A Japanese Canadian Teenage Exile: The Life History of Takeshi (Tak) Matsuba
Part 2: Life in the Lemon Creek Internment Camp
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.
Tak vividly remembers hearing the news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. “It was a Sunday and I was with friends out on Powell Street on our way home from playing badminton at the Japanese Language School when we heard the news from a radio in a parked car. It had a very sobering effect on all of us.”1
The order for Japanese Canadians on the west coast to leave their homes and property soon followed. Tak vaguely remembers that they had to rush to pack their bags and were allowed to take very little with them. Later they would learn that all Japanese Canadian property, which was supposedly being held in trust by a government-appointed custodian, was sold without their agreement and the proceeds used to help cover the costs of the internment camps.
Unlike many others, all Tak’s family members were allowed to stay together and were sent directly to the Lemon Creek internment camp at Lake Slocan in the mountains of eastern British Columbia where they would live for the next four years. He recalls the train journey being very long. Apparently, his parents showed little, if any emotion, at the time. “It must have been devastating to lose almost everything they had worked for all their lives to achieve, but in retrospect, they didn’t show it too much. Being born in the Meiji Era, they had that stoicism of ‘gaman’ and ‘shikataganai’ so they seemed to accept almost whatever came along,” he says.2
He adds that his actual memories of life in the camp as a teenager are mostly good.
“Being a teenager, I was carefree and intent on having a good time. As teenagers are wont, I looked at the good side of things and managed to find something of interest. I was fortunate that there were a number of friends in Lemon Creek whom I already knew from the Vancouver days. Of course, I made many more new friends and these friendships have lasted to this day. We used to hold dance parties and I had a fairly good collection of records which were very useful and appreciated by friends. However, I was too bashful and never really learned how to dance properly, something I now regret.
In the winter time, the shore side of the river froze and we could ice skate, but had to be careful not to go too far from shore because the river was flowing and the ice got thinner at the far edges. Some guys used to fall in and we had to build fires to dry and warm them. We sometimes stole the railway fence posts to fuel the fires. I can’t recall for sure, but quite possibly sometimes railway ties were also pilfered.
Another wintertime favorite was sleighing. There was some danger in this because the best place was the nearby highway. There was quite a steep incline and the traffic had packed down the snow, forming a very slick surface that was good for sleighing. We had to station guards at the curves to signal that the way was clear of any oncoming traffic. The elders did not look too kindly on this sport.
I was not, and still am not, a very religious person, but got involved in the camp with the Buddhist Youth Group and we used to perform plays on the stage in the Buddhist Church to entertain the internees. These were almost all in the Japanese language and in retrospect, this helped me polish my Japanese. I didn’t know then, but in later life, it helped me survive the early years in Japan.
The authorities would not allow us to have cameras, but the Buddhist minister built a camera, using a celluloid soap case for the body, and gave it to me. I was able to use it to take quite a few photos but regret that I have lost the camera and the photos. I am not sure where or how I lost them, either in the confusion of being shipped to Japan or during the turmoil of the Hanshin Earthquake.”
He recalls the names of two of his teachers, Ms. Hamilton and Ms. Hurd. About the former he says, “I didn’t know that Miss Hamilton had been so active in girls’ education in Japan prior to the War. In retrospect, I was not a good student and talked back a lot. I now regret it and have the greatest respect for the teachers, especially Ms. Hamilton for the good work she did in Japan against such odds. It is a wonder that she would continue in the education field after such an experience.” Despite his admission about his shortcomings as a high school student, during the last months of the internment, as people were gradually leaving the camps either to disperse in eastern Canada or to exile in Japan, he was recruited to help with the education of some elementary students who were still in the Lemon Creek camp.
With the end of the war and people relocating or being shipped to Japan, teachers and students were leaving Lemon Creek, but there were still a number of students who were waiting for their departure dates. The principal at that time was a lady friend of mine and she approached me to help her manage the remaining students. I was not qualified to be a regular teacher, but she wouldn’t take no for an answer and I finally agreed. I did not really teach anything, but acted more like a watchman over the kids. I recall that at one time I took a bunch of comic books to school and let the students pass the time reading comics. I was there to oversee the students in school, not so much to study, but to keep them out of mischief. It was a short-lived experience for me. I cannot recall of how long, but a few months at most.”
However, he seems to have made a stronger impression on the students than he realized, as evidenced by the following recollection of Susan Maikawa:
In the 1945-1946 school year, Miss Haruko Ito taught us grade 7, but she left us before the end of the term. Tak Matsuba became our new teacher and continued on until June 1946. (We were exiled to Japan the same year!) He taught us to do our best in good faith and to complete our given tasks willingly. I remember him as a pleasant, fair person who was highly respected.3
Regarding his overall impression of his life in Canada, Tak adds, “I was 15 years old when the Canadian government put me in the internment camp. Four years later, I was shipped to Japan. Actually, my life in Canada ended when I was 15. Lemon Creek was not Canada. Those four years in Lemon Creek were like living in a cocoon. Of course, when I emerged from that cocoon, the outside world was quite different and it took me a while to adjust.”
(1) Norm Masaji Ibuki in “Tak Matsuba’s Odyssey from Vancouver to Osaka – Part 1,” Discover Nikkei, May 19, 2014.
(3) Quoted by Norm Masaji Ibuki in “Tak Matsuba – Part 1,” Discover Nikkei, May 19, 2014.
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.