A Japanese Canadian Teenage Exile: The Life History of Takeshi (Tak) Matsuba
Part 1: Life in Vancouver before WW2
by Stanley Kirk
This series tells the life history of Takeshi (‘Tak’) Matsuba, a second-generation Japanese Canadian born in Vancouver to immigrants from Wakayama. It narrates his memories of his childhood and teen years until the beginning of World War II, the subsequent forced uprooting of his family from their home and the dispossession of their family business and all their property, their incarceration in the Lemon Creek internment camp, and their exile to Japan at the end of the war.
Birth and Family
Takeshi (Tak) Matsuba was born on December 5, 1926 in Vancouver to Kamejiro and Jiyo Matsuba.
While not sure of the exact place of his birth, he thinks it was probably at home with the assistance of a midwife. As the firstborn child, he had two younger sisters named Masumi (Marie) and Mikiyo (Miki), and two younger brothers named Noboru (Gabby) and Takumi. All were born in Vancouver, except Takumi, who was born in the Lemon Creek internment camp. Like Takeshi, Takumi was also nicknamed ‘Tak’, so they were called “Tak 1” and “Tak 2” respectively.
Tak’s parents were from Wakayama prefecture. His mother grew up in a village called Fuji near Gobo, and his father in Miomura, the Wakayama coastal town famous for sending numerous immigrants to Canada. Tak’s father had been born into a family of fishermen called Kawaguchi. However, his maternal uncle, Kikumatsu Matsuba, did not have any children so Kamejiro was adopted by him and took the family name Matsuba. Interestingly, Tak’s biological grandfather had taken his fishing boat all the way to Hokkaido, and Tak’s father was born on the boat while it was there.
Although uncertain of the exact dates, Tak believes his grandfather and father first went to Canada shortly before or after 1900. The grandfather, Kikumatsu, went first, and Tak’s father followed him later at the age of 17. He is not sure of the precise reason why they went, but thinks it was probably because it was difficult to make a decent living in his village at that time. Miomura was both a farming and a fishing village, but neither industry was very productive, so many people there had to look elsewhere to make a living.
Tak was told that when his grandfather first arrived, the Vancouver City Hall was still housed in a tent. Like many other young Japanese immigrant teenagers, Tak’s father learned English by attending Strathcona Elementary school, apparently lying that he was younger than his actual age. Later he became a naturalized Canadian citizen.
Tak’s mother went to Canada later as one of the so-called ‘picture brides’ which were common then, so she and her husband did not actually meet until she had arrived in Canada. They resided at 151 East Cordova Street in a two-story building, where Tak’s adoptive grandfather, Kikumatsu Matsuba, started and ran a retail shop which sold dry goods and Japanese foodstuffs.1 The building had enough rooms that, in addition to the whole family living there, they were able to rent out a spare room to a Japanese man who worked at a nearby business. Tak’s father Kamejiro helped Kikumatsu run the store. In 1935, at the age of 51, Kikumatsu passed away in Vancouver General Hospital from pulmonary tuberculosis and Kamejiro took over the shop.
As far as Tak recalls, his family enjoyed their lives in Vancouver. His father spoke English well enough to interpret for others who needed help for such things as going to the doctor. He never heard his mother speaking English, but he recalls that “she seemed to understand everything her children were saying, especially when we were up to no good!”
Life in Vancouver Before the Internment
Tak attended a kindergarten run by the Methodist church, then the Strathcona Elementary School and the Fairview High School of Commerce. The Matsuba family actually lived a half block outside the eastern boundary for Strathcona students, but Tak’s father was able to get Tak enrolled by telling the school officials that he wished for his son to attend the same school he had attended.
When the war started, he transferred to the Grandview High School of Commerce. He also attended the Vancouver Japanese Language School which he credits with giving him a strong foundation in Japanese that would help him later when his family was exiled to Japan. He recalls having some non-Japanese friends at school, but otherwise all his friends were Japanese Canadian. Unfortunately, the war and resulting uprooting interrupted his schooling (he thinks he was in grade 10 at the time) and he could not finish high school. He doesn’t recall having any particular future dreams at the time. He explains,
“It was so long ago. I was still in my early teens (so) most likely I was more keenly interested in going out and ‘playing’ with friends than anything else…Like most kids of that time, my life outside school prior to WW2 was centered around the Powell Street Grounds playing baseball, softball and soccer. I also played basketball at the United Church gym.2
He does not have many memories of experiencing discrimination before the internment, but does remember a lot of the people in the community, including his parents, talking about it. “When I was being raised in Vancouver, I was never allowed to forget my ancestry. I was ‘a Jap’, now and forever. My parents raised me on the basis that we had two strikes against us, so we had to be on our best behavior at all times. Never do anything to let the white population have an excuse to fault us,” he recalls. He does have one especially vivid memory of when he and the other members of his Japanese Canadian basketball team did experience discrimination firsthand:
“I do remember very well a group, of which I was one, being discriminated against. It must have been before the curfew was in effect, but as a member of a Japanese Canadian basketball team we went to New Westminster where we were to be met by the host team for a game in Surrey. When we got to New Westminster, no one met us. There was a mix-up in communication or some other reason and we had a long wait. To bide our time, we went to a bowling alley but they would not let us bowl because we were ‘Japs’. We told them we were Canadians first, but they just wouldn’t allow us to play. When our friends finally came and got us, it was pretty late at night, but we did get to Surrey and after moving the wood-fired stove in the gym, we were able to play our match. I don’t remember who won, but there was a fellow named Sonny Ohama, and in later years in Japan when Linda Ohama of the movie “Obachan’s Garden” fame3 came to Japan and I met her, it turned out that Sonny was her uncle.”
1. This location is now occupied by the British Columbia Court Building.
2. Norm Masaji Ibuki, “Tak Matsuba’s Odyssey from Vancouver to Osaka – Part 1,” Discover Nikkei, May 19, 2014.
3. Obachan’s Garden by Linda Ohama
Stanley Kirk grew up in rural Alberta and graduated from the University of Calgary. He now lives in Ashiya City, Japan with his wife Masako and son Takayuki Donald. Presently he teaches English at the Institute for Language and Culture at Konan University in Kobe. Recently Stan has been researching and writing the life histories of Japanese Canadians who were exiled to Japan at the end of World War II.
[Editor’s Note] This article was originally published in Discover Nikkei at <www.discovernikkei.org>, which is managed by the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.