Alumnus honours grandfather's service to Canada at Asian Heritage Month Celebration

Dave Mitsui Dave Mitsui (MA '83) stands with the plaque commemorating his grandfather, Masumi Mitsui's contribution to Canada during WWI.

On May 1 Dave Mitsui, whom students know as the practicum advisor in the faculty, was invited by the Honourable Jason Kenney, Minister for Citizenship, Immigration and Muliculturalism, to speak about his grandfather, Sergeant Masumi Mitsui, who had served  with honour in World War I, at the ceremony to mark Asian Heritage Month. The ceremony was held at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

Here is his tribute to his grandfather and his family in his own words.

“I am honoured to be part of this evening’s program to launch and celebrate Asian Heritage Month.

To tell my grandfather’s story I have had to rely on the research conducted by many others: Barry Broadfoot, Years of sorrow, years of shame: The story of the Japanese Canadians in World War II;  Ken Adachi, The Enemy that Never Was: A History of the Japanese Canadians; Roy Ito, Stories of My People: A Japanese Canadian Journal, as well as my dad, George, his sisters Amy Kuwabara and Lucy Ishii, and especially Lyle Dick, National Park Historian who took a personal and professional interest in my family’s history.
While growing up in Hamilton, my grandpa never spoke about being wounded in action on April 28, 1917, or being awarded the Military Medal for Bravery for his “conspicuous bravery and distinguished conduct in action” on August 16, 1917, or his family’s experience of having his Port Coquitlam farm being confiscated, or of being interned during WWII.

At the age of 21 years, Masumi Mitsui, of samurai ancestry, emigrated from Japan in 1908  and began his new life in Victoria, BC as a dishwasher, waiter and chauffeur.

When WWI commenced, a group of Issei in Vancouver tried to enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces, wanting to demonstrate their patriotism to Canada.  However the Government of British Columbia refused to accept them because of the prejudicial attitudes against Orientals at that time and especially not wanting to give them the right to vote.
Undaunted by this discriminatory policy, 222 Japanese Canadians from British Columbia travelled to Calgary, Alberta, where they were permitted to enlist.  Masumi Mitsui voluntarily enlisted on September 1, 1916 with the 192nd Overseas Battalion, Calgary, and was posted with the 9th Reserve Battalion and then proceeded to France for active duty with the 10th Battalion, 2nd Infantry Brigade, 1st Canadian Division, on March 5, 1917.
After the Battle of Vimy Ridge, both Masumi Mitsui and Tokutaro Iwamoto were awarded the Military Medal for Bravery on Hill 70.  In 2003 I was fortunate to visit many WWI battle sites in northern France, including Vimy Ridge and stand on Hill 70.  The German concrete machine gun bunkers are still there.  From the chalky soil, I picked up British and German bullet casings and an intact shell casing from a British 18 pounder.  It was moving experience walking on the ground that was once a major battle field and knowing that my grandfather, as part of the 10th Battalion, played a role in overtaking Vimy Ridge and eventually Hill 70.

My dad recounted the only story I have heard about my grandfather’s experience during the war. 

I certainly cannot imagine the horror of war - the smell of death and sulphur, the endless mud and water-filled trenches and shell holes, the gunfire and bomb blasts and gas attacks, and watching many of their comrades get injured and die. It was through these unimaginable conditions that my grandfather led his 35 men into battle and found a way to keep his men moving forward in spite of the tremendous casualties.  Whenever they found shelter in a farmhouse or village, he would look for whatever alcohol he could find and fill his canteen. After a successful attack or gaining some ground, he would lift their spirits with a drink from his canteen.

Like so many other Canadian soldiers, the Japanese Canadian soldiers demonstrated courage through difficult battles and demonstrated their fortitude and bravery many times in the face of a difficult foe.  

In spite of the anti-Asian prejudices of other soldiers and the field commanders’ perceptions that they were unfit for battle, the Japanese Canadian soldiers demonstrated their fortitude and bravery.

For their courageous efforts during combat, they, like all other Canadian soldiers, received the British War Medal and the Victory Medal.  He was honourably discharged on April 23, 1919.
After the war, the Japanese Canadian community in BC, raised money and constructed the Japanese Canadian War Memorial in 1920 in Stanley Park. It has become the centerpiece for remembrance and commemoration of the Japanese Canadian soldiers who fought for our freedom. The memorial includes a Japanese lantern at the top with an eternal flame.

In 1931, Masumi Mitsui was president of the newly formed Canadian Legion Branch number 9.  The contingent including, Corporal Saisonuke Kobuta, businessman Saburo Shinbone, Naburo Murakami, Rizuko Hoita, Nobuhei Watanab, and Legion Provinicial Secretary Robert Macnicol travelled to Victoria to lobby the BC legislature in an effort for all persons of Japanese ancestry to win the franchise - the right to vote.  By a single vote, their efforts were partially successful as only the Japanese Canadian veterans of WWI were the first persons of Asian ancestry who were given the right to vote in British Columbia.
Upon their return to Vancouver however, they did not immediately celebrate their accomplishment. Their thoughts were with their fellow soldiers as they gathered at the War Memorial in Stanley Park to honour their fallen comrades.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941, the Canadian government determined that all persons of Japanese ancestry were enemy aliens and the entire Japanese Canadian community living along coastal BC was a security risk.  Regardless of being an issei (a new immigrant) or nissei (being born in Canada), all were to be sent to an internment camp in the BC interior or they had a choice to be put on a boat to Japan.

My grandfather, a decorated WWI Canadian soldier, was told to report to Hastings Park. So outraged was he by the government’s actions he threw down his WWI medals on the floor in disgust and exclaimed, “What good are these?”
As a form of protest, the Japanese Canadian community extinguished the eternal flame in the lantern atop the War Memorial in Stanley Park.

The Mitsui family was interned in the Greenwood Internment Camp and my mother’s family, Kawamura, was interned in New Denver, the current site of the Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre National Historic Site of Canada.

The prejudicial policies and decisions, the confiscation and loss of property, the internment, the separation of families, and the re-location of families after the war ended came to a resolution on August 2, 1985.  From the very beginning, my grandfather participated in the redress effort to lobby the federal government to make a public apology and for financial compensation.

It took the effort of many leaders in the Japanese Canadian community and the National Association of Japanese Canadians, and specifically the formation of the National Coalition for Japanese Canadian Redress, for the Federal Government and specifically, the Honourable Brian Mulroney to finally make a public apology to the Japanese Canadians for the injustices experienced during and after WWII.

As part of the public pronouncement, my grandfather, the last surviving Japanese Canadian soldier of WWI in Canada, at the age of 96 years, was invited to Vancouver to participate in the re-dedication ceremony and to re-light the eternal flame atop the Japanese Canadian War Memorial in Stanley Park.  He remarked, “I’ve done my last duty to my comrades.  They are gone but not forgotten.”

My grandfather was a very proud veteran.  Growing up, I recall that every Remembrance Day, he would put on his uniform, his beret, and his WWI medals. My dad told me that when I was about five years old, while visiting him on Remembrance Day, I asked my grandfather for his shiny medals. He said that one day I would receive them. Upon his death, I received them in his will.

My grandfather did not attend a public Remembrance Day Service after WWII until Nov 11, 1983.  He honoured and felt honoured to serve with his comrades in Europe and he continued to have great respect for the military throughout his entire life.  However, he never forgave the government for its decision to intern the Japanese Canadians during WWII and what they did to his family. He died in April, 1987, six months before his 100th birthday and a year before the federal government announced the signing of the redress agreement. It would make financial compensation to those who were interned - but only to those who were still alive.
Unfortunately, the internment of the Japanese Canadians during WWII and the participation of Canadians of Japanese ancestry during WWI, WWII and the Korean War continues to be an unfamiliar part of Canadian history for many Canadians.

The exhibit highlighting the role of the 10th Battalion in the Calgary Military Museum and the display of the internment of the Japanese Canadians during WWII in the Canadian War Museum goes a long way in preserving this piece of Canadian history and the education of future generations.
As a lasting legacy of the Japanese Canadian veterans of WWI, the Honourable Peter Kent sent me a letter, dated July 21, 2011, that he approved my proposal to declare the Japanese Canadian Soldiers of WWI Winning the Right to Vote as a national historic event, as the first persons of Asian ancestry to gain the right to vote in Canada. My understanding is that a process will be put in place to create a plaque recognizing this event, and will be installed at the site of the Japanese Canadian War Memorial in Stanley Park, Vancouver.

As we launch Asian Heritage Month, let us celebrate the outstanding contributions and accomplishments of Canadians of Asian heritage. And let us recognize and appreciate the resourcefulness, the resiliency, the patriotism, and the traditions of those who have contributed to the collective cultural growth and prosperity of all Canadians.”

David R. Mitsui, grandson of Sgt. Masumi Mitsui MM