A few weeks ago I received an e-mail from my cousin Jerry Tsubouchi asking me to contact him by phone. Jerry is a good guy but I don’t often speak to him or see him as he lives in Thunder Bay and I live in Markham. The e-mail didn’t have much to indicate what he wanted to talk about other than the subject line that simply said “Book”.
A number of thoughts crossed my mind. First of all Jerry is police officer with the Thunder Bay Police Services but the subject line of “Book” did not convey any sense of urgency or dire circumstance. Filled with curiosity I called Jerry.
“Hello, Jerry,” I said. “It’s your cousin, David.”
“David,” he said, “do I have something interesting to tell you!”
I could feel the build up of enthusiasm like a dam about to burst.
“About a month ago I was contacted by a lady I know and she said that she wanted to show me a book,” he stated.
I waited while Jerry built up the suspense.
“She came to me because besides my sister Jodie, I am the only Japanese Canadian who she really knows,” he continued. “It looks like an autograph book from the old days but half of it was written in Japanese. As you know…I don’t speak or read Japanese.”
“So what did you do next?” I asked waiting for Jerry to connect the dots as to why he called me.
“I needed someone to translate some of the Japanese so we could identify who this might have belonged to because the lady wanted to see if we could return it to the person or his or her family,” he further explained.
I started thinking that Jerry and his friend may want my help because of my connection with the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre in Toronto with the translation and location of the owner. The JCCC has the Sedai project that is archiving records of the lives of the Issei and Nissei with many taped interviews. The JCCC is trying to compile as many stories as possible so that these stories are not lost forever.
“So what I did,” he continued, “was photocopy a couple of pages of the book that were written in Japanese and sent them to the Nikkei Place Foundation in B.C.”
I figured Jerry needed some assistance in the location of either the owner or some of the people who signed the book.
Then Jerry dropped the bomb.
“What was your dad’s birthday?” He asked.
“November 20, 1921,” I answered. “Why?”
“David, you are not going to believe this,” he said calmly. “The name that we found was Kiyoshi and found that date November 20, 1921.”
“I told the lady that it could be my uncle,” he stated.
“Do you think she could send it to me?” I asked.
“I think so,” Jerry answered. “She was very interested in learning a little about the book. I will ask her.”
I have to admit that I was getting very excited about the possibility of getting my father’s autograph book from when he was a young man. Unlike today where many people try to use an autograph book to collect autographs from famous people, in the 30’s and 40’s people would get their friends to write a note to them much like signing a high school yearbook. I thought that this autograph book would give me a little insight into how my father’s friends viewed him.
This was followed by more questions as to how the autograph book had been found.
Most of we Sansei have little or nothing of our parents’ lives that preceded their imprisonment during WWII.
Almost everything that the Issei and Nisei owned was either sold by the Canadian government and kept by it to pay for the cost of the imprisonment of every man, woman and child of Japanese descent regardless of the fact that most of them had been born in Canada or stolen by their neighbors. All I have that owned by my grandparents on both sides from before the war is a sake cup owned by my Tsubouchi grandfather.
I have no photographs of my father or mother when they were children before the war. It is as if there was no existence before the incarceration.
The possibility of getting his autograph book had more meaning to me than such a circumstance would have meant to someone other than a sansei.
I waited with the anxiety and anticipation that I hadn’t felt since I was 5 and waiting for Christmas Day.
Finally one day my assistant Annabelle came into my office carrying a package and said, “This came by courier this morning. Do you want me to open it?”
I took the package from Annabelle and told her that it had to be the autograph book that I had been waiting for. I had already told her the story.
I opened the package and a worn blue autograph book appeared along with Jerry’s e-mails to and from the Nikkei Place Foundation.
I leafed through the autograph book and discovered notes from friends who had written some thoughts about friendship. Some had written poems. A couple of people had actually drawn pictures. The notes had been written in both English and Japanese.
Somewhere along the journey to be repatriated into my hands the autograph book had fallen into the hands of a young boy who did what young boys do and that was to scribble in the book. Fortunately only about 10% of the book had scribbles. I was just grateful to get the book, scribbles and all.
Although the e-mails did not have much of the back story as to how the autograph book had come to be found it did have the e-mail address of the lady who had contacted Jerry.
I immediately sent an e-mail to her asking her if she could let me know the story of how she had come into possession of my father’s autograph book.
She replied quickly and wrote:
Thank you so much for getting in touch, and for the photo of your parents. I have printed it off to show my mother-in-law, Helen, and she was excited to hear that we had heard from you.
The story of the book goes back a long time after it passed through your father’s hands. My father-in-law, Ernie Johnson, worked at a rail terminal called Valley Camp in the 1960s until about 1978. At that time, it was primarily a coal handling facility, processing coal that came in by rail car. Ernie found the book on a coal pile. Helen believes this would have been in the late 60’s or early 70’s. I thought he had found it in a box car, but she clarified that it was actually on or in the coal pile itself.
Helen has called around to some of his surviving co-workers to see if anyone can remember any further details of the discovery, including a date, but nobody could help. Ernie wasn’t much of a pack-rat, but he had an eye for interesting things, and the company said he could keep it, so he brought the book home. From time to time, they thought about researching its origins and owner, as it was clearly a war relic, but in the days before the Internet that was a pretty daunting task. It lived in the basement for years, and may even have moved house with the family in 1974.
Since Ernie’s death in 2010, Helen has been puttering at keeping the house tidy and organized. She came across the book in the basement this spring, and brought it to us to see if there was anything we could find out about it.
I started with some cursory Internet research to see if I could discover a Kiyoshi Kun at Angler POW and came up empty-handed, although I came to suspect that Kun was a nickname or diminutive rather than a surname.
My conclusion was that I needed more information, which meant finding someone who could read Japanese. I have worked with Jerry and Jodi for years, they’re the only people I know of Japanese background, so I phoned around to both of them until I tracked one down. It happened to be Jerry I reached, and he couldn’t think of anyone local offhand who could help, although he suggested I try the local Nikkei Society. I e-mailed them and never got a response back. Jerry was aware that he had relatives in the camps but we didn’t discuss their situations in any detail, as there was no reason to think there was any connection.
I eventually tried the local museum who didn’t have any contacts, but they suggested I try the Japanese Canadian Museum. I scanned a few pages and e-mailed them off, figuring we would never find the owner and I would just send the book off to the museum as an interesting piece of history.
A few weeks later I got that amazing email from Linda with the translations and the information about the owner and authors. I was very surprised to learn Kiyoshi-Kun’s last name, and was astounded to learn the connection to Jodi and Jerry.
What are the odds? I’m no believer in fate or destiny or whatever one wants to call it, but the history of this book makes one wonder.
My mother-in-law was just delighted to reunite the book with its family, as that was her hope all along.
Things made some sense of how she had connected with Jerry. The lady’s name was Elaine Burton and she is an Assistant Crown Attorney in Thunder Bay. That was obvious link to Jerry because he was a police officer.
The answer led to more questions-how did the autograph book get to the coal pile in a railroad terminal in Thunder Bay? How had my father lost it? Had it come from the site of POW Camp 101 near Marathon where my father had been incarcerated during WWII? Did my father keep it after he had been released from the POW camp and then lost it?
Since my father had been killed just over 8 years ago in a hit and run crime I couldn’t ask him when he had lost the autograph book and the circumstances of the loss.
It is a curious turn of events when my father’s autograph book that had been lost probably around the time he was released from POW Camp 101 had found its way into my hands 65 years later.
It was a little like putting a message into a bottle and releasing it into the ocean and the bottle and message washing up on shore and into the hands of your son 65 years later.
And yet the mystery has not been fully solved.
If someone knows how that autograph book came to be found in the first place and how it ended up on the coal pile it would be the missing piece in a very personal puzzle.
Fate does work in some very mysterious ways but each mystery solved opens the door to a new one.