You are on Érudit's new platform. Enjoy! Switch to classic view

Montreal 2010

The Myth of the Emperor and the Yamato Race: The Role of the Tairiku nippô in the Promotion of Japanese-Canadian Transnational Ethnic Identity in the 1920s and the 1930s

  • Aya Fujiwara

Article body


In June 2009, the Emperor and Empress of Japan, on the invitation of Governor-General Michaelle Jean, paid a state visit to Canada. Canadians, including those of Japanese descent, welcomed them as popular or cultural icons that represented the 80-year diplomatic tie between Japan and Canada. The media often described their visit as a symbol of peace and order. A report in the Vancouver Sun, for example, maintained that they possessed “shared values, including the rule of law, individual freedom, democracy, respect for human rights and the promotion of open-market economies under an umbrella of sensible regulations.” [1] Toronto-based Japanese-Canadian newspaper The Nikkei Voice published an article that called for Japan’s maintenance of a peace clause in its constitution, which renounces the country’s involvement in any military activities. The newspaper also emphasized that Japan should admit its atrocities in Asia during World War II as a historic fact. [2]

Over approximately 80 years, the Emperor, as a homeland symbol for Japanese Canadians, went through a dramatic transformation from an ideological to a depoliticized figure. Quite naturally, 64 years having passed since the end of World War II, Japanese Canadians, the majority of whom were born after the war, no longer identified him as a symbol of the “glorious” past of imperial Japan. Nor did they associate him with the negative collective memory of racism that Japanese Canadians had faced in pre-war British Columbia mainly because of the rising military power of imperial Japan. Such old myth and memory were irrelevant not only for the festive occasion, but also for the increasingly hybrid, diverse, and integrated Japanese-Canadian population that included postwar immigrants and their offspring. Yet before the war, the Japanese-Canadian community was led by immigrants and their children who had grown up in the emerging international power. The Emperor was the most powerful symbol that encompassed the origin, history, and transnational ethno-racial identity of Japanese both in Japan and abroad. For Canadians, he represented a foreign nation that could be politically and militarily detrimental to Canada.

This article examines the role that the Emperor played in the construction of self-image among Japanese Canadians, particularly for the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century immigrants so-called the issei (the first-generation), in the 1920s and 1930s, using Tairiku nippô, an organ for Japanese Buddhist issei. Undoubtedly, the press did not reflect the voice of their entire community. Yet its significance lies in its constant effort to maintain its loyalty to and pride in the Emperor and Japan. Scholars of modern nationalism have pointed out the crucial role that languages and publications play in the formation of “imagined” ethnic and national communities. [3] At the same time, the press was a transnational space in which Japanese-Canadian readers and contributors in Japan and Canada could communicate indirectly. It served as the core medium that conveyed homeland and Canadian major facts and events. Yet more significantly, as one of the effective means by which Japanese élites maintained Japanese-Canadian ethnicity, the Tairiku nippô, like many other ethnic newspapers, had a different outlook. It devoted many pages to opinions about élites, and to personal stories, historical myths, and popular works such as poems. Storytelling about the Emperor was one of the significant features of the Tairiku nippô in maintaining both its circulation and Japanese-Canadian ethno-racial consciousness after 1928. For Japanese Canadian immigrants whose educational backgrounds varied, these stories were highly informative.

While this article looks at the transition of ethnic myths during the interwar period, it places particular emphasis on special occasions such as daijôsai (the first festival after the coronation, also called gotaiten) in 1928, the Manchurian Incident of 1931, and Japan’s invasion of China in 1937. Tairiku nippô was the only interwar Japanese-Canadian newspaper that currently exists. [4] Despite its significance in documenting Japanese-Canadian community life during the interwar period, no study to date has provided a thorough analysis of its coverage of the Emperor.

While the scantiness of sources on Japanese Canadians in pre-war British Columbia hindered historians from fully exploring the subject, some historians analyzed pervasive racism against them in the province. They produced insightful accounts, identifying economic or psychological reasons for the intense anti-Asian sentiment that politicians, newspaper editors, and public commentators exhibited during the interwar period. Yet few of them reflect the views of Japanese Canadians on imperial Japan. W. Peter Ward’s 1978 study, which covers the interwar period, for example, focuses on the Western image that Japan “was mysterious, quaint, irrational, and capriciously cruel,” taking the 1885 operetta The Mikado (Emperor) as an example. It stresses that British Columbians, embracing such Orientalism, believed in the negative myth that Japanese were militarily aggressive and economically competitive. [5] Patricia Roy’s 2003 study also places great weight on interwar anti-Asianism among mainstream British Columbians, but incorporates to a certain degree Japanese Canadians’ response to racial discrimination in the analysis. It shows, for example, that the nisei (second-generation) Japanese, in particular, were never silent, and protested the lack of the franchise in the 1930s. [6] Japanese issei, too, fought racial marginalization by spreading homeland myths about the Emperor and boosting their own racial pride.

In terms of expressions of Japanese-Canadian voices, Ken Adachi’s 1976 study stands out. It argues that issei Japanese Buddhists placed a high value on “obedience to the Emperor,” and “Yamato damashii (spirit),” while the nisei often kept away from Japanese ideologies or identifications. [7] Michiko Midge Ayukawa’s 2008 study also sheds some light on the views of issei and nisei on religious practices and Japanese symbols. According to Ayukawa, many issei Japanese maintained Buddhist values that they had brought from Japan, whereas the nisei felt little attachment to them. Written primarily as a social history, her study reveals a Japanese language teacher’s attempt to inspire Japanese national sentiment among the nisei children, introducing ancient myths and the stories of the Emperor. [8] These studies are invaluable in providing some sense of Japanese Canadians’ inner belief, yet undermined somewhat by the lack of written evidence from the era.

As a contemporary repository of their views, The Tairiku nippô helps expand and strengthen the arguments that the issei Japanese kept their loyalty to Japan and the Emperor. Mitsuru Shinpo, Norio Tamura, and Shigehiko Shiramuzu provide an excellent overview of the newspaper, particularly in terms of its foundations, political inclinations, and major views. According to their account, the Tairiku nippô, established by a group of Buddhists in 1907, was an “anti-assimilationist” newspaper that especially resisted the proselytization of Japanese Canadians into Christianity. [9] As it depended on donations and subscription fees, it immediately met with financial difficulty. Yasushi Yamazaki, who had earned some respect in a group of Japanese men in Vancouver, thus reconstructed the Tairiku nippô[10] As an anti-assimilationist press, its effort to convey homeland news was only natural. It carried items such as the prime ministers’ messages at the beginning of each year, regular articles by consuls, as well as contributions by prominent scholars. Yet, interestingly, the self-appointed Japanese-Canadian representatives, who had more knowledge of politics and history, analyzed those homeland messages. Admittedly, to construct Japanese-Canadian life only through Tairiku nippô would miss the voices of ordinary Japanese who did not contribute to the newspaper. [11] Given the limited sources on the interwar Japanese Canadians, [12] however, the Tairiku nippô adds great insights into Japanese-Canadian views to a number of excellent studies that deal with how mainstream society perceived Japanese-Canadian loyalty to Japan and its racism. [13] At the same time, it provides a glimpse into the reaction of the newspaper’s readers at the grassroots.

Canadian Mosaic, Ethnic Symbols, and a Transnational Community

In the 1920s and 1930s some Canadian writers, while they did not reflect the majority voice, began arguing that the cultural concept of the “mosaic” could be one of the most distinctive characteristics that defined Canadian identity. [14] The advocates of cultural mosaic celebrated homeland symbolic figures of ethnic groups, arguing that a collection of good elements might enrich Canada. As Canada lacked cultural symbols, internationally renowned European artists — poets, writers, and painters such as Taras Shevchenko for Ukrainians and Robert Burns for the Scots — were most welcome as “Canadian” symbols. [15] Although these cultural figures often carried various political significances for ethnic groups, they had neither direct power nor means to undermine immigrants’ loyalty to Canada. But living ones, such as heads of the state and politicians, who could challenge ethnic groups’ allegiances to Canada, were rejected as the components of Canadian mosaic.

Asians were usually excluded from the Eurocentric cultural mosaic, because of their race, which was associated with their skin colour, and highly politicized ethnic symbols like the Emperor. The fact that 95 percent of 23,342 Japanese in Canada in 1941 were concentrated in regionally marginal British Columbia and nearly 50 percent in urban centres consolidated their “otherness.” [16] John Murray Gibbon, a strong advocate of the cultural mosaic who argued that ethnic groups could contribute to Canada culturally, focused on 20 European groups in his book Canadian Mosaic, but did not mention Asian groups at all. [17] Racially, the “melting-pot” theory emerged in certain circles as a means to create a new Canadian race. [18] Yet the idea that Asians could never be part of the “Canadian race” was well illustrated by an article published in Queen’s Quarterly in 1928. It advocated the notion of creating a Canadian race, arguing, “To-day citizens both of British and non-British origin are proud to be called ‘Canadians … [and] [i]n Canada, we have upwards of fifty in our racial melting-pot.” Yet it also made clear that “some of these stocks might be excluded,” in particular, “the non-white races.” [19]

It was in these exclusive conditions of the 1920s and 1930s that Japanese Canadians tried to create their place, negotiating their loyalty to Canada and Japan. As Will Kymlicka points out, immigrants usually “coalesce into loose associations” or “ethnic groups” as one step toward integration into Canadian society. [20] While formal Japanese organizations such as the Canadian Japanese Association (CJA) and Hompa Buddhist Church in Vancouver existed before 1920, they consolidated their ethnic activities during the interwar period when the total Japanese population increased by 67 percent. By the 1930s, for example, the Buddhists had established five missions, six branches served by Japanese priests, and 28 religious associations. [21] The 1930s also witnessed the emergence of nisei organizations, including the Japanese Canadian Citizens League (JCCL), which were sometimes at odds with issei’s persistent efforts to maintain Japanese traditional views, culture, and language.

For issei Japanese in particular, the Emperor was the most natural symbol to promote primordial national sentiment and superiority of the Yamato race — the term that the Japanese used to distinguish themselves from others. This term meant a noble race, the members of which saw themselves as “chosen people.” [22] The modernization of Japan, which began with the Meiji Restoration in 1868, produced a number of historical writings that tried to define the Japanese under the official scheme to create a strong nation. [23] Imported to Canada by Japanese intellectuals, a “common myth of descent” [24] that Japanese people belonged to the noble Yamato race headed by the Emperor since the ancient period was one of the core elements that defined Japanese-Canadian ethno-racial identity in the 1920s and the 1930s. The evolution and survival of an ethnic community, Anthony D. Smith argues, relies on the complicated “belief-system” that creates “a sacred communion of the people” with cultural and historical distinctiveness. [25] During this period, Japanese intellectuals, scholars, and official representatives sought to keep Japanese Canadians within their sphere of influence, thereby reinforcing a transnational myth that would promote Japanese Canadians’ sense of racial pride as God’s chosen people in the world.

A close examination of the Tairiku nippô provides insights into the complexity of interwar Japanese-Canadian identity. First, it shows that Japanese Canadians, while marginalized in British Columbia in small fishing and farming villages and in Little Tokyo, were part of transnational “imagined community.” [26] Thus, Japanese-Canadian identity needs to be conceptualized in a transnational context and in terms of three levels of Japanese élite — homeland, diplomatic, and self-appointed representatives. They regularly received political messages from homeland intellectuals and politicians, including prime ministers and consuls, through speeches and newspaper articles. Tairiku nippô devoted many of its pages on homeland and international news and views written by Japanese outside Canada. There were also consuls who, as the former representatives of Japan appointed by the Emperor, frequently intervened in the life of Japanese Canadians. Despite several conflicts between the two parties, consuls exercised a great deal of control over the Canadian Japanese Association — one of the largest first-generation organizations in Vancouver. At the same time, the Japanese-Canadian community had its own self-appointed ethnic élite, who were more educated, outspoken, and politically motivated than their fellow countrymen, and held influential positions as businessmen, newspaper editors, and Buddhist priests.

Second, the dilemma that Japanese intellectuals, scholars, and official representatives faced between their confidence as members of an emerging international power and a sense of racial inferiority imposed by Anglo-Canadians was obvious. They were fully aware that race, as a social construct, could both promote and demote Japanese Canadians’ sense of pride. In response to the escalating racism that Japanese Canadians experienced every day in British Columbia, they had to inspire their kinspersons with the idea that the Japanese nation was inherently superior to others, encouraging them to imagine themselves historically and globally. At the same time, Japanese in Canada rejected the idea that they constituted the same Asian group as the Chinese, thereby building racial hierarchy among Asians. Japan’s colonial activities in Korea and China reinforced the belief that they were better people. Michael Weiner, examining Japan’s colonial ambitions, points out that Japan used terms such as minzoku kyôwa (racial harmony) or minzoku kyôdôtai (racial community/ collectivity) to hide its oppressive nature. [27]

Third, despite the fact that Tairiku nippô kept sending homeland political messages to Japanese Canadians, there was a certain gap between its commentators in Canada and in Japan about the roles that “their” people should play, particularly in the 1930s. Finally, the myth of the Yamato race and the Emperor, affected by turbulent homeland international situations, which included the rise of imperial Japan, were not static during the interwar period. While the myths of the Emperor and common descent manifested Japan’s growing confidence as an international power in the interwar period, the Tairiku nippô did not pay significant attention to such myths until Hirohito officially became the Emperor in 1928. After Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and following its military advance in other parts of China in 1937, however, Tariku nippô frequently carried articles that celebrated the myth of common descent and historic stories.

The 1920s and the Daijôsaiof 1928

The Tairiku nippô did not pay significant attention to the Emperor and the myth of the Yamato race before 1928. When Japan emerged as a victorious power after the Great War, the Tairiku nippô stressed the role that it could play in the reconstruction of the world peace and order. In this scheme, it carried articles that opposed the idea of enshrining the Emperor as the head of a racially defined nation. [28] These views reflected the situation surrounding Japanese Canadians. As a 1924 article emphasized the significance of “Canadianism” among Japanese Canadians, many Japanese insisted that they could participate in Canadian society. [29] The turning point came when Taishô Emperor passed away in 1926, and Hirohito succeeded to the position. The young Emperor was not only popular among the homeland Japanese, but also became Emperor during the time when Japan’s international situation transformed dramatically. The Japanese homeland and Canadian élites alike regarded the myth of the Yamato race around the Emperor as one of the most powerful symbols that could promote Japanese national consciousness. For Japanese Canadians, in particular, it was the only way to remain confident and survive psychologically, facing the growing military power of Imperial Japan.

Daijôsai of Hirohito in November 1928 was the most significant homeland event that connected Japanese people in both Canada and Japan, celebrating the same national figure, roots, and history. While the details of the ceremony and its origin will not be fully explored here, briefly put, it is a religious ceremony that has its roots in eighth-century Japan, in which “the newly crowned Emperor offers the first harvests to God while he himself consumes them.” [30] As “the only major event that occurs in an emperor’s life time,” the Japanese placed particular significance on it. [31] The Tairiku nippô carried various reports on daijôsai in October in 1928, including four separate series of articles written by homeland scholars. These detailed accounts of the event provided its readers with an opportunity to relearn their history and traditions. It indicates the editor’s conviction that the rediscovery of their roots would boost confidence among the readers, who otherwise might nurture a sense of racial inferiority. Many readers did not have any chance to study Japanese history after immigration. The fact that they often appeared under the “Family Section” of the newspaper points to the editor’s intention to target Japanese Canadians as widely as possible, including women. A prominent historian, Hidematsu Wada, authored the first series, Gotaiten ni tsuite (About the ceremony), which explained the origin and history of daijôsai in nine articles. [32] One of the major characteristics of his articles was their focus on the historic continuity of this event with the ancient era. Such a long history was significant as it elevated the Yamato race to the level of Europeans whose ancient roots were admired by mainstream Canadians. Daijôsai, in fact, discontinued frequently; the modern ceremony only revived after the Meiji era. [33] According to Wada, however, its significance lay in the fact that “its meaning had been consistent since the ancient era,” and it was “an old ceremony that was begun by the Sun Goddess” whose descendants included Hirohito. [34]

The second series of articles was by Takaya Nakamura, also a historian at the University of Tokyo. They explained the process of the ceremony and stressed its “sacred” nature, promoting the idea that Japan was “a godly nation,” which inherently possessed “religious origin.” At the same time, Japan emerged as an “ethnic nation” that “possessed a single root” whose head was the Emperor. “To know one’s own country,” he continued, would “enhance national consciousness and spirit.” [35] What is obvious from his comments is that the “myth of descent” gained significance on this occasion as a popular story that might attract readers’ interests. The third and fourth series, written respectively by Masatake Tôgô and Masanao Sekine, prominent specialists in Japanese culture, provided information on the place, ritual, ornaments, and process of daijôsai, focusing on the “holiness” of the ceremony. [36]Tairiku nippô thus focused on the historical interpretation of daijôsai, yet it also tried to link Japan’s ancient past with its contemporary strength as a nation. It added a militaristic touch that was incorporated into the ceremony in Japan. For example, one article introduced the story that a newly built ship called the Nachi, the largest Japanese auxiliary vessel built by 30,000 people over four years, would be unveiled on the day of daijôsai[37]

Daijôsai was also a significant occasion that made Emperor Hirohito a more approachable and personified symbolic figure for Japanese Canadians. Japan’s intention to publicize this ceremony widely overseas was apparent when, for the first time in history, it lifted the ban on film to allow broadcast of selected scenes of the ceremony that featured the Emperor and the Empress. While anyone could watch it, the article warned that “everyone must stand up to show their respect to their majesties” during the film’s showing. [38] Clearly, the Emperor was a supreme symbol and, at the same time, also a popular icon. To make him a more accessible figure for readers, Tariku nippô published stories about his personal life written by an anonymous official of the Imperial House. Tairiku nippô perhaps viewed this sort of storytelling as an effective way to attract curiosity, as the Emperor’s personal life was often considered sacred and secret. In this sense, Tairiku nippô also served its role as a popular magazine. The story followed his typical day, noting that “he usually gets up at six thirty,” “reads the main newspapers,” “meets with Cabinet members and military officers to sign their documents,” and then devotes time to “study and research.” At the same time, the article stressed that he was “no different from any other father,” playing with his daughters. [39] Another article also published a story by an author within the Imperial House, describing the Meiji Emperor’s character as “modest and thoughtful to others.” [40] Two other people who made official trips with Emperor Hirohito wrote that, “the Emperor inherited the Meiji Emperor’s nature,” and introduced the “small story” about the Emperor and how he could sleep at any time “throughout the voyage.” [41]

While Tairiku nippô regularly published articles written by homeland scholars, Japanese-Canadian writers also reported on daijôsai, to ascertain why it remained significant for their fellow Japanese readers in Canada. One contributor to the series, fully aware that overt celebration of the Emperor would not be received well in British Columbia, found a way to make him a politically attractive figure to all Canadians, stressing the good relationship between King George V and Hirohito. The first article in the series, noting that King George V had sent Hirohito a painting as a gift, wrote: “the friendship between the emperors of the two nations that has deepened on every occasion” should be “a joy for the Japanese who live in the British colony.” [42] Hirohito was thus perceived as the symbol of the strong ties between Britain and Japan. This “goodwill of both King and Emperor,” the writer stressed, “should penetrate their peoples,” implicitly criticizing anti-Japanese sentiment in British Columbia. [43] At the same time, the article tried to elevate Japanese Canadians’ position in the world, and continued, “all foreign ambassadors have recognized the dignity of this nation of God, Japan, and its Royal House, which stands out in the world.” [44] Its political message for subscribers was clear: Japanese Canadians should not feel inferior to the mainstream British Canadians as they were equals.

The second article in the series pointed out the similarities between Britain and Japan in religious origins and traditions of coronation ceremonies. Despite the fact that many of the traditions were imported from Britain, it suggested that the two countries shared the same rituals coincidentally. “The only states that hold magnificent ceremonies for the enthronement of their heads,” it argued, “are Japan in the East, and Britain in the West.” [45] The article also pointed to the Japanese sense of superiority over the British. It argued that “the Japanese one” was unique in that “most of its rituals have roots in the age of the Gods, and 2600 years of history. Only a country with history could display this level of splendor and divineness.” [46]

Daijôsai was a crucial event that inspired Japanese Canadians with the idea that they all belonged to the same racial family, boosting their sense of pride. It was obviously the first and most widespread celebration that had connected Japanese in all Japanese-Canadian communities in Canada and Japan since Japanese immigrants came to Canada. Tairiku nippô tried its best to transfer the festive mood in Japan to Canada and carried detailed reports of the ceremony in Kyoto held on 14 and 15 November 1928, stressing its grandeur, beauty, and mysticism. It also ran many photographs that showed other related festivities and celebrations. [47] This enthusiasm reached Japanese-Canadian communities in Canada. The sheer numbers who attended and the scale of events indicate the Emperor’s significance and the Japanese peoples’ emotional ties to their homeland. Tairku nippô’s coverage did not simply exist in the printed pages. The newspaper’s role was to report the event in sensational terms and produce a simultaneous picture of the event. Japanese Canadians, who usually lived in the cities and isolated fishing and farming villages, participated in locally organized celebrations. Significantly, the Tairiku nippô boosted the notion that they were celebrating as a race and nation by reporting on these separate events all together. More than 400 people attended the main event, organized by volunteers at the Japanese Hall in Vancouver. [48] Other cities, including Victoria and New Westminster, also encouraged many Japanese residents to celebrate the historic moment and pay their respects to the Emperor. Significantly, it was not just urban centres that joined in this festivity; the Japanese in Woodfibre, a small pulp mill town in the British Columbia interior, also gathered at the public school for a ceremony, and more casual festivities took place at the mill camp dining room. [49] A small mining camp in Hardville, Alberta, where the majority was from Okinawa, held an official ceremony and enjoyed Okinawan plays. [50] Other local communities that had ceremonies included fishing villages in Sunbury, Camberland, Steveston, and Ucluelet and sawmill communities in Chemainus. [51] In farming communities at Strawberry Hill in Surrey, British Columbia, and Raymond, Alberta, Japanese farmers organized events to pledge allegiance to their Emperor. [52]

These celebratory events, in general, were characterized by displays of patriotism, old rituals, and nostalgia, but were completely informal. Typical ceremonies, according to the Tairiku nippô began with the singing of the Japanese national anthem and shouting banzai sanshô (three cheers) to the Emperor. Other than these gestures in the opening of the celebrations, the organizers tried to depoliticize the event at least superficially, featuring old plays, songs, and folk dances, which were acceptable to other Canadians and could contribute to the Canadian mosaic. The main event held in the Japanese Hall in Vancouver, for example, showcased many artistic components such as nagauta (Edo-style singing songs), jôruri (doll plays), and odori (dance). [53] Local Japanese restaurant owners also contributed to the event, cooking collectively. Even at the much smaller event in Woodfibre, Japanese Canadians presented both tragedy and comedy that were based on Japanese history. [54] While Tairiku nippô did not report the contents of the play, the only suggestion of the politicization of the daijôsai and the impact of the international events around Japan was a report about a play performed by Albertan Japanese in Raymond. It was based on the Jinan Incident in which the Japanese army and Chinese Kuomintang army clashed earlier in 1928. [55]

Yet politics were inherent in these events. Buddhist traditionalists who controlled the Tairiku nippô played a central role in the celebration of Japanese as the sacred, ancient, and special race, and the promotion of the Emperor as a Japanese-Canadian symbol. As the rivalry intensified between Buddhist traditionalists, who emphasized the retention of Japaneseness, and assimilationists, who urged Japanese Canadians, particularly the nisei, to become Canadianized and Christianized, daijôsai was particularly significant for the former. The Japanese language school in Vancouver, a focal point for Buddhist traditionalists, which not only taught the nisei Japanese language, but also cultural heritage, held a ceremony that commemorated Hirohito for 700 nisei (Canadian-born generation) students. [56] The youth section of the Fairview Buddhist Church also organized its own events that featured doll plays on Japanese folklore. [57] The Hompa Buddhist Church, a Buddhist mission officially recognized by British Columbia since 1909, held a much more religiously inspired ceremony, featuring the teachings of Buddha and lectures by a Buddhist minister. In accordance with Buddhist traditions, it set aside a day for paying respects to senior Japanese, during which they received special gifts from the younger generation. [58] As a Buddhist oriented newspaper, Tairiku nippô did not report fully on what Christian Japanese did, but it briefly mentioned their events. The members of the Japanese United Church in Vancouver, for example, met together, but their celebration did not exhibit the sort of nationalist fever that their Buddhist rivals demonstrated in Tairiku nippô. Their ceremonies differed from those held by Buddhist Japanese in that they did not oversell the daijôsai, combining it with Thanksgiving and the erection of the new church in Fairview and inviting some 300 non-Japanese Canadians to the ceremony. [59]

Tairiku nippô did not cover the details of the speeches and procedures, which might have revealed the politics attached to these events. Yet tanka (Japanese poems with 31 syllables) and poems sent to Tairiku nippô from its readers are excellent sources of self-expression, which indicate the degree to which the sense of pride and nationalistic sentiment penetrated the Japanese-Canadian community. Tairiku nippô, on behalf of tanka clubs such as Ajiro-kai and Akane-kai, called for submissions of tanka and poems so that Japanese Canadians could express their feelings on this occasion. The newspaper published approximately 120 tanka and several poems, some of which were submitted by the same author.

Many of these tanka and poems indicated that the racism that Japanese Canadians were facing every day at both personal and official levels never hindered them from being proud of their racial background. Contrary to the negative collective image that mainstream British Columbians had of Asians, [60] the Yamato race that Japanese Canadians constructed through the verses was not only exceptional and predominant, but also idyllic and peaceful. They embraced natural elements such as the chrysanthemum, the symbol of the Emperor; the sun, the symbol of Japan; and heaven and light, symbols of Shinto. The homeland view that the Japanese monarchy, dominated by a single dynasty since the era of the Gods, produced these “chosen people,” was translated into these tanka and poems. Yet for Japanese Canadians, the Emperor also represented their nostalgia for Japan and joy at being part of the transnational Japanese community. In this sense, daijôsai clearly created a space separated from their ordinary lives in British Columbia, where narrowly defined race based on skin colour defined who they were. Ayako Hayashi, who entered 12 tanka in this contest, for example, expressed her best wishes for “the prosperity” of “the young Emperor” and “God’s nation,” and the highest “honour” that she felt as a Japanese “whose national origin lay in the Gods’ age,” despite her residing in a “foreign country.” [61] The joy of introducing the nisei, the landmark Japanese tradition, was also well illustrated by Kinzaburo Ootsuki’s tanka that read: “With the nisei, the son of the country of the Sun goddess, at the ceremony.” [62]

The 1930s: Colonial Expansion, the Yamato race, and the Emperor

After the daijôsai, Tairiku nippô began to devote more pages to the Emperor and his family. As Japan’s militaristic aggression gained momentum in China, so did the anti-Japanese movement in British Columbia. [63] In this sort of climate, Tairiku nippô could have restrained the overt enshrinement of the myth of Yamato race around the Emperor, but obviously it chose otherwise. Given the popularity of Hirohito among Japanese Canadians, the great success of the daijôsai, and the necessity for the powerful symbols and myths that united Japanese Canadians at a critical time, the Tairiku nippô retained this myth as the most appealing Japanese symbol. More significantly, the emphasis on the historical superiority of the Yamato race and its sense of mission in Asia was perhaps seen as one of the few ways to justify Japan’s expanding territories in China.

Indeed, international events influenced significantly the role the Emperor played as a symbol in the Tairiku nippô. By late 1931, after the Japanese army advanced into Manchuria, Tairiku nippô frequently carried a section entitled Kôshitsu Gahô (Picture Reports on the Imperial House), which followed the royal family’s daily activities, and incorporated the reports on the ceremonies around the Imperial House. [64] The tenchôsai (the Emperor’s birthday), which was rarely reported on the Tairiku nippô in the 1920s, became a common focus by the 1930s. [65] Indeed, the holiday became an occasion on which Japanese in Tokyo, the United States and Canada shared their national spirit and respect for the Emperor through exchanges on radio programs. [66] Such a widely held celebration suggests that the Japanese-Canadian community had become increasingly transnational. Yet at the same time, such overt celebration of the Emperor intended to garner international support for Japan. While the program was sent from Washington D.C., the Tairiku nippô reported American Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson’s wishes for a “long life for the Emperor.” He also commented that, “the cooperation between the United States and Japan at the London Naval Conference last year, regardless of its consequences,” contributed to “a better relationship between the two countries.” [67]

Public sentiment against Japanese Canadians in British Columbia was, however, worsening throughout the 1930s. Fully aware of escalating anti-Japanese feeling, Tairiku nippô highlighted the royal family’s international relations, returning to the topic of Britain. Given the fact that the Tairiku nippô targeted Japanese-Canadian readers, its intentions seemed to be to quell anxiety among them. On the New Year’s Day 1932, a few months after Japan’s occupation of Manchuria, it featured an almost two-page article on the historically strong ties between Emperor Hirohito and King George V. It focused on the 1881 visit of George V, then a prince, to Japan, and his meeting with the Meiji Emperor, and Hirohito’s 1921 visit to Britain. [68] It repeated the King’s statement that “he could not forget the honour of Japan and the great reception that my brother and I had received from the intelligent Meiji Emperor and Japanese people who contributed to the country’s great reputation.” [69] The important message then was that George V and Hirohito, who were the heads of the two nations, were personally very close, and were symbols of the friendly relationship between Britain and Japan.

Obviously, the Japanese problem in China and the increasing anti-Japanese activities by Canadians, including Chinese who quite often lived in proximity in British Columbia, dominated the Tairiku nippô in the 1930s. Many of the articles written by Japanese Canadians advocated Japan’s colonization of China, highlighting the former’s economic contribution to the latter. Many tried to understand their colonialism in terms of trusteeship. Such messages were sometimes sent out to non-Japanese Canadians in English. A series of articles reported comments made in English on the radio by a Japanese Canadian. The speaker stressed the benefits of the occupation, arguing “all Japan’s activities in Manchuria, providing (China) a billion-dollar investment, economic necessities, the military security, and national pride and dignity, have a legal basis in the 1915 treaty between Japan and China.” [70]

The anti-Japanese movement was not the only crisis the Japanese-Canadian élite faced in the 1930s. They were also concerned about unity among their own people. Japanese-Canadian society experienced a transformation, mainly due to the increase of the nisei who reached adolescence or adulthood and could form their own ideas. [71] Thus, the 1920s rivalry among Japanese Canadians between Buddhist traditionalists and Christian assimilationists was complicated by the emergence of the nisei as a political power. The issei Christian assimilationists, of course, urged the nisei to act as both Christians and Canadians, and thus stay away from Japanese issues.

The messages from the homeland élite in Tairiku nippô by the late 1930s were nothing more than propaganda. [72] A message sent from Minoru Tôgô, for example, went back to Emperor Tenmu’s expedition to the East, “two thousand sixty hundred four years ago,” and quoted the Emperor’s will to build the national spirit for its prosperity. [73] He continued by dwelling on the “ideal of the Japanese nation,” which would teach the world to “achieve equality, happiness and peace for all nations.” [74] And, the “Yamato race” simply possessed the “historic mission” to provide happiness for all people in Asia. [75]

Consul Hirokichi Nemichi, as a formal representative of the Japanese government, made a number of speeches calling for Japanese Canadians’ cooperation and trying to boost national spirit among them. On New Year’s Day 1938, several months after the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War, he sent a ritualistic message to Japanese Canadians through Tairiku nippô. He argued, “a total war with China” had started “for stability in East Asia.” And continued, “Unless Japan defeats the anti-Japanese Chinese force … neither peace in Japan nor happiness for four-million Chinese can be achieved.” [76] Thus, all Japanese, he insisted, “should be loyal to Japan” and “keep the Japanese spirit.” [77] On the second anniversary of the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war, he noted how a “glorious tradition, kept for two thousand six hundred years, had built the distinctive moral values that Imperial Japan, as the best moral state in the world, maintained under successive Emperors, without defiling anyone or being defiled by anyone.” [78]

The President of the Canadian Japanese Association (CJA), Eikichi Kagetsu, also elaborated the myth of descent and the Emperor:

Our country is a nation-state, formed around the Emperor, which possesses a profound sense of nationhood. We must be united, abandon selfishness, be economical, respect God’s achievements and contribute to the advancement of the imperial power with a spirit of perseverance …. Since the Manchurian Incident, anti-Japanese sentiment has intensified. We, however, patiently resisted this sentiment against humanity, showing the real value of the Yamato race, by enlightening the white race, working hard, and never breaking the Canadian law. It has been a very difficult two years for the Japanese in Canada, overcoming all hardships. [79]

By the end of the 1930s, the CJA, adopting the Japanese government’s approach, began increasing their control over Japanese Canadians, restricting their free expression and acting as an organization that represented Japan’s political stance. Such control showed some degree of formality; in January 1939, the CJA published guidelines for the mobilization of Japanese Canadians in Tairiku nippô. The article, which called the Sino-Japanese War a seisen (holy war), claimed that Japan’s goal was “to liberate the Asian people” and “restore new order in Asia.” [80] For this purpose, Japanese Canadians must be “a conscious part of Japanese expansionism” and “respect the honour of the Yamato race, and support its progress, avoiding any insult to the race.” [81] At the same time, it recommended that they “promote a correct understanding of Japan among Canadians.” Their united effort in Canada, one writer emphasized, would contribute to the “strengthening of the Yamato race in the world.” [82]

The nisei Japanese, who had never lived in Japan, were more likely to blame Japan for its aggression, but not unanimously. The homeland élite, Buddhist traditionalists and Tairiku nippô, indeed, believed that a strong solidarity among their peers was crucial, and many nisei agreed, which was partly due to the fact that Japan and Canada were not formally at war at this stage, and some room was left for the nisei to defend Japan. While Tairiku nippô’s informal censorship and deliberate intention to publish the nisei’s comments defending the issei traditionalists’ stance cannot be overlooked, some articles written by the nisei suggested that not all of them were indifferent to what was happening in Japan. Rather, some nisei actively took the same position as the issei, regarding themselves as members of the same race. Obviously, racial boundary, biologically defined, became the most significant element that defined Japaneseness during the 1930s. At the same time, these nisei leaders, for the first time, found their special mission to bridge Canada and Japan as Canadian citizens with a noble blood. This group of the young nisei believed that in this way they could gain more power in both Canada and Japanese-Canadian society. Two series of articles written by Yasuharu Kadoguchi, a nisei who lived in Woodfibre, appeared in November 1937 and January 1938, and indicate the complexity of the nisei identity and position. [83] He lamented the fact that “the nisei Japanese, who were born as members of the Yamato race that respected family ties” were trying to challenge the issei Japanese at such a critical time. [84] He clearly advocated the notion that the Japanese invasion of China was a necessary action “to secure peace in East Asia” and “contribute to the promotion of a peaceful world order.” [85] Recalling that his Japanese teacher had taught him that “the nisei belonged to the Yamato race biologically and were related to the Emperor,” he also argued that “the nisei had legal duties to Canada as its citizens, but they also possess moral duties for Japan as members of the Japanese race.” [86] He continued that the real duty for the nisei is to “be awakened as members of the Yamato race” and “work for the better understanding of Japan” as Canadian citizens. Another article by Rei Kamide also called for the nisei, “who inherited Japanese blood,” to be “conscious Japanese” and contribute to the “development of the Japanese race.” [87] While the nisei emphasized their Japanese blood, the Yamato race was Canadianized. Noboru Inamoto, a nisei, identified Japanese pioneers’ struggle in Canada with “the imperial army’s battles.” [88] And Japanese Canadian nisei had inherited both “the burning blood of the pioneer soldiers” and “noble Japanese blood,” and had to join the war with China. [89] “In preserving the cultural heritage of our race,” therefore, the nisei insisted, “we may make our most distinctive contribution to the Canadian mosaic.” [90]

Taking a more official position, Edward C. Banno, Provincial Secretary of the Japanese Canadian Citizens’ League (JCCL), the nisei organization established in 1936, expanded his argument in terms of how the nisei could solve the dilemma that they were confronting between their birth place and “biological” nation. [91] He pointed out “a general agreement” among the nisei that “the Japanese position is essentially correct; her campaign in China has been largely inescapable and she has been greatly misunderstood by the democratic countries of the world.” [92] Yet, for Banno and many other nisei, this belief would never contradict the obligation that they felt for Canada. He continued by saying that the nisei’s duties include the promotion of “a correct appraisal of the Far Eastern situation, and then to bring this knowledge to our Canadian friends.” [93] Undoubtedly, the nisei leaders always saw Canada as their native country and thus such overt defense for Japan declined by the end of the 1930s. The New Canadian, established in 1938 as an organ of the JCCL, declared in 1940, “Our (the nisei’s) destiny lies with Canada,” emphasizing nisei’s citizenship more than biological race. [94]

Their goal of bridging Japan and Canada was once again expressed at the coronation of King George VI in 1937 and his visit to Canada in 1939. Almost a decade after Hirohito’s daijôsai, Tairiku nippô reiterated the historic ties, particularly since the era of the Meiji Emperor, and the similarities between the Japanese and British royal families, but this time also anticipating an aggravated relationship between Canada and Japan, if not total war. Britain and Japan, which the Tairiku nippô called two similar countries in sacred origin and traditions, were now portrayed as “two Empires” whose “cooperation and friendship” were crucial in maintaining “stability” and peace in the world. [95] At the same time, the King and Emperor overlapped as Japanese symbols. “Japanese Canadians’ patriotism and loyalty to the head of their nation exceed that of others,” and “they pay allegiance to the British King in the same way as they do the Emperor of their homeland.” [96] Despite “the intensified tension between the two Empires in East Asia,” the article claimed, “Japanese Canadians would never lose their loyalty to either.” [97] On the state visit of King George VI in 1939, Consul Nemichi urged Japanese Canadians to welcome him “solemnly and orderly, not to let down our race, as superior Canadians who inherited the blood of the Yamato race.” [98] Thus, Japanese Canadians celebrated his coronation in the same way as they did that of Hirohito, with three cheers of banzai, and during his state visit they held a display of Japanese rituals and cultural traditions. For the nisei, it was the great opportunity to pay respect to both their homeland and Canada. At the coronation in 1937, for example, a nisei’s organization, the JCCL entered a float decorated with Mt. Fuji and cherry blossoms. During the state visit to Vancouver, 200 Japanese girls in kimonos waited for the King and waved the Union Jack. [99]


The “common myth of descent” that perceived the Japanese as members of the superior Yamato race headed by the Emperor since ancient times played a central role in the formation and the maintenance of Japanese ethnicity in Canada during the 1920s and the 1930s. Significantly affected by international events, the Japanese in Canada, including the nisei, experienced much pressure to remain in the transnational Japanese community. Race, history, and blood played significant role in defining their ethnicity throughout the interwar period. The myth that Japanese Canadians were members of the racial family with the Emperor at the centre gained power during the daijôsai of 1926 and flourished in the 1930s, providing Japanese Canadians with a means to combat racial prejudices against them. Yet the historical symbols underwent a transformation; the Emperor, who represented old Japanese rituals and cultural heritage in the 1920s that could contribute to the Canadian mosaic, became a representative of an alien nationalism. Tairiku nippô, as a source of stories, played a significant role in the promotion of the Emperor and the Yamato race. It served both as a newspaper that conveyed international events and as a place where Japanese élite both in Tokyo and Vancouver, and Japanese-Canadian readers could exchange their stories so that they could feel a part of a transnational ethnic community.

When Emperor Hirohito’s son, Crown Prince Akihito, visited Canada in 1953, on his way to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, Japanese Canadians, who had left the wartime internment camp several years earlier, welcomed him with special enthusiasm. Unlike his father, he was not a symbol of the noble Yamato race. The myth of homogeneity that remained dominant in the public discourses in postwar Japan no longer defined Japanese-Canadian ethno-racial identity. According to the Tairiku jihô, which succeeded the Tairiku nippô after approximately 12 years of suspension, the Crown Prince now represented “democracy,” “peace,” and “renewed friendship between Japan and Canada.” [100] In other words, he was an international figure. When he came back to Canada in 2009, the Vancouver Sun reported that his 1953 visit had “signalled that Japan was ready to join the international community after a number of inward-looking post-war years.” [101]

Parties annexes

Parties annexes