70 Years Later: UBC’s Recognition of Interned Japanese Canadian Students

Posted by Shirley Li & filed under Identity.

Past Japanese Canadian UBC students and their family members await the awarding of their honorary degree (UBC Archives)
Past Japanese Canadian UBC students and their family members await the awarding of their honorary degree (UBC Archives)

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Celebrating its first anniversary this past May, the Asian Canadian and Asian Migration Studies program seems like a newborn among the many majors and minors offered at the University of British Columbia. Yet, the creation of this program is only one part of reparations for an event that occurred over 70 years ago.

Most if not all students have learned of the Japanese internment camps that forcibly removed about 22,000 Japanese Canadians from their homes following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 . But what many might not know is that 76 Japanese-Canadian students at UBC were faced with expulsion in 1942, as were other Japanese-Canadian and Japanese-American students along the Pacific Coast.

UBC Japanese Students’ Club's seventh annual graduation banquet (1938) | Image source: japanese-canadian-student-tribute.ubc.ca

UBC Japanese Students’ Club’s seventh annual graduation banquet, 1938 (UBC archives)

As a UBC student, I was surprised to learn of the incident as I had never previously heard of the Japanese students’ expulsion nor the call for reparations. As Canadians, we pride ourselves in being accepting and compassionate. Yet more than half a century later UBC, had done little to pay its dues to the students. Meanwhile, American institutions, such as the University of Washington, began awarding expelled Japanese Americans with honorary degrees in 2008.

The fight to receive recognition for the injustices inflicted upon the Japanese-Canadian students by the university gained momentum in 2008 thanks to Mary Kitagawa. Although not one of the expelled students, she had stumbled upon an article regarding universities in the U.S. granting honorary degrees to interned Japanese-American students and later inquired to UBC on the matter. She was met with a not-so-pleasant reply that claimed that the students had not technically been expelled, but rather had left due to actions relating to the political situation at the time. Kitagawa was not discouraged, however. The response gave her more reason to push for the recognition of the expelled students who had been expelled simply because they were of Japanese descent.

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Mary Kitagawa (UBC Archives)

Nearly 70 years following the expulsion of the 76 Japanese Canadians from UBC, the university announced in late 2011 the granting of honorary degrees to the students. The ceremony took place the following spring as a result of Kitagawa’s campaign. Only about a third of the original 76 former students remained to receive their degree, while most of those who had passed on were represented by family members and friends who donned a black graduation gown and crossed the stage in their memory. One of the original 76 students who came to Vancouver for the ceremony, Roy Oshiro commented that while the event doesn’t erase their hurtful memories, it will help fellow Japanese Canadians find peace.

Mary Kato (née Nagata) was another student whose study at UBC was cut short. Although unable to be present at the event, the arrival of the news brought about memories of her happy albeit short time at UBC, but also of her father being forcibly taken away to a Prisoner of War camp that same year. The actions finally taken by the university is one of the measures that it hopes will begin a process of healing for the Japanese-Canadian community.

The first anniversary of the Asian Canadian and Asian Migration Studies minor program commemorates one of these gestures. The creation of this minor program by the UBC Dean of Arts at the time, Gage Averill, is meant to make further amends. As a tribute to the Japanese-Canadian students, it is aimed to educate current and future students of anti-Asian racism within our history and our society. Being an Asian Canadian and a student at UBC, I hope to not only partake in some of its courses but to see the program flourish. Through this gesture towards healing the pain felt by the Japanese-Canadian community, it is important to shed light on the injustice that occurred so that such hurt does not happen again in the future.

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