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Children's Nonfiction Cultural Heritage

A Child in Prison Camp

by (author) Shizuye Takashima

Initial publish date
Dec 1992
Cultural Heritage, General, Emigration & Immigration
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Dec 1992
    List Price

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Recommended Age, Grade, and Reading Levels

  • Age: 10 to 18
  • Grade: 5 to 12


When Shizuye Takashima, “Shichan” as she was called, was eleven years old, her entire world changed forever. As a Japanese-Canadian in 1941, she was among thousands of people forced from their homes and sent to live in internment camps in the Canadian Rockies. Although none had been convicted of any crime, they were considered the enemy because the country was at war with Japan. In this true story of sadness and joy, Shichan recalls her life in the days leading up to her family’s forced movement to the camp, her fear, anger, and frustration as the war drags on, and the surprising joys in the camp: a Kabuki play, holiday celebrations, and the ever-present beauty of the stars.

About the author

Contributor Notes

Artist Shichan Takashima was eleven years old during World War II when she and her family along with 22,000 other Canadians of Japanese origin were removed from their homes on the west coast of Canada and sent to internment camps in the interior. She would spend the next three years there and the memory of that bewildering time remained so real to her that thirty years later she could reproduce it in words and paintings of remarkable vividness.

Excerpt: A Child in Prison Camp (by (author) Shizuye Takashima)

Chapter 1
Vancouver, British Columbia
March 1942

Japan is at war with the United States, Great Britain and all the Allied Countries, including Canada, the country of my birth. My parents are Japanese, born in Japan, but they have been Canadian citizens for many, many years, and have become part of this young country. Now, overnight our rights as Canadians are taken away. Mass evacuation for the Japanese!

“All the Japanese,” it is carefully explained to me, “whether we were born in Tokyo or in Vancouver are to be moved to distant places. Away from the west coast of British Columbia–for security reasons.”

We must all leave, my sister Yuki, my older brother David, my parents, our relatives–all.

The older men are the first to go. The government feels that my father, or his friends, might sabotage the police and their buildings. Imagine! I couldn’t believe such stories, but there is my father packing just his clothes in a small suitcase.

Yuki says, “They are going to the foothills of the Rockies, to Tête Jaune. No one’s there, and I guess they feel father won’t bomb the mountains.”

The older people are very frightened. Mother is so upset; so are all her friends. I, being only eleven, seem to be on the outside.

One March day, we go to the station to see father board the train.

At the train station

An empty bottle is tossed in the air.
I stand away, hold my mother’s hand.
Angry, dark curses, a scream. A train window is broken.

Most of the men have been drinking.
An angry man is shouting.
The men are dragged violently into the trains.
Father can be seen. He is being pushed onto the train.
He is on the steps, turns. His head is above the
shouting crowd. I see his mouth opening; he shouts
to his friends, waves his clenched fist.
But the words are lost in all the noise.
Mother holds my hand tightly.

A sharp police whistle blows.
My blood stops. We see a uniformed Mounted Police drag
an old man and hurl him into the train.
More curses, threats. The old train bellows
its starting sound. White, hellish smoke appears
from the top of its head. It grunts, gives another
shrill blast. Slowly, slowly, the engine comes to life.
I watch from where we stand, fascinated.
The huge, black, round, ugly wheels begin
to move slowly, then faster, and faster.
Finally, the engine, jet dark,
rears its body and moves with a lurch.
The remaining men rush toward the train,
scramble quickly into the moving machine.

Men crowd at the windows. Father is still on the steps,
he seems to be searching the crowd, finally sees us, waves.
Mother does not move. Yuki and I wave. Most remain still.
The dark, brown faces of the men become small.
Some are still shouting. Yuki moves closer to mother.
The long, narrow, old train quickly picks up speed
as it coils away along the tracks
away from all of us who are left at the station.

Mother is silent. I look at her.
I see tears are slowly falling. They remain
on her cheeks. I turn away, look around. The women
and the children stare at one another. Some women
cry right out loud. A bent old woman breaks out
into Buddhist prayer, moves her orange beads
in her wrinkled hands, prays aloud to her God.
Mother and the other women bow their heads.
The silent God seems so far away.

Summer 1942

From March to September, 1942, my mother, my sister Yuki and I are alone in Vancouver. David, our brother, is taken away, for he is over eighteen and in good health. It’s hard for me to understand. Our David, who is so gentle, considered an enemy of his own country. I wondered what he thought as his time came to leave us. He spoke very little, but I do remember his saying, “In a way it’s better we leave. I am fired from my job. The white people stare at me. The way things are, we’d starve to death!”

Now our house is empty. What we can sell, we do for very little money. Our radio, the police came and took away. Our cousins who have acres of berry farm had to leave everything. Trucks, tractors, land, it was all taken from them. They were moved with only a few days notice to Vancouver.

Strange rumors are flying. We are not supposed to own anything! The government takes our home.

Mother does not know what to do now that father is not here and David too is taken. She does not speak very much; she is too worried how we are to eat with all her men gone. So finally, Yuki goes to work. She is sixteen; she becomes help for an elderly lady. She comes home once a week to be with us and seems so grown up.

I grow very close to my mother. Because we are alone, I often go to different places with her. Many Japanese families who were moved from the country towns such as Port Hammond and Steveston on the west cost of B.C., are now housed in the Exhibition grounds in Vancouver, waiting to be evacuated.

One very hot summer day mother and I visit a friend of hers who has been moved there.

A visit to the Exhibition grounds:

The strong, summer July sun is over our heads
as we near the familiar Exhibition grounds.
But the scene is now quite different from the last time I saw it.
The music, the rollercoasters, the hawkers
with their bright balloons and sugar candy are not there.
Instead, tension and crying children greet us
as we approach the grounds. A strong odor hits us
as we enter: the unmistakable foul smell of cattle,
a mixture from their waste and sweat.
The animals were removed, but their stink remains.
It is very strong in the heat. I look at mother.
She exclaims, “We are treated like animals!”
I ask mother, “How can they sleep in such a stink?”
She looks at me. “Thank our Lord, we don’t have to
live like them. So this is where they are.
They used to house the domestic animals here.
Such a karma!”

As we draw close to the concrete buildings, the stench
becomes so powerful in the hot, humid heat,
I want to turn and run. I gaze at my mother.
She only quickens her steps. It seems as if
we are visiting the hell-hole my Sunday school
teacher spoke of with such earnestness.

White, thin sheets are strung up
carelessly to block the view of prying eyes.
Steel bunkbeds, a few metal chairs, suitcases,
boxes, clothes hanging all over the place
to dry in the hot sour air, greet our eyes.
Mother sits on a chair, looks at her friend.
Mrs. Abe sits on the bed, nursing her baby.
The child, half asleep, noisily sucks her breast.
Mrs. Abe looks down at it, smiles,
looks at mother and says, “The food is much better now.
We complained every day, refused to eat one day.
They take all our belongings, even our husbands,
And house us like pigs, even try to feed us pig's food!”

Mrs. Abe opens her heart to mother.
I look around. The children’s voices
echo through the huge concrete buildings.
Some of them are running around. The cement floor
smells of strong chemical. I stare at
the gray, stained floor. Mrs. Abe seeing this, says
“They wash it every week with some cleaner.
As if they cared whether we lived or died.”

A curious head pokes in from the drawn, frail curtain.
Mrs. Abe sees this, becomes angry, “Nosy bitch!”
she says aloud. The dark head disappears.
Mrs. Abe turns to me, glares into my eyes,
forgetting for a moment that I do not live here,
that I am still a child and am not responsible
for her unhappiness. I begin to feel uncomfortable.
I gently nudge my mother. She reads my sign,
rises to take her leave, bowing, speaking words of
encouragement. Mrs. Abe bows, thanks mother,
“You are lucky. You can still live in your house.
And your children are older. They are a comfort.”
Her words trail off. She bursts into tears.
Her child awakens, startled; she begins to cry.
Several heads appear from behind curtains,
eyes peer with curiosity. Mrs. Abe holds the child
close to her and weeps into its small neck.
I quietly walk away.

From the corner of my eye
I can see sweaty children; they gape at me.
They know I am from the outside. I pretend I do
not see them, I quicken my steps, I am outside.
Here the animal stench again overwhelms me.
I turn. Mother is behind me.
“You are rude to leave like that,” she scolds.
Her dark eyes search mine. I feel bad,
I look down. The concrete ground seems to melt
from the blazing heat. I curl my toes in my
white, summer shoes. They are dusty from the walk.
I look up, “I’m sorry. I couldn’t help it.
Her crying, and the smell…”
Mother takes my hand and we begin to walk
to the tram stop. “Someday, you’ll understand.
Mrs. Abe is much younger than me. She is new
in this country, misses her family in Japan.
You know she has only her husband.”

All the way home in the noisy tram, mother says
very little. I, happy to leave the smelly,
unhappy grounds, daydream. I think of the film with
Tyrone Power Yuki promised to take me to one day.

September 1942

Now we have curfew. All Japanese have to be indoors by ten P.M. The war with Japan is fierce. People in the streets look at us with anger. My sister Yuki has to quit her job. No reason is given by the elderly lady. We wait, mother, Yuki and I, for our notice to go to the camps. Already many families have left.

A night out

Yuki holds my hand, begins to run.
“We have to hurry, Shichan. It’s close to ten.
Can you run a bit?” “I’ll try,” I say,
but my limp makes it hard for me to keep up.
Yuki slows down. I wish mother were with us.
Everything seems so dark. An old man comes
towards us, peers at us in the dim light.
His small eyes narrow, he shouts, “Hey, you!
Get off our streets!” He waves his thin arms,
“I’ll have the police after you.”
Yuki pulls my arm, ignoring him, and we run faster
towards our house. The man screams after us.

Mother is at the door when we arrive.
She looks worried, “You are late.” She sees us panting.
“Did you two have trouble?” She closes the door quickly.
“You know I worry when you’re late, Yuki.”
Yuki sits on a chair, looks at mother.
“I’m sorry. The film was longer than I thought.
It was so great we forgot about the curfew.”

Mother pours Japanese green tea. It smells nice.
I sit beside her and drink the hot tea.
I look around. The rooms are bare.
Boxes are piled for storage in the small room upstairs.
Our suitcases are open, they are slowly being filled.
We are leaving for camp next week.

A siren screams in the night. Air-raid practice.
I go to the window. All our blinds are tightly drawn.
I peek out, carefully lifting them. I see
one by one the lights in the city vanish. Heavy
darkness and quiet covers Vancouver. It looks weird.
But the stars, high, high above, still sparkle,
not caring, still beautiful and happy. I feel sad
to be leaving the mountains, the lovely sea.
I have grown with them always near me.

“Come away from the window, Shichan.” Mother’s voice
reaches me. I turn. I feel sadness come from her too.
She has lived here for so long:
“Over twenty-five years–hard to believe–
I was a young girl, full of dreams.
America! Canada! all sounded so magical in Japan.
Remember, we had no radio in those days, so all our
knowledge of this country came from books.
My own mother had come to Canada long before
other women. She was brave, not knowing the language,
young, adventurous, a widow with three children.
She took your uncle Fujiwara with her.
He was thirteen. I went to my grandmother’s;
my sister, to an aunt. It seems so long ago.”

Mother often talks of the past. Her life
on the tiny island sounds lovely, for she had
a happy childhood, so full of love.
I go to her. I see her hands folded neatly
on her lap. She always sits like this,
very quiet, calm. Her warm eyes behind her
round glasses are dark and not afraid.

An end to waiting

We have been waiting for months now. The Provincial Government keeps changing the dates of our evacuation, first from April, then from June, for different reasons: lack of trains, the camps are not ready. We are given another final notice. We dare not believe this one.

Mother is anxious. She has just received a letter from father that he is leaving his camp with others; the families will be back together. I feel so happy. He writes that he is being moved to a new camp, smaller than others, but it is supposed to be located in one of the most beautiful spots in British Columbia. It’s near a small village, 1800 feet above sea level. The Government wants the Japanese to build their own sanatorium for the T.B. patients. I hear there are many Japanese who have this disease, and the high altitude and dry air are supposed to be good for them. I feel secretly happy for I love the mountains. I shall miss the roaring sea, but we are to be near a lake. Yuki says, “They decided all the male heads of families are to rejoin their wives, but not the single men.” So, of course, David will remain in his camp, far away.”

We rise early, very early, the morning we are to leave.
The city still sleeps. The fresh autumn air feels nice.
We have orders to be at the Exhibition grounds.
The train will leave from there, not from the station
where we said good-bye to father and to David.
We wait for the train in small groups scattered
alongside the track. There is no platform.
It is September 16. School has started. I think
of my school friends and wonder if I shall ever see
them again. The familiar mountains, all purple and
splendid, watch us from afar. The yellowy-orangy
sun slowly appears. We have been standing
for over an hour. The sun’s warm rays reach us,
touch a child still sleeping in its
mother’s arms, touch a tree, blades of grass.
All seems magical. I study the thin yellow rays
of the sun. I imagine a handsome prince will come and
carry us all away in a shining, gold carriage with
white horses. I daydream, and feel nice as long as I don’t
think about leaving this city where I was born.

The crisp air becomes warmer. I shift my feet, restless.
Mother returns; she has been speaking to her friend,
“Everyone says we will have to wait for hours.”
She bends, moves the bundles at our feet:
food, clothes for the journey. I am excited. This
is my first train ride! Yuki smiles, she too feels the
excitement of our journey. Several children cry,
weary of waiting. Their mothers’ voices are heard, scolding.

Now the orange sun is far above our heads.
I hear the twelve o’clock whistle blow from a
nearby factory. Yuki asks me if I am tired.
I nod, “I don’t feel tired yet, but I’m getting hungry.”
We haven’t eaten since six in the morning.
Names are being called over the loudspeaker.
One by one, families gather their belongings and
move towards the train. Finally, ours is called.
Yuki shouts, “That’s us!” I shout, “Hooray!”
I take a small bag; Yuki and mother, the larger
ones and the suitcases. People stare as we walk
towards the train. It is some distance away.
I see the black, dull colored train. It looks
quite old. Somehow I had expected a shiny new one.
Yuki remarks, “I hope it moves. You never know
with the government.” Mother looks, smiles,
“Never mind, as long as we get there. We aren’t
going on a vacation; we are being evacuated.”

Bang…bang…psst…the old train gurgles,
makes funny noises. I, seated by the window,
feel the wheels move, stop, move, stop.
Finally, I hear them begin to move in an
even rhythm slowly.

I look out the dusty window.
A number of people still wait their turn.
We wave. Children run after the train.
Gradually, it picks up speed. We pass the gray
granaries, tall and thin against the blue Vancouver sky.
The far mountains, tall pines, follow us
for a long time, until finally they are gone.

Mother sits opposite; she has her eyes closed,
her hands are on her lap. Yuki stares out the window.
A woman across the aisle quietly dabs her
tears with a white cloth. No one speaks.
my father packing just his clothes in a small suitcase.

Yuki says, “They are going to the foothills of the Rockies, to Tête Jaune. No one’s there, and I guess they feel father won’t bomb the mountains.”

The older people are very frightened. Mother is so upset; so are all her friends. I, being only eleven, seem to be on the outside.

One March day, we go to the station to see father board the train.

Editorial Reviews

“A fascinating account…of a particular moment in the relationship between two cultures.”
Emergency Librarian

“A poignant and beautiful little book. In a simple text and a series of striking watercolors [Takashima] presents a haunting record of [the Japanese internment.]”
San Francisco Chronicle

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