Japanese Canadian Soldiers of the First World War and the Fight to Win the Vote: Designated a ‘National Historic Event’ 2011

Veterans at the Japanese Canadian War Memorial in Vancouver, 1939. Photo courtesy of Lieutenant-Colonel Roy Kawamoto, Kelowna, BC.

Veterans at the Japanese Canadian War Memorial in Vancouver, 1939. Photo courtesy of Lieutenant-Colonel Roy Kawamoto, Kelowna, BC.

(en française)

Resolutely determined to serve their country despite not being fully recognized as equal citizens, 222 Japanese Canadian soldiers overcame prejudice and barriers to enlistment and fought for Canada on the Western Front of the First World War between 1916 and 1918.

Within days of the declaration of war by Great Britain and her Empire against Germany in 1914, members of the Japanese-Canadian community volunteered in recruiting offices in British Columbia to fight in the western European theatre. Initially refused entry to the Canadian Army, the volunteers were subsequently organised into a battalion by the Canadian Japanese Association and professionally trained, but the Canadian government, catering to domestic feelings, refused to mobilise these troops. By joining units in various provinces, 222 Japanese Canadians fought with distinction on the Western Front, where they initially confronted anti-Asian prejudice but earned the respect of their commanders and fellow soldiers while they battled enemy forces. Tragically, nearly one-fourth of them were killed in action and 92 were wounded.

Excluded by law from the right to vote, returning Japanese Canadian veterans pointed to their war service as a practical reason why this marginalised community should be granted the vote after the end of hostilities. Building on their contribution to the war effort, the surviving Japanese Canadian veterans launched a concerted grass-roots campaign in 1920 to gain the franchise which, by law, they had previously been barred from exercising in provincial, and hence also in federal elections. They continued this campaign through the 1920s, especially through the efforts of British Columbia Branch No. 9 of the Canadian Legion, which the Japanese Canadian veterans formed in 1926. In 1931, the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia voted to enfranchise the Japanese-Canadian veterans and, within 18 years, all Asian-Canadians received the full rights of Canadian citizenship. These new voters and those who followed could look to the sacrifices of the Japanese Canadian soldiers during the First World War who paved the way for their attainment of citizenship, while all Canadians should celebrate the achievement of equal rights by Asian Canadians.

In 2011, on the recommendation of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, the Honourable Peter Kent, Minister of the Environment, announced the designation of the Japanese Canadian Soldiers of the First World War and the Fight to Win the Vote as a National Historic Event. In due course, Parks Canada will consult with the Japanese Canadian community to plan the installation of a plaque honouring the memory of these brave soldiers who helped advance our concepts of citizenship while standing guard for Canada.

Further Reading & Resources
Lyle Dick, “Sergeant Masumi Mitsui and the Japanese Canadian War Memorial: Intersections of National, Cultural, and Personal Memory,” Canadian Historical Review, Vol. 91, Issue 3 (September 2010), 435-63.

Women’s Suffrage in Japan in the 20th Century

In 1931, the women’s movement might have seemed ready for a great leap forward. Legislation providing restricted suffrage had passed a vote in the Lower House of the Diet. Soon enough, however, that victory proved hollow when the bill failed in the Upper House (Mackie 92). Worse was to come. Shortly thereafter the Japanese government had no time for anything but the pursuit of war on the Asian mainland. Japan’s 1933 withdrawal from the League of Nations confirmed the worsening scenario for civil rights generally. Expansionist and militarist Japan nevertheless produced new roles for women. With the majority of the male population at war, more women prolonged their educations, postponed marriage, and entered the work force (Liddle and Nakajima 127).

While the Japanese government remained committed to women’s subordiantion, war dramatically altered gender relations. Common hardship sometimes brought diverse groups of women into new communion.. Pervasive nationalism and xenophobia left, however, no room to reconsider the dominant political regime.

With the end of the war, women found themselves facing dramatically changed circumstances and ideologies. The United States occupation meant the dismantling of Japan’s ‘ie system’, enshrined in the Civil Code of 1898, which confined women to the home and placed the Emperor and the state before the individual.. American General Douglas MacArthur himself considered the authority of male heads of households as “’feudalistic’ (McClain 549). The entire Japanese community now had to make sense of democracy on the American model. .

Lieutenant Ethel Weed, an American Women’s Information Officer, brought civil code reform to the forefront in Japan through government-sponsored mass media, such as the weekly “Women’s Hour” radio program, which hosted round table discussions on political concerns (Tsuchiya 145). On December 17th, 1945 Japanese women were granted the right to vote (McClain 529). Prior to the 1946 election, the first in which women voted in Japanese history, Weed toured the nation, sponsoring talks on women’s issues and urging their exercise of voting rights (Tsuchiya 149).

67% of eligible women voted. Thirty-nine were elected to the House of Representatives where they represented 8.4 percent of members, a proportion that has not been equaled since (Mackie 124).

Works Cited

Liddle, Joanna and Sachiko Nakajima. Rising Suns, Rising Daughters: Gender, Class and Power in Japan. New York: Zed Books, 2000.

Mackie, Vera. Feminism in Modern Japan: Citizenship, Embodiment and Sexuality. Cambridge: University of Cambridge, 2003.

McClain, James L. Japan: A Modern History. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002.

Tsuchiya, Yuka. “Democratizing the Japanese Family: The Role of the Civil Information and Education Section in the Allied Occupation 1945-1952”. The Japanese Journal of American Studies. No. 5 (1993-1994): 137-162.

Lt. Ethel B. Weed

Lt. Ethel B. Weed (third from left) sits with Japanese women’s rights advocates (US National Archives).

Lieutenant Ethel B. Weed, an American Women’s Information Officer, pressed tirelessly for revisions to the Civil Code of 1898 (Tsuchiya 142). Weed brought civil code reform to the forefront of women’s issues in Japan through government-sponsored mass media, such as the weekly “Women’s Hour” radio program, which hosted round table discussions on a variety of women’s political concerns (145). Prior to the 1946 election, the first election in which women were able to vote in Japanese history, Weed toured the nation, sponsoring talks on women’s issues and urging women to exercise their new voting rights (149). Japanese women had a great deal to say about family law reforms. They expressed grievances over the inability to hold a cheating husband accountable and the absence of legal rights for women who remarried, and Weed diligently recorded these questions and complaints (150).

The resulting new Civil Code of 1948 was the culmination of Weed and her dedicated team’s work over the past several years. In the document’s own words: “This Code must be construed in accordance with honoring the dignity of individuals and the essential equality of both sexes” (“Civil Code” p. 2; Note 1: Original Japanese). These early reforms and the restructuring, “democratization” of the family system represented the beginning of a dramatic paradigm shift for Japanese women’s personal identities. This new system not only liberated legally, but also emphasized the importance of the individual over the group. For the first time in Japanese history, regardless of class, women were being encouraged to embrace individual desires and ambitions. However, this was largely limited to “official stances” of the occupation government. The pressures and realities of family life remained for women already married or caring for children, and many of Japan’s conservative male politicians remained in favor of reinstating many aspects of the family-state, long after it had been dismantled.

Notes

Note 1: Original Japanese この法律は、個人の尊厳と両性の本質的平等を旨として、解釈しなければならない

Works Cited

Tsuchiya, Yuka. “Democratizing the Japanese Family: The Role of the Civil Information and Education Section in the Allied Occupation 1945-1952”. The Japanese Journal of American Studies. No. 5 (1993-1994): 137-162.

“Civil Code (Act No. 89 of 1896)”. Government of Japan Cabinet Secretariat. Trans. of “民法 (明治二十九年法律第八十九号)”. Translations of Laws and Regulations. <http://www.cas.go.jp/jp/seisaku/hourei/data2.html>.