President’s Report September 2014 – On Indebtedness

by Ken Noma.

Ken NomaMy term as President of the NAJC will come to an end at the Vancouver AGM being held on the September 20th weekend.  It has been an honour to serve as national President these past four years.  I wish to express my appreciation for the support that I have received from:  past presidents who have been generous with their advice; to the National Administrators in our Winnipeg office; to past and present colleagues on the National Executive Board for their vigilance in the performance of their duties; to the members of the Nikkei and larger community for their words of encouragement; to John Greenaway and the GVJCCA Bulletin for keeping us grounded to our Nikkei heritage.  Last but not least, I wish to thank all presidents and executive members of our fourteen member organization for creating the important programs that keep alive our cultural and historical traditions.  I acknowledge my debt to all.

A few months into my first term, a powerful earthquake and tsunami devastated the Tohoku region of Japan and created a major nuclear disaster in Fukushima – an area that I had visited a number of times in the 1990s.  The terrible catastrophe created an immediate groundswell of support and galvanized our communities into action.   This collection of individuals, imin, students and various service organizations raised millions of dollars and tons of emergency supplies for the relief of Japan.  Our youth – with their knowledge of social media – led many of the relief efforts across Canada and pulled the rest of us in their wake.  The NAJC requires the skill and energy possessed by our youth and will assist in giving them a forum for their talents as well as the financial resources to connect with other leaders across Canada.  Kamloops 2012 was the beginning of the youth re-engagement that had lain dormant after the highly successful leader’s conference held in Thunder Bay in 1992.

Relentless vigilance is critical in safeguarding our human rights.  Vice President Lillian Nakamura Maguire and the NAJC Human Rights Committee has been invaluable to our organization as they investigate and recommend action on issues that infringe on the rights of citizens – most notably the rights of racialized peoples.  It is a never ending challenge to insure that Canada’s history is inclusive; accurately written in textbooks and acknowledged in our museums.  Intervention was necessary to force the Canadian War Museum to remove questionable displays that paired Japanese militarism in World War II with Nikkei internment and to enhance the history of Japanese Canadian contributions to this country.  We campaigned for the successful return and rededication of the gill net boat built by Judo Tasaka, Nishga Girl, to the rebranded Museum of Canadian History.  It will continue to stand as an important symbol of the relationship between the First Peoples, Nyce family and Nikkei Fishermen of the West Coast and as a tangible reminder of our internment.

During the four years, the NEB has managed such initiatives as:  Digital Story Telling; direct funding to member organizations through the Community development fund under the stewardship of Bev Ohashi; the 25th Redress Anniversary in Toronto last year; the addition of two new member organizations and one supporting organization; the expanded national coverage of the Bulletin; funding support for NIMC in New Denver and the Stanley Park Nikkei Cenotaph;  antique evaluations in Winnipeg and Toronto.  We have dispersed over $1.4 million dollars to individuals and cultural initiatives through the Endowment Fund since its inception.   We participated in the historic Council of Vancouver apology to our community for their role in the internment.  The COV apology was written with direct input from members of the GVJCCA.  Unfortunately, we have yet to receive even a response to our request for a meeting to determine the proper forum for an apology from the province of British Columbia.  In addition to supporting initiatives that helps to preserve of our heritage, the National Executive Board has identified three focus areas:  First Nations, Imin and the development of young leaders.   I believe our organization is headed in the right direction.  Since 2010 our investment portfolio has grown by $1.4 million dollars.  It is time to invest in programs and initiatives that will have long term positive impact on our community and for the betterment of our multicultural country.

Our small Nikkei community survives today due to the support received from our tireless volunteers.  Many help out in more than one service organization and they juggle a family life as well.  Volunteers in their own way, help to leave what Muriel Kitagawa calls, a ‘proud legacy’ – a foundation for future generations to build upon.  I believe that a sense of individual debt towards family and the community is the motivational spark that drives volunteers.  At the 2013 Toronto AGM, Mary and Tosh Kitagawa were recipients of the National Award which is the highest award that can be bestowed to persons that strengthen our organization both at the local and national level.  In her acceptance speech, Mary eloquently paid tribute to her parents as the foundation for their activism.  She noted:

“They (her parents) were our role models.  They taught us to never quietly accept the cruel onslaught of racial hatred, never to act as victims and always show a proud face to the world—never a face of defeat.  They showed us how to be generous and compassionate toward others.  They provided security and created opportunities for us.  They believed strongly in education and allowed four of us to go to university.  Throughout their lives they were truly honourable and loyal citizens of Canada.  With dignity and courage, our parents brought the family safely through some terrible, terrible times in our journey through life and ensured that our family prevailed.”

Monetary and volunteer support is critical. Without these, there is no doubt that we would have been assimilated into the Canadian mainstream and thus fulfilled the racist goal of the Canadian government’s repatriation and dispersal program. The summer O-bon festivals are our acknowledgement of debt to our Nikkei ancestors; they laid the foundation for the preservation of our heritage.

Suenori & Mika Yamashita
Suenori and Mika Yamashita

As a Canadian born abroad, I returned home to Kagoshima for the first time during Oshogatsu in 1976.  I had left for Canada as an eight year old in 1959. Borrowing money from my parents, I wanted to see my maternal Obaachan as she and my late grandfather were an integral part of my upbringing.  After sixteen years apart, my grandmother’s first words upon seeing me were, “Now that I have seen your face, I can die”.  Initially, I was puzzled by her greeting but it became clear to me that her focus for living had been to see me one last time.  This was verified by my cousin who recalled that my grandfather – convinced that he would not see us alive again – had directed my grandmother at the Taniyama train station to stay alive on his behalf.  At my grandparent’s (Suenori & Mika Yamashita) home that night, I was lying on the futon bed trying unsuccessfully to fall asleep when I spied the outline of my grandmother walking over to me from the darkness.  I feigned sleep as she looked at my face for a few minutes and with a tenugui wiped the sweat from my brow before disappearing to her room.  At our parting, this tiny shell of a woman who had carried me on her back as a child, said to me: “Yoi ningen ne natte kure” (Become a good person).  Acknowledging her request with a ‘hai’ I returned her deep bow and asked that she take care of herself, turned and walked away. I glanced back a few times to see her head still bowed.   I don’t know how long she held that posture but it was my final image of my grandmother – she passed away a few years later.  The wish of all parents that their children grow up to be good and contributing member of their community is universal.

It is said that the debts to ones parents and ancestors can never be fully repaid.  You have given me the opportunity to fulfill a part of the promise that I made to my beloved Grandmother that cold January morning so long ago and I wish to thank you for this privilege.

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