Remembering Japanese Canadian Soldiers of WWI

Remembrance Day has taken more meaning for me lately. 

Recently Yukon Archives shared some information about some Japanese from Dawson City who served in the First World War. This was a complete surprise to me. I wondered, Why would they serve?

The Dawson Daily News of June 21, 1918 reported that there were five Japanese out of the total of 93 Dawsonites who were part of the first selected draft to board the ship, Selkirk to Whitehorse, and then to Victoria, B.C. The five Japanese were: Kazue Matsumoto, Frank Morishige, Frank Murata, Yoshitada Murata and Daiken Nagao.

In September I had the privilege to attend an event at the National Association of Japanese Canadians AGM and conference in Calgary, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the “Issei” volunteers. These were over 222 soldiers from the Japanese Canadian Volunteer Corps who fought in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces. Those who served wanted to prove their loyalty to Canada, with the hope that by doing so, all Japanese would be granted the ability to vote.

In the program notes, Sherri Kajiwara, director of the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre in Burnaby, B.C. wrote:

They participated in the major battles of the Somme, Vimy Ridge, Lens, Avion, Hill 70, Passchendaele, Amiens, Arras, Cambrai, Denain, Valenciennes, Mons. Fifty-four were killed or died of their wounds. Only six came home uninjured. Letters from the front describe the exemplary and fearless fighting of Japanese Canadians who won 13 military medals for bravery.

Apparently more than 220 Japanese Canadian volunteers attempted to enlist in the Canadian Army in British Columbia, but they were rejected by Prime Minister Robert Borden and Defense Minister Sam Hughes and blocked from enlisting. Many of these men went to enlist in Alberta on an individual basis where they could fill the enrollment quotas.

Frank Morishige wrote from Beaver Hat, London, England on Dec. 8, 1918, to his Dawson friend S. Kawakami, asking him to convey thanks to people in Dawson. He wrote:

I wish you would kindly publish a few words to the public of Dawson, especially to the Yukon Patriotic Comfort Fund, as I received 10/00 from Mrs. George Black, while I was in the hospital last month. I think Mrs. George Black is doing great work among our Yukon men who are suffering in the trenches or sick in the hospitals, to whom I had been expecting a visit on my leave in London, but sorry to say I could not get a chance to go and talk a bit as our leave time was only four days. I think all the drafted men will go back to Canada some time next week.

It would appear that all of the men returned to Canada. Matsumoto immigrated to the U.S. but I have no further information on where the others chose to live upon their return.

There will be a Remembrance Day ceremony at the Japanese Canadian War Memorial in Stanley Park in Vancouver. Parks Canada and the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada will be unveiling a plaque commemorating Japanese Canadian Soldiers of the First World War and the Fight to Win the Vote as an event of national historic significance.

Check out Warrior Spirit Website, which is essentially the text and photos of the exhibit that runs until Jan 15 at the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre in Burnaby.

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