Donated internment camp photos show ‘normal’ life

Carla Ayukawa points out her mother Michiko as she looks through a family photo album she donated to the Canadian War Museum on Friday, June 3, 2016 in Ottawa.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

VANCOUVER – The black and white picture shows teenage girls posing for the camera with their clothes neatly pressed, their hair in perfect movie star pin curls, but the background of a dilapidated Second World War internment camp doesn’t fit the image.

That paradox is one of the reasons CarlaAyukawa donated her mother’s photo album to the Canadian War Museum. The pictures document some of Michiko Ishii’s young life in a Japanese-Canadian internment camp in southeastern British Columbia.

“These four girls, they’re all posing, but what are they standing in front of? It’s not a movie theatre or some kind of arcade, it’s a shack,” said Ayukawa.

“It’s the irony of what’s going on around them and they’re still continuing on as teenagers.”

After Japan entered the Second World War in December 1941, Michiko Ishii, known as Midge, her family and thousands of other Japanese Canadians were forcibly moved from coastal B.C. to internment camps.

Their houses, businesses and belongings were sold to pay for their upkeep.

News photos of the day show a bleak picture of people behind wire fences or boarding trains or trucks bound for the camps. But Midge’s photo collection of the Lemon Creek interment camp shows a different side of life that her daughter said needs to be viewed by a wider audience.

“These are good photos, such that they depict a very ordinary — or extraordinary — environment, for everyday people,” she said. “It’s not just about soldiers and guns and vehicles and war scenes. These are another dimension of the war.”

Midge died in 2013 at the age of 83. Ayukawa said her mother would be pleased to know the album went to the museum.

The photos are of everyday life in the camp, documenting Midge, her friends and other residents.

In one photo a man plays a guitar. Another shows an action shot of a man jumping for a baseball. There’s also a picture of the Lemon Creek All Stars team, the winner of the Slocan Valley baseball championship in 1942-1943.

Many of the pictures are illustrated by Midge or signed by others.

Jeff Noakes, Second World War historian with Canadian War Museum, said the album is a treasure, not only for the everyday life that it shows, but for the captions, which tell the story behind the pictures.

“So many of the photographs would appear — if you didn’t know the context about them — to be friends posing for photographs or people smiling for the camera. There are other photographs that also show the camp itself.”

Noakes said they are remarkable because there were stringent rules against Japanese Canadians owning cameras during the war.

Ayukawa said her mother remembers life at camp fondly and was like many Canadian youth at the time.

“There are other photos in there where there are these cute guys where she wrote captions that say ‘hubba, hubba’. All these things that a teenager would have,” she added with a laugh.

After the war, Midge and her family moved from the camp to Hamilton, Ont. She later earned a master’s degree in chemistry and married Karl Ayukawa in 1955.

When her husband died in 1981, she went back to school and completed a master’s degree and doctorate focusing on the lives of Japanese immigrants.

As a historian she wrote several articles and books about poverty, racism and violence directed towards Japanese-Canadian women.

In September 1988 then-prime minister Brian Mulroney apologized in Parliament to Japanese Canadians for injustices against them by the federal government during the Second World War.


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