By Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre
Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre
Showing excellence in science, cultural arts, domestic arts, activism, business and scholarship, these six women created lasting legacies for the benefit of all Canadians. Join us as we look at the lives of Kinori Oka, Tomi Nishimura, Miyoshi Tanaka, Midge Ayukawa, Sono Nakazawa and Maryka Omatsu.
A Picture Bride Portrait of Kinori Oka (nee Shinohara) by Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre 2001.28.2.1.4Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre
A Wondrous Poet
Kinori Oka's (nee Shinohara) story reveals a lifetime of resilience and perceptive exploration of the role and expectations of women in society. She is remembered by her daughter, Betty Masako Stillwell, as embodying the spirit of adventure.
Born in 1904 in Fukuoka-ken, Japan, Kinori dreamt of living overseas, wanting to reject the destiny of women or onna no sadame, as her mother called it. Kinori chose compromise and became a picture bride to Sanzo Oka, 14 years her senior, and moved to Canada with him.
Kinori Oka with Mother-In-Law and Three Sisters-In-Law by Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre 2001.28.2.18.6.1Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre
They lived on the Oka family farm in Abbotsford, BC. She relied on her new family to navigate life on the farm and the wilderness of the region.
at age 18 registered under the Oka’s domicile,
I feel some sadness with the character “wife” by my name. (haiku by Kinori Oka)
Kinori Oka's Suitcase (1920) by Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre 2001.28.8.1.6Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre
This suitcase originally belonged to Kinori and was used as she traveled in Canada. Decades later, her eldest daughter, Nancy Miyuki, would use the same suitcase when leaving Lemon Creek, BC, to begin a new life in Toronto, ON after WWII.
Kinori would have three children, and she embraced motherhood. In 1942, while in Hastings Park, her newborn son was denied medical care, resulting in lifelong medical challenges. His care became a civil rights issue, striving to keep families together during the internment of Japanese Canadians.
When the Oka family was interned in Lemon Creek, Kinori was hospitalized after contracting tuberculosis. It was during this time that she began to write poetry, which became a life-long passion. Her haiku would be published in Maple: Tanka Poem by Japanese Canadians.
Kinori’s daughter Betty Masako Stillwell recalls, “Mother led a life full of upheavals and hardship, but I am grateful for everything that she was able to do for us, and for providing the stability in my life that was so often lacking in her own.”
A Photograph of Tomi Nishimura Posing with a Fan by 2016.241.1.122Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre
Tomiko ‘Tomi’ Nishimura (nee Maeda) was a champion of Japanese cultural arts in Canada. She studied tea ceremony, dance, calligraphy, ink wash painting and flower arranging during her lifetime. Born in 1915 in Shiga-ken, Japan, Tomi married Canadian-born Shoichi and settled with him in Vancouver, BC.
A Portrait of Nana, Tomi, and Shoichi Nishimura Seated at a Table A Portrait of Nana, Tomi, and Shoichi Nishimura Seated at a Table (1983) by 2016.24.10.113Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre
Around 1944, the Nishimuras were forcibly relocated to Grand Forks, BC. In 1948, Tomi and her family settled in Toronto, ON. Tomi worked in a fur factory and was very involved in the cultural life of the United Church and, later, the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre.
Tomi's daughter, Nana Nishimura, recalls her mother's diverse interests and activities.
A Photograph of Tomi Nishimura Doing Calligraphy A Photograph of Tomi Nishimura Doing Calligraphy (1991)Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre
Tomi was a published poet and member of the Haiku Club. She was also a member of the Toronto Japanese Garden Club, Kisaragi Club and Kotobuki Kai.
Toronto Japanese Garden Club Report on 50th Anniversary BanquetJapanese Canadian Cultural Centre
Tomi combined her talents with a poem commemorating the Toronto Japanese Garden Club's 50th Anniversary, which was recorded in the club's newsletter:
Blessed with muse's love
For service, fifty years
Cause to celebrate
In 1986, the Japanese Government recognized Tomi's lifelong efforts to introduce and preserve Japanese culture in Canada by awarding her The Order of the Sacred Treasure, Silver Rays.
Mickey Tanaka and Dr. Friedman in a research lab by Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre 19184.108.40.206.4Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre
Science Requires a Delicate Hand
Miyoshi 'Mickey' Tanaka (nee Nakashima) was a renowned scientific researcher, best known for her work on hypertension. Born on June 23, 1927 in Mission City, BC, she graduated from McGill University with a Bachelor of Science in 1949.
Miyoshi became a laboratory research assistant and senior lab technician in the Department of Anatomy at the University of British Columbia. Her contributions to UBC's Faculty of Medicine were formally recognized in 1975 and 1976, and her research was discussed in newspaper articles across the country.
Cuddly' Rats Are Tools of Her Trade Article in The Vancouver Sun (1956-03-20) by Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre 19220.127.116.11.2.1Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre
During her career, Miyoshi was known for her ability to perform intricate operations on lab rats.
"It doesn't take long to get used to [working with rats]…a small one...is sweet and friendly— like a kitten."
- from The Vancouver Sun, Mar. 20, 1956
Material republished with the express permission of: Vancouver Sun, a division of Postmedia Network Inc.
In addition to her scientific career, Miyoshi was an active participant in the Japanese Canadian community in Vancouver through organizations such as the Wives and Mothers (WIMO) social club, established in 1955. She was involved in different chapters of the Japanese Canadian Citizens Association, was part of The Sakura Singers choral group and was among the first directors of the Kaede Seniors Society when it was incorporated in 1996.
The Bulletin (2008-04) by Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre 1918.104.22.168.1Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre
Miyoshi was also the first editor of the Japanese Canadian journal The Bulletin, and was featured in its April 2008 issue. The journal includes an interview describing Miyoshi's time as the journal's editor, as well as other memorable moments from her life.
Images: Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre
Miyoshi was honoured for her activities in the Japanese Canadian community. She received recognition awards for her contributions from the Japanese Canadian National Museum and The Sakura Singers; a certificate of thanks from Parliament for outstanding commitments and contributions to Nikkei Seniors Health Care & Housing Society; and the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for her contributions to Canada.
Lemon Creek High School Grade 11 Class Lemon Creek High School Grade 11 Class (1946) by Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre 1922.214.171.124.24Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre
Trailblazer in Scholarship
Michiko “Midge” Ayukawa (nee Ishii) worked with the National Research Council before becoming a mother of five. After moving to BC in 1980, she returned to school becoming a scholar in the topic of Japanese Canadian history and experience with a focus on women’s history.
Born on June 26, 1930, Midge grew up in a mixed-background neighbourhood in Vancouver, BC.
"My playmates were children of immigrants from the Ukraine, Italy, England, Poland, and the United States."
As a child, Midge was sent to Japanese Language School, “For the first time I was surrounded by children who looked like me, and yet did not talk like me. These classmates were Japanese Canadian children from the Powell Street area. My home, though nearby, was in a cosmopolitan area, where the common language was English.”
"I was eleven years old when the world around me collapsed."
After Canada declared war on Japan, Midge and her family were interned in Lemon Creek, BC. Her father was sent to a labour camp.
Midge earned a B.Sc and Master’s of Science in Chemistry from McMaster University in 1953. After her 1980 move, Midge earned a BA, MA, and PhD in Japanese Canadian history from the University of Victoria.
Images: Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre
Midge would publish many articles and co-edit books on the history, memory and identities of Japanese immigrants and their experiences during World War II. She was remembered by Karen M. Kobayashi as, "One of the most esteemed scholars on Japanese Canadian history."
A Group Portrait of Sono Nakazawa, Three Women, Three Men, and a Toddler against a Large Fallen Tree (1900/1915)Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre
A Visionary Entrepreneur
Originally from Yokohama, Japan, Sono Nazakawa emigrated to Vancouver, BC in the early 1900s alongside her husband Seizo Shibuya. Leaving behind their young children, they migrated to Canada with hopes and dreams of establishing a business that could support their family.
Soon after establishing Shibuya Shoten, Seizo passed away in 1915, leaving the familial and financial responsibilities to Sono. Seizo's Last Will illuminates the crucial role that Sono played in their business, “The store which is being established together with my wife Sono as an equally interested partnership."
Undeterred, Sono would continue building her business and also to "call over" (migrate) her children to Canada through the yobiyose visa.
Newly arrived Japanese picture brides would frequent Shibuya's, where Sono would get them ready for their lives in Canada by preparing western style wardrobes, including the Lady Powell brand, that were fashionable and comfortable. Sono also offered valuable advice to them.
Sono would remarry and her husband, Yoshio Nakazawa would help with the bookkeeping of the store. As the business thrived, Sono was able to purchase two lots on Powell Street in Vancouver, valued at $40,500 in 1919.
As the family prospered, they purchased a summer home in West Vancouver. Decades later, Sono's granddaughters, Mary Anne Tateishi and Laiko Matsubayashi, would describe her as the driving force behind Shibuya Shoten.
During the Second World War, the Canadian Government used the War Measures Act to intern Japanese Canadians living within 100 miles from the coast of British Columbia. The Government also dispossessed Japanese Canadians by unlawfully selling their properties. Sono and her children would be interned at Christina Lake, BC. These Shibuya Shoten account statements are likely some of the final documents produced before Shibuya was sold.
Laiko Matsubayashi retells family stories of Sono, Mr. Shibuya, Mr. Nakazawa and the Shibuya Store. Like her grandmother, Laiko was also an entrepreneur and a celebrated figure in the interior design industry.
Portraits of Maryka OmatsuJapanese Canadian Cultural Centre
Lawyer, Judge and Activist
Maryka Omatsu has been a community leader for many years as a lawyer, judge and activist. Born in Hamilton, ON in 1948, her parents did not discuss the internment of Japanese Canadians during WWII, inadvertently disconnecting their daughter from community memories, language, and even culture.
Maryka has vivid memories of memorizing four lines in her history book concerning her community's internment during WWII without making connections to her parents. Within four decades, she would be etched in history as an icon for the Japanese Canadian community.
In 1977, Maryka became a lawyer against the advice of many. Throughout the 80s, Maryka worked as legal counsel for the National Association of Japanese Canadians playing an important role in the organization’s efforts to successfully achieve Redress for Japanese Canadians.
"Maryka Omatsu, a sansei lawyer committed to the call for justice, was one of the key players on the front lines of the struggle for Japanese Canadian redress. She knew first hand the complexities, the pain and the joy. Her book shows us how much of the terrain over which she and others in our community have been walking. I’m grateful for her labour and her light." (Joy Kogawa, 1991)
In 1993, Maryka was the first woman of East Asian heritage to be appointed as a judge in Canada.
"My appointment was viewed as a community victory; it was the result of a long campaign to diversify Canada’s white male judiciary, to include women and racial minorities." (Omatsu, 2022)
During her book tour in Japan, Maryka was asked by the local community if she would support the Redress for Korean "comfort women".
Maryka's response was, "The Japanese Canadian experience was a good precedent for Japan to follow. Canada had acknowledged its wartime wrongdoing and the payment of compensation to individuals was only proper and just."
Though semi-retired, Maryka continues her activism work.
The stories of Oka, Nishimura, Tanaka, Ayukawa, Nakazawa and Omatsu just scratch the surface of the excellence and perseverance shown by many Japanese Canadian women. By actively participating in the building of the Japanese Canadian community, these women of change have ensured that their legacy will be felt by many generations to come.
The Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre (JCCC) and the Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre (NNMCC) embarked on a joint project in 2021-2022 to preserve and make accessible records that recognize the activities and achievements of Japanese Canadian women.
Funded by Library and Archives Canada.
Financé par Bibliothèque et Archives Canada.
Project and Curatorial Team: Su Yen Chong, Theressa Takasaki, Tonya Sutherland, Sandy Chan, Lisa Uyeda, Sherri Kajiwara, and Nigel Town.