Photos of letter, postcard and photos

From upper left corner: photo of Yosh Nakamura (July 1942); postcard from Setsuko Fuji to Joan Gillis (May 17, 1943); letter from Yosh Nakamura to Joan Gillis (July 25 1942); photo of young woman, Setsuko Fuji; and photo of Yosh Nakamura, Jackie Takahashi and friend on a tractor.

UBC Library’s Rare Books and Special Collections has acquired an extraordinary collection of letters that provide unique insight into the devastating effects of the Japanese Canadian internment during World War II.

The collection of 147 letters, written to donor Joan Gillis in 1942 by a group of young Japanese Canadians she met while attending Queen Elizabeth Secondary School in Surrey, talk of daily life and the challenges faced by these young people after being ordered out of the “Security Zone” on the B.C. coast, and are filled with frequent references to acute homesickness and sadness at being removed from their homes. The writers range in age from 13 to 18. Some were very close friends with Gillis, while others were casual acquaintances.

Laura Ishiguro, an historian of Canada and the British Empire at UBC, said the letters will be an important teaching tool at UBC, contributing to new and better interpretations in classroom discussions about the internment of Japanese Canadians.

“Existing narratives around the internment tend to focus on Japanese Canadian people in isolation from others, or on the ideas and actions of major government figures, with the Japanese Canadian community rendered largely faceless victims of tragedy,” said Ishiguro. “With these letters, my students and I could explore a different war-time history from the perspective of young people.”

Henry Yu, a professor in the UBC history department, said the letters provide a window into the lives of school children going through a traumatic time in B.C.’s history.

“One of the most effective ways for people to understand the devastating effects of the forcible removal of over approximately 23,000 Japanese Canadians in 1942 and their subsequent exile through the sale of their property and possessions is not in the abstract numbers that measure their monetary loss or the numbers of people dispossessed and exiled, but in the rare and raw moments when we can see the effects through the eyes of those who suffered them,” said Yu. “Letters such as those sent to Ms. Gillis from school friends are so powerful precisely because of the authentic reality that they express of school children’s experience of the trauma, shared with a trusted friend.”

Letter from Masao Ujiye to Joan Gillis, 9 October 1943.

UBC Library is pleased to be able to add this unique acquisition to its robust Japanese Canadian Research collection that includes materials on business and commerce, mining, farming, fishing, forestry, religious activities, education, community, reminiscences and biographies in addition to materials on the Japanese Canadian evacuation.

“These letters provide a unique and important perspective on the Japanese-Canadian internment from the voices of youth,” said Krisztina Laszlo, archivist at Rare Books and Special Collections at UBC Library. “We’re thrilled that the letters are coming to RBSC and that UBC faculty, students and the community will be able to use them for research and teaching.  It’s a wonderful resource and we’re proud to act as their caretaker.”

The letters, which make up approximately 300-350 pages, can be viewed in person by visiting Rare Book and Special Collections or by booking a tour.

 

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