselves victims of racism and prejudice.
But the Jewish community came to their aid. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of JCs were eventually able to start families and establish careers, primarily because of jobs they found at Jewish-owned companies.
It is because of this extremely warm gesture that the JC Centre is also honouring the Jewish community of Toronto for their role in helping JCs get settled and later thrive in this city.
The Nikkei who benefited from this Jewish acceptance were mostly the Issei and Nisei, the first and second generation Japanese Canadians.
“The 2014 Sakura Gala will honour the Jewish community in Toronto for its friendship and support of Japanese Canadians following the JC internment,” reads a release from the JC Centre.
There are still many Nisei around today, who were able to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the Jewish businesses. It must be remembered in the context of the times – coming to Toronto between the years 1943 and 1946 were difficult for JCs because the prejudicial poison emanating from B.C. had spread east.
Ottawa had asked JCs to leave B.C. by either going to Japan or go east to Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario or Quebec.
Toronto and Ontario were the most favoured locations for movement out of B.C. At first it was a trickle, because JCs had heard by word of mouth that Ontario wasn’t exactly welcoming them with open arms.
By the end of 1943, Japanese only numbered 1,650 in Toronto, up from the pre-war figure of 132 just three years earlier. By 1946, the number had increased to 3,742.
The late Nisei historian, Ken Adachi, explained the situation this way. “At one time the Japanese might have cherished the notion that the farther they were from British Columbia, the less hostile would be the attitudes of the white population.”
“But as they came to experience it,” he wrote, “they found that racial prejudice was spread uniformly over the whole of Canada.”
Most of the anti-JC feeling originated from municipalities in Eastern Canada. Chatham city council refused to accept any Japanese. Grimsby, Georgetown and Toronto enacted similar bans. Even as far as Montreal, calls were made to prevent the Japanese from settling.
“Clear the Japanese out of Canada,” Adachi quotes an editorial from the Montreal Star on May 17, 1944.
But by 1946, feelings like those seemed to be moderating, as JCs, through hard work and perseverance made their way into many jobs in Toronto.
Most Nisei credit Toronto’s Jewish businessmen with giving them the jobs that others wouldn’t. I found two JC families who give direct credit to Jewish companies for giving them their start in the unsteady years of the 1940s and 1950s.
The Baba and Matsui families were two such examples.
“I walked the streets of Toronto for a good three months without any success,” Sam Baba reminisced.
At the age of 19, Sam arrived in Toronto with his family from Tashme in 1946, but soon met many frustrations.
“I called on countless businesses I found through Toronto Star ads, but as soon as they saw that I was Japanese, they wouldn’t give me the time of day,” he said.
“I just got married in Tashme and with a baby on the way I was agonizing and wondering what was to become of us,“ he said.
But their fortunes soon started to turn. His late wife, Hisa, was hired as a seamstress at a King Street garment factory, Exclusive Dress Co. Later, she joined NuMode Dress Co., then a small firm in Toronto but which later became one of the biggest in Canada.
Hisa stayed 30 years with NuMode and co-owners Henry Zadansky and Fred Singer. She rose to become the company’s head designer. A member of the Zadansky family will represent the Toronto Jewish community at the Sakura dinner.
Sam’s hopes also started to look up. He caught on with a toy factory, then onto another firm making ladies shows. Soon after, he was working at a firm manufacturing childrens’ cowboy suits and ladies muffs and cutting patterns for ladies dresses.
For Sam and Hisa, the common factor in these early opportunities was Toronto’s Jewish businessmen, who gave them jobs when Anglo-Toronto turned them down.
Sam wound up in the fur business, starting a partnership with Jewish businessman, Howard Cooper, then taking over the business around 1960 after Mr. Cooper died of a heart attack.
“If it wasn’t for the Jewish people, I wouldn’t have survived,” Sam said. “Japanese owe a lot to the Jews. They’re the ones who gave us a break. I’ll never forget that.”
Neither did April Matsui Miwa. She and her family had a similar story. She was five when her parents brought the family to Toronto and almost immediately found jobs with one of the Jewish-owned companies in the city.
“My mother worked for Freeman Toys, a doll factory,” remembered April. “On occasion, she brought home rolls of ribbon to make bows and the family all helped to make hundreds of bows that were placed in the hair or dresses of the dolls. As a kid, I thought it was fun.”
One of her older sisters, she says, worked as a seamstress at a Jewish garment factory and was able to help the family along.
“She was able to piece together lovely dresses from small remnants, keeping us in fashion,” she said.
Two other family members were equally fortunate to get jobs with Peter Hermant, the head of Imperial Optical, one of the few companies that hired Japanese Canadians at the time, she remembered.
But jobs and work weren’t the only reasons that brought JCs together with the local Jewish community. April recalls a “beautiful Jewish family as neighbours with two girls who cared and nurtured our friendships.”
“The family owned a confectionary allowing us to read comic books and sell sponge taffy, blackballs and other treats to young patrons attending the Saturday matinee next door. The pay allowed us to attend the matinee,” she said.
“I was treated as family in their home and shared happy memories at the cottage and learned the Jewish culture,” she said.
April also remembers another Jewish family living nearby who owned a dry goods shop. “They allowed me to baby sit their young child and were so kind,” she said.
“My childhood was exceptionally happy due to my interaction with Jewish families and I am ever so grateful to them,” she concluded.