The Emperor’s Orphans by Sally Ito

Mar 16, 2020

People and landscapes inhabit our memory but when we want to recall them it can be difficult; we must either pull at them or ask someone, or rely on written records. And it is so with family. What do we remember of our grandmothers and grandfathers or of our distant ancestors? What stories did they tell, stories that still resonate in our minds? It is good to remember, even better when we can record and pass on to our children the stories we’ve been given.

When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the attack set off a ripple that widened and spread around the world. In Canada, the Federal government decided that Japanese people were enemies and proclaimed they either vacate over the mountain to the eastern part of the country or leave Canada and return to Japan. For many these actions would mean separation from families. Some families decided to return to their motherland while others crossed the mountains to the beet fields of Alberta and beyond to southwestern Ontario.

The Emperor’s Orphans, Sally Ito’s memoir, writes of this disconnection, how divisive the Second World War was, how it separated families, how for decades it made a break so large that becoming whole again seemed an impossible task. In her preface, the author tells a fellow writer that she writes “…to find my cultural identity”. (vii) She uses extracts from family diaries and poems to explain her quest for cultural identity. She soon discovers that family history can be complicated in that stories can differ depending who tells them, that unravelling the inconsistencies can be challenging.

Ito begins the book with the journey of taking members of her family one spring in 2014 to contact some of her relatives: “We are driving down Highway 3 to Taber, Alberta, in two cars—my sister’s family in one and mine in the other.” (5) They leave British Columbia and return to the place of her birth, Taber, Alberta. While driving to their destination, she listens intently as members of the family begin to tell their stories.

As the author digs deeper and deeper into the history of her family, her perseverance leads her on a fascinating exploration into the past with startling discoveries. Ito’s is an ambitious undertaking for there is a confusion of relatives that Ito must sort out on the Saito and Ito sides of the family, the Japanese spellings of names and who is who.

Her Auntie Kay had told her some things; her grandfather Toshiro had written in his diary. Her mother had recorded portions of the Saito family tree, but her father’s side—Ito—his story was oral; there was no diary or written book to refer to, and the author knew she would have to visit Japan to obtain a considerable part of the family history’s past. The opportunity arose when she was in Grade 10 and her father announced they would make the journey together. This she tells us this in flashback.

Interspersed with this journey and others that followed, Ito writes about the internment camps, the journey to the beet fields, the beginnings of strawberry farms and how large the strawberries grew. She speaks about racial slurs and its lasting effect (one never forgets) on the emotional psyche. She also writes of her childhood, and the stories her parents and relations tell her of their families. It isn’t long before Ito stumbles upon family secrets long buried that eventually lead her once again across the Pacific Ocean to Japan where she is reunited with her relatives, where she discovers a land dispute in progress. She also discovers the meaning of ‘emperor’s orphans’ and it strikes home that even in their motherland the Japanese people were looked on as outsiders.

Years later in 1988, the Canadian government apologized to the Japanese Canadians for their actions and this apology was accompanied with a $300 million compensation package. But it is stories such as Ito’s that lead towards healing. It is the telling that eases the pain and relieves the emotional distress to restore health.

The Emperor’s Orphans
by Sally Ito
Turnstone Press, c.2018, 208pp., $21.00
ISBN#973-0-88801-567-9 (softcover)

Mary Barnes is a writer living in Wasaga Beach, Ontario.

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