“Dear Sir, the time appears to be ripe when the question of enlistment of Canadian-Japanese should be taken into account. I wish to offer my services to organise the enlistment of Canadian-Japanese in BC – these men to be trained in some other province than BC – and sent overseas.”[1]

In October 1941, Captain V.C. Best wrote to Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King offering his services in the military enlistment of Japanese Canadians.[2] Best argued that Japanese Canadians should be given the same opportunities as other Canadians and be allowed to prove their loyalty to the state. However, Best’s aims in advocating for Japanese-Canadian service seem to have changed after the attack on Pearl Harbour as he framed military service as a required test.

Despite Best’s rhetorical shift, his letters on the right of Japanese Canadians to serve built on a World War I legacy and was an important part of Nisei, second-generation Japanese Canadians, lobbying during World War II.

Best’s views on enlistment

Before December 7, 1941

Image of a group of Japanese Canadians standing in front of the Japanese Canadian War Memorial
Japanese Canadians standing in front of the Japanese Canadian War Memorial in Stanley Park, ca. 1939. Image courtesy of Nikkei National Museum, Genzaburo and Kimiko Nakamura Family collection, 2012.10.1.2.24.

Best’s personal history as a World War I veteran and his sons’ service in World War II may explain his belief in military service as an appropriate path, but Best initially also wanted Japanese Canadians to serve so they could prove their loyalty to Canada.[3] In his early letters, prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbour in December 1941, Best emphasized enlistment as something that the Japanese-Canadian community on Salt Spring Island wanted.

“The Japanese parents were anxious that their sons should serve in the army for Canada – and advocated their doing so….Unfortunately, political agitation dealt them blow after blow to their loyalty.”[4]

According to Best, parents wanted their sons to serve so they could show their allegiance to the war effort and the Japanese-Canadian community was willing to give up their fight for the franchise if they were offered that opportunity; Best cited the slogan “do your duty—and build up for the next generation” to explain the community’s focus on enlistment.[5]

Following the attack on Pearl Harbour

However, after December 1941, Best’s argument for Japanese-Canadian military service shifted. Instead of framing the cause as something that the community wanted, Best’s rhetorical strategy focused on military service. It is difficult to discern whether this shift was Best attempting to reframe his previous beliefs in response to the unexpected attack on Pearl Harbour, or Best drastically changing his core understanding of Japanese-Canadian military service. Writing in January 1942, Best thought that

“the closer the problem is scrutinized, the more apparent it becomes that enlistment is the sieve through which all Japanese, naturalized and Canadian-born should pass. Those who do not pass this [?] process can and should, be accommodated in Internment camps. This also applies to all other nationalities with whom the ABCD are at war”[6]

In following letters, Best continued to push for enlistment and elaborated on his ideas of military service as a test for Japanese Canadians.[7] On January 20, 1942 he shared with Keenleyside his opinion that overall, the public and troops would accept Japanese Canadians in uniform.[8] A few days later, Best reported that he had questioned some “troops” and found that they also thought that “all Canadian-born of alien parentage should share in the vicissitudes of the front lines,” however with the caveat that they should serve in separate units. [9]

In the letters that followed, Best continued to repeat the idea that all Canadian-born Japanese Canadians should share in the dangers of war and be forced to prove their loyalty. Though his last letter to Keenleyside in February 1943 focused on the terrible state of education in the internment camps, Best still thought it was unfair that Japanese Canadians were spared personal risk by being refused by the military.[10]

“It is manifestly unfair that our sons should take the risk…..and that Canadian-Japanese should be granted the privilege of absolute personal safety, when rightly they should share the common danger”[11]

Regardless of Best’s motivations in arguing for Japanese-Canadian service, his support for the cause was unusual even before the attack on Pearl Harbour. After December 1941, anti-Japanese rhetoric increased dramatically, making Best’s argument in favour of military service increasingly difficult to argue. The motivations behind his argument might have changed after Pearl Harbour, but Best’s support for Japanese-Canadian enlistment spanned his letters.

Japanese Canadians in the military

World War I

Though his rhetorical strategy changed over the course of the war, Best’s support for Japanese-Canadian enlistment spoke to a cause many Japanese Canadians believed in.

During World War I, the Japanese-Canadian community in Vancouver worked tirelessly to raise a battalion to serve overseas. Japanese Canadians, like other non-white minorities, believed that military service would lead to franchise. While the Japanese-Canadian battalion was rejected by the Canadian army in 1916, within a few months individual volunteers were invited to enlist and by the end of the war, 185 Japanese Canadians had served overseas.[12]

World War II

However, when World War II broke out in 1939, Japanese Canadians had even more difficulties enlisting. Thomas Shoyama, editor of the Nisei newspaper The New Canadian, and others were turned away when they tried to volunteer for the armed forces early in the war.[13] By 1941, only a handful of Nisei in BC had enlisted, often after stories of being rejected several times, and approximately 30 had been accepted east of the Rockies.[14] Many Japanese Canadians understood military service as a test for full citizenship and acceptance into dominant Canadian society, an understanding Patricia Roy explores in her article, “The Soldiers Canada Didn’t Want: Her Chinese and Japanese Citizens.”

“Military service is the ultimate test of citizenship. By allowing Chinese and Japanese Canadians to serve in the armed forces, Canada would concede them a claim for equality and for all privileges of citizenship including the franchise.”[15]

Many Nisei were disappointed as their attempts to serve were blocked by BC politicians. Though key military leaders were willing to accept Japanese Canadians, provincial politicians cited Japanese expansion in Asia, and by extension potential Japanese-Canadian aggression and subversion, as a threat to Canada. [16] Despite the rejection, some Nisei continued to press their cause throughout the war. Shoyama met with military officials in 1941 to argue the Nisei cause and, in February 1941, the Japanese Canadian Citizens League published a report that claimed their loyalty to Canada and pushed for equal treatment in all regards, including the right to serve. As a result of their activism, by December 1941, the Pacific military command was prepared to suggest that Canada follow the American example and allow Nisei to enlist. On December 19, 1941, representatives from the National Defense, National Defense for Air, National War Services, Royal Canadian Mounted Police and External Affairs met to discuss the service of Asian Canadians, and a memorandum was published listing their recommendations:

Image of the Second World War overseas unit in an unknown location.
Second World War overseas unit, ca. 1945. Image courtesy of Nikkei National Museum, Roy Ito collection, 2001.4.4.5.3.

“3. The following general principles were recognized:

a) No service nor branch of a service nor rank in a service should in principle be closed to any Canadian on the race or colour alone.

b) The practical difficulties of mixing races should receive full recognition; and neither fighting efficiency nor civilian morale should be scarified to the principle of racial equality….

5. Consistently with the general principles set out in paragraph 3 two recommendations were made:

a) Canadians of Chinese, East Indian, and Japanese race should be called on for military training and service at the same time as other Canadians in the same age groups.

b) No unit should be obliged to accept a volunteer of any of these races if it is felt that this would not conduce to the efficiency of the service.”[17]

However, within days of the decision, and in the wake of anti-Japanese rhetoric following the attack on Pearl Harbour, the military administration changed its mind and decided it could not require officers to enlist Japanese Canadians.[18] All hopes of Japanese-Canadian service were on hold until the end of the war.

As the war was ending, the Canadian government finally began recruiting Japanese Canadians to meet demands from Allied troops stationed in east Asia for translators and interrogators. Nisei responses varied; some, like Shoyama, immediately signed-up with the intent of proving their loyalty. Others, however, were rightly reluctant to leave their interned families and property without knowing their fate.[19] In the end, 119 Nisei enlisted in the Canadian military as linguists, 61 of whom eventually served overseas.[20]

Conclusion

If Japanese Canadians understood military service as an opportunity for full citizenship, this was a view Best certainly shared in his early letters. After the attack on Pearl Harbour, however, Best’s letters underwent a shift. It is unclear whether this change was because Best modified his rhetorical strategy to reflect the new realities of Canada’s war against Japan or that his opinions on Japanese-Canadian military service did dramatically alter. In part, it depends how we understand Best’s worldview: did he reshape his initial convictions, or did his underlying opinions on Japanese-Canadian enlistment change after December 1941? His letters could be read either way, and may be influenced by how we imagine ourselves responding in a similar situation.

References

[1] Library and Archives Canada (LAC), RG25, vol. 3037, file 4166-40, letter from Captain V.C. Best to Rt Hon. Mackenzie King, 26 October, 1941.

[2] LAC, Best to Mackenzie King, 26 October, 1941.

[3] LAC, RG25, vol. 3037, file 4166-40, “Captain V.C. Best (R.O.),” date unknown. LAC, RG25, vol. 3037, file 4166-40, letter from Captain V.C. Best to Hugh Keenleyside, 10 October, 1941.

[4] LAC, RG25, vol. 3037, file 4166-40, letter from Colonel Desrosiers to unknown (enclosing a letter from Captain V.C. Best), 24 February, 1941.

[5] LAC, Colonel Desrosiers to unknown, 24 February, 1941.

[6] LAC, Best to Keenleyside, 5 January, 1942.

[7] LAC, RG25, vol. 3037, file 4166-40, letter from Captain V.C. Best to Hugh Keenleyside, 27 January, 1942.

[8] LAC, RG25, vol. 3037, file 4166-40, letter from Captain V.C. Best to Hugh Keenleyside, 20 January, 1942.

[9] LAC, Best to Keenleyside, 26 January, 1942.

[10] LAC, RG25, vol. 3037, file 4166-40, letter from Captain V.C. Best to Hugh Keenleyside, 7 February, 1943.

[11] LAC, Best to Keenleyside, 7 February, 1943.

[12] James W. St.G. Walker, “Race and Recruitment in World War I: Enlistment of Visible Minorities in the Canadian Expeditionary Force,” Canadian Historical Review 70, no. 1 (1989): 1–26, http://www.utpjournals.press/doi/pdf/10.3138/CHR-070-01-01, 6-8, 12.

[13] Roy Ito, We Went to War: The Story of the Japanese Canadians Who Served During the First and Second World Wars (Stittsville, Ontario: Canada’s Wings, Inc., 1984), 107.

[14] Ito, We Went to War, 125-126, 153-156.

[15] Patricia E. Roy, “The Soldiers Canada Didn’t Want: Her Chinese and Japanese Citizens,” Canadian Historical Review 59, no. 3 (1978): 341–58, http://www.utpjournals.press/doi/pdf/10.3138/CHR-059-03-03, 341.

[16] Roy, “The Soldiers Canada Didn’t Want,” 342.

[17] LAC, RG2 A-5-b, Reel C-4874, “Memorandum: Concerning Military Service for Canadians of Oriental Race,” 19 December, 1941.

[18] Roy, “The Soldiers Canada Didn’t Want,” 344-349.

[19] Roy, “The Soldiers Canada Didn’t Want,” 354.

[20] Ito, We Went to War, 232.

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