Keiko Mary Kitagawa (née Murakami), OBC, internment camp survivor, educator, human rights advocate (born 30 July 1934 on Salt Spring Island, BC). Kitagawa has been an important voice for a “silent generation” of Japanese Canadians who endured internment in the Second World War. During Japanese internment, the Murakami family was forced to relocate 10 times, moving from one deplorable condition to another in BC and Alberta. Later on, Kitagawa visited communities across BC to share her family story and to advocate for victims of incarceration. She pushed for change at institutions like the University of British Columbia (UBC), and among leaders in all three levels of government. In 2018, her work culminated in the province’s highest honour, the Order of British Columbia. As an elder, she frequently speaks at events to continue raising awareness about the internment of Japanese Canadians.
Early years on Salt Spring Island
The fourth of seven children, young Mary Kitagawa’s life was spent playing on the family’s seventeen-acre farm. The sprawling property on Sharp Road was part of a community of Japanese families in the northwestern part of Salt Spring Island. Her parents, Katsuyori and Kimiko Murakami (née Okano), bought their first property in 1932 next to Mary’s grandparents. The Murakami farm, home to 5,000 chickens, also produced an abundance of asparagus, berries and vegetables.
Later on in life, Kitagawa attributed her tenacity to her parents. Katsuyori and Kimiko were grounded in traditional values like education, hard work and perseverance. They often discussed politics and never shielded their children from difficult topics like racism. These conversations later shaped the vocal activist she became. “My parents were my role models. They are the architect of who I am today. They taught me to have courage to speak up for others,” said Kitagawa in a 2019 speech.
Second World War Internment
In December 1941, Japan attacked the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The Canadian government declared war on Japan. (See Second World War.) Soon after, Canadian officials considered detaining Japanese Canadians using the powers of the War Measures Act. Along with 22,000 other Japanese Canadians, the Murakamis witnessed their livelihood and beloved community vanish in a few months.
On 17 March 1942, Kimiko Murakami and her children watched in horror as an RCMP officer arrived at their home and arrested their father. Mary Kitagawa, seven at the time, saw the officer’s gun at eye level as he pushed her father into the back of a truck and took him away.
Eventually, the rest of the family was displaced from home. Kimiko and the children were herded into barns at Hasting Parks, vacated by animals previously caged there. The conditions were filthy and filled with the stench of urine and feces. It was at the next camp in Greenwood that they learned their father was alive at the prison labour camp in Yellowhead Pass. Eventually, they were reunited in the sugar beet farms of Magrath, Alberta. There, they were assigned to a small shack and had to drink from a pond for horses and cows. Due to poor living conditions in Alberta, they were relocated back to British Columbia, first to Popoff, then on to Bay Farm, Slocan, Rosebery and New Denver. The family was sent back to Alberta on two separate farms in Magrath. Finally, they moved to Cardston, AB where they struggled to run a restaurant for five years.
Life After Internment
In 1949, the War Measures Act was rescinded, however it wasn’t until 1954 that the family returned to Salt Spring Island — 12 years after they were incarcerated. They had nothing to return to as the government had seized everything they owned and sold it off when they were in exile. With savings from running the restaurant in Alberta, they started over on a plot of scrubland on Rainbow Road.
Life on the Island after incarceration was marred by episodes of vicious racism and death threats. For instance, Kitagawa tried to pursue a career in teaching on Salt Spring Island but it was difficult for her to land a job. The school board told her that she was unwelcome because of her Japanese heritage. She was later hired at Vancouver’s Kitsilano Secondary School and the Delta school district. When her two children graduated from high school, Kitagawa retired to pursue other interests.
In retirement, Kitagawa took a few courses in Japanese language and Asian Studies at UBC. That’s where she met Professor René Goldman who encouraged her to share her family story and the traumatic events of incarceration. She began to give talks at schools and community events reliving the painful past.
Another pivotal moment of change occurred in 2006 when she came across an article in the Vancouver Sun about a federal building in Vancouver being named after Howard Green. Green was a former Conservative Member of Parliament, who once called for the displacement of Japanese Canadians. His name was so often mentioned in the Murakami household when Mary was growing up that she instantly recognized it all those years later. That year, she wrote to the federal government, objecting to the naming. As a result of lobbying efforts, in 2007 the building was renamed in honour of Douglas Jung, the first Chinese Canadian Member of Parliament in Canada.
It’s been said that Kitagawa’s accomplishments were remarkable because she didn’t hold any positions of power but instead achieved her goals as an ordinary citizen. To her, one of the most challenging and rewarding campaigns was getting UBC to confer honorary degrees to 76 students of Japanese descent who were expelled in 1942. After an initial rejection of her proposal and four years of advocacy, a ceremony finally took place in 2012. Of the 76 former students, only 23 were still alive when the degrees were awarded. The university also created the Asian Canadian and Asian Migration Studies program as a tribute to the students who were expelled. Eight years after the ceremony, Kitagawa herself was awarded an honorary degree from UBC in recognition of her advocacy work.
Kitagawa was also a key member of the human rights committee of the Greater Vancouver Japanese Canadian Citizens’ Association. She was involved in influencing Vancouver City Council to apologize in 2013 for a motion unanimously passed in 1942 calling for “the removal of the enemy alien population from the Pacific coast to central parts of Canada.”
With her husband Tosh Kitagawa by her side, the pair have dedicated their lives towards a more just society. Over the years, they have given their time and energy to various organizations in BC including Landscapes of Injustice, Powell Street Festival and the Japanese Garden Society of Salt Spring Island, to name a few. True to their spirit of generosity, they have mentored countless others along the way.