'Better to light one candle ...'; Retired doctor will once again witness history
Dr. Henry Shibata was just 16 when he arrived with his parents and younger siblings in Hiroshima, one year after the atomic bomb had laid the city to waste.
"I was flabbergasted by the utter destruction of the city. It was a complete desert," recalled Shibata, now 89.
"The whole thing was gone. As far as the eye could see there were no buildings."
It was his first trip to Japan - the first time the Vancouver-born Shibata had ever been outside Canada. It felt like a great adventure. But the reality was darker. In 1946, after four years of wartime internment, after the Canadian government had stripped them of property and possessions, the Shibatas were no longer welcome in their own country.
Shibata will be back in Japan next month, this time as one of two Japanese-Canadians selected by the Japanese Embassy to attend the enthronement of the Emperor at Tokyo's Imperial Palace.
For the Japanese it is the dawn of a new age, the year Reiwa 1. For Henry Shibata, it's is another chance to witness history by a man who has witnessed more than his share.
Henry Shibata was born in Vancouver in 1930, the eldest child of seven.
His father, who had come to Canada from Japan in the mid-1920s, worked as a cook and had his own restaurant in Vancouver's Japantown. It was a happy childhood - despite the occasional taunts of "Jap!" from white children - playing with friends and watching Vancouver's legendary Asahi baseball team at nearby Oppenheimer Park.
But after war broke out following the Dec. 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, life for Japanese-Canadians would never be the same. Two months later, the order came from Prime Minister Mackenzie King to remove and detain all Canadians of Japanese descent on the west coast.
"We had no choice. I remember my father saying we had to prepare our things for sale or turn them over to a custodian," Shibata said from his Ottawa home, decades worth of black and white photos and memorabilia scattered across the table in front of him.
"I remember helping my father put all these things in wooden boxes that he'd made and taking them to the custodial office."
It was one of the darkest hours for civil rights in Canada. The Japanese-Canadians, many of whom like Shibata had been born in Canada, were packed into trucks and taken to an empty agricultural hall at Vancouver's fairgrounds, more than 2,000 of them crammed into bunk beds hastily set up on the arena's dirt floor. The place stank of animals and close-packed humans. Toilets and washing facilities were inadequate. Families had to hang sheets around their beds just to be able to change their clothes in privacy.
Eventually they were loaded aboard a special train and taken to a vacant field in B.C.'s Slocan Valley near Nelson, 400 kilometres and several mountain ranges away from their Vancouver home. Lemon Creek, which the internees were forced to build themselves, was one of two dozen internment camps, mainly in the B.C. Interior, but in five other provinces as well. The Shibatas would spend the next fours years as prisoners in their own country.
"For the older people it was a terrible disaster," Shibata said. "They lost their homes, they lost their property, they had to go to a strange place and start their lives over, with only what they could carry."
For kids, however, the internment often seemed like more of an adventure. There was none of the casual racism they'd experienced in Canadian society because everyone was Japanese.
"It was like being at summer camp all the time. The older people and the missionaries made sure we were educated. We had a yard to play football and soccer and baseball. In the summer we could go fishing. But for our parents it was a hardship, my mother especially. Imagine: seven kids in a place with no toilets, no electricity and just coal oil lamps."
Shibata was recently featured in a documentary to air on Japan's NHK television about how white Christian missionaries set up high schools after the B.C. government refused to educate children past elementary grades. He remained lifelong friends with one of his teachers.
News of the war's end came as a shock, especially for those internees who had smuggled in shortwave radios and followed Japanese propaganda broadcasts that claimed victory after victory on the battlefield.
There was an even bigger shock in store when the families, Shibata's included, learned all their prewar property and possessions had been sold off, ostensibly to help the B.C. government pay for the cost of their internment.
And there was more bad news: They would never be allowed to return to the coast and could either settle elsewhere in Canada or board a ship to Japan.
The rampant racism apparent even in the prime minister, who confided in his diary after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: "It is fortunate that the use of the bomb should have been upon the Japanese rather than upon the white races of Europe."
Shibata's parents chose to return to Japan. If they felt bitter, they never let on. Shibata never asked them about their feelings toward Canada. "They never said anything to me and I never asked. In Japan, kids don't ask their parents about their feelings and parents don't talk to their kids about all their problems," he said.
Shibata was shocked when the family arrived in Hiroshima. Though almost all his Japanese relatives had survived, postwar Japan was in shambles.
"Once I got to Japan and the reality sunk in, it was a terrible thing. I never in my darkest moment realized it was such a dark place to be," he said. "I imagined a nice rosy country like my parents had told me about, and here it was utter chaos. The people were in rags. The black market was rampant. The food was hard to find."
Slowly, however, life returned to normal, thanks in part, he said, to the money and support that flowed into Japan from its American occupiers. The city was rebuilt. Shibata, a bookworm who had once dreamt of becoming a journalist, with his father's encouragement entered medicine at Hiroshima's university.
He spent a year working as a researcher with the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, a controversial agency that studied the lasting effects of the atomic bomb but provided no medical care to its victims. Most of the victims Shibata saw had suffered horrible radiation burns.
"The cancer came later," he said. "The ABCC studied and saw all the bad things that happen to the human body from the atomic bomb, but they didn't offer any treatment," he said.
"Seeing these people come to the clinic, they had burns all over their body, their white blood cell count was way down and you knew they were going to die. But in those days, you couldn't do anything about it.
"One of the things is that seeing these people sick and dying of radiation, it made me realize that being a doctor I must do something to help these people."
The ABCC was eventually disbanded because of complaints it didn't offer treatment to survivors and allegations from the Japanese that the Americans were suppressing the true number of casualties from the atomic bomb.
Eventually, Shibata went to the U.S. to train as a surgeon in Boston and in 1961, finally returned to Canada, settling in Montreal. He says his experience in Hiroshima, and his mother's death from throat cancer, motivated him to become a surgical oncologist.
"Surgeons were the first oncologists. Cancer had to be cut out. There was no other way to treat it," he said. "Chemotherapy was just starting. Radiology was just starting. The way to cure cancer was with the knife."
Shibata spent five decades at Montreal's Royal Victoria Hospital and teaching at McGill. One of his proudest accomplishments was being one of the pioneering oncologists who took part in a 15-year study that found lumpectomies were as effective a treatment for breast cancer as a full mastectomy. The study profoundly changed the way breast cancer is treated.
He founded the Montreal Academy Club, which offers support and encouragement to Japanese-Canadian students and researchers. He was instrumental in helping Montreal and Hiroshima become twin cities. He is a member of the Association of Japanese-Canadians and has been recognized for his work helping bridge the two cultures.
He retired in 2015 and moved to Ottawa to be closer to his youngest son and to help care for his wife, Nachiko, who is suffering from a loss of memory.
He estimates he's been back to Japan 30 time over the years, but none have been like the honour of attending the Oct. 22 Enthronement ceremony. He will be joined by Setsuko Thurlow, 87, who survived the Hiroshima bomb and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017 for her work with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.
It took 40 years for the Canadian government to make amends to the 22,000 Japanese-Canadians who were interned during the war. In 1988, then-prime minister Brian Mulroney delivered a "formal and sincere apology" in the House of Commons and announced a $300-million compensation fund for survivors.
After a lifetime of service to medicine and to Canada, does Shibata think back on his family's internment with bitterness? "People ask me that. Why would you want to come back to a country that discriminated against you?" he said. "Let's face it. There's no point in being mad all the time. There's an old saying that I always treasure. It's better to light one candle than the curse the darkness. I don't know who said that, but I took it to heart.
Don't complain all the time. Light one small candle.
"The past is past. People were bad.