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Japanese-Canadians in the Great War

A close look at the names inscribed on the tombstones of military cemeteries confirms the global dimension of the Great War in the Pas-de-Calais. In the extension of the communal cemetery in Aix-Noulette, three graves in particular draw the attention: resting side by side are Kichimatsu Sugimoto, killed on 24 August 1917; Tagakichi Fukui, killed on 21 September 1917; and Yoichi Kamakura, killed in combat near Lens on 26 August 1917, at the end of the battle for Hill 70.

Awarded the Military Medal on 4 July 1917, Kamakura was born in Japan in 1882 and arrived in Canada in 1908. The participation of the Japanese-Canadians in the First World War is a brief but uplifting tale within a much bigger story!

The Japanese started to arrive in the Canadian province of British Columbia from the 1870s onwards. When war broke out in August 1914, Japanese-Canadians were keen to enlist in the Canadian army, hoping to prove their loyalty to their new homeland, but were met with a categorical refusal, so the most determined of them headed to the country’s west coast. Close to two hundred Japanese – 196 to be precise – were finally incorporated into English-speaking battalions in Alberta, and set sail for Europe. In 1916, for example, the 52nd battalion included 42 Japanese soldiers: 14 were killed, buried in Aix-Noulette, Maroeuil, Vimy, Aubigny etc. Of the two hundred volunteers, 55 were never to return to their adopted homeland.

Sergeant Mitsui

Another Japanese-Canadian – or Canadian-Japanese – soldier distinguished himself with the 10th Infantry Battalion during the 3rd Battle of Ypres and then on Vimy Ridge in April 1917. Sergeant Masumi Mitsui, who was born on 7 October 1887, settled in Port Coquitlam near Vancouver, and was awarded the Military Medal at Vimy. He was then present during the fighting around the Canal du Nord in September 1918. Upon his return to Canada, where, like all Japanese veterans, he obtained the right to vote in 1931, Masumi Mitsui prospered as a poultry farmer, although his land and all his possessions were confiscated during the Second World War. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, he was separated from his children and interned in camps along with the other 22,000 Canadian-Japanese judged to be “hostile foreigners”. Appearing before a security committee, the furious veteran searched in his pockets, retrieved his medals and threw them on the floor, shouting: “What use are these?” It was only in 1985 that the Canadian government apologised for actions committed against its citizens of Japanese origin and on 2 August of the same year Masumi relit the flame at the monument that had been built in Stanley Park, Vancouver, in 1920 to pay homage to the country’s soldiers of Japanese extraction during the Great War.

The flame was extinguished after Pearl Harbor. Sergeant Masumi Mitsui died on 22 April 1987, a few months before his 100th birthday. On 8 September 2003, David Mitsui, the sergeant’s grandson, was invited by the Canadian Michel Gravel to attend the official naming ceremony of Place McKean in Cagnicourt, as Masumi had been involved in operations in this sector…

As can be seen from the above examples, the Japanese-Canadians are also part of the history of the Pas-de-Calais.