Letters show how Japanese-Canadian youth felt during internment years

Cut off from the world, teens ask former classmate for news about music and the war

UBC students are getting a first-hand look at what life was like for young Japanese Canadians during the internment years in the Second World War.

Joan Gillis recently donated 147 hand-written letters to the university – ones sent to her by her Japanese Canadian high school friends in 1942.

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“They’re concerned with the war, but they’re also concerned with what the cool music is,” says Laura Ishiguro, assistant history professor, of the letters’ contents.

At the time, the government removed Gillis’ peers from the Lower Mainland and sent them to Manitoba and Alberta with their families. Others weren’t so lucky and had to be split up.

Japanese Canadians couldn’t be within the “security zone,” a 100-mile radius off B.C.’s coast, as they were thought to be a threat to Canada and in support of Japan. Internment camps were set up in the Interior, where many worked on sugar beet farms, roads and railways.

Ishiguro called the letter collection an “incredibly exciting acquisition” because they show a relationship between Japanese Canadians and non-Japanese Canadians.

“So much of what we talk about when we talk about the war is the fear of non-Japanese Canadians or the hatred or the racism,” she tells KamloopsMatters. “They’re powerful (stories), but in this collection, we see friendship. We can see that other people didn’t believe Japanese Canadians were a threat.”

Ishiguro suspects the youth wrote to Gillis because they viewed her as a connection to home. 

One letter writer, Setsuko, asked Gillis what the top songs of the day were. Ishiguro says since Japanese Canadians could not own radios, Setsuko’s question shows how devastating an experience the internment years were for youth.

“She’s cut off from her home and from her school, but she’s also cut off from popular culture that’s so important to her,” she says.

The history buff is hopeful the letters will spark discussion in her classroom and give her students new perspective about this part of Canada's history.

“This history of friendship in a time of war is so important, and really reminds us we can refuse to buy into the messages that are around us,” she says.

The letters, which make up approximately 300-350 pages, can be viewed in person by visiting Rare Book and Special Collections or by booking a tour.

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