A lifelong fighter: Masumi Mitsui

Masumi Mitsui was born in Tokyo on Oct 7, 1887. The son of a soldier, he tried to enter the Japanese navy, but failed the entrance exam. Feeling like he had failed Japan, he decided to emigrate to North America, arriving in Canada in 1908. He was working as a waiter when he enlisted in the Canadian Over-seas Expeditionary Force to fight in the First World War in September 1916, and was eventually taken on strength in the Fighting Tenth battalion.

At the battle of Hill 70, Vimy Ridge in August 1917, Mitsui led 35 men into battle, and all but five were killed. He was officially cited as having "showed marked ability and efficiency in leading his men", and was also commended for salvaging a Lewis gun and ammunition after its crew were all injured or killed, taking over the firing and causing enemy casualties. He was even noted to have done "excellent work in mopping up and assisting the wounded" after the battle was finished. Subsequently, he was awarded a Military Medal for "conspicuous bravery and distinguished conduct" in this battle. He was honourably discharged on April 23, 1919 with the rank of Sergeant.

After returning home from his service with the Fighting Tenth, Masumi Mitsui became president of the Japanese Branch #9 of the Canadian Legion, British Empire Service League (BESL). In this role, Mitsui, along with legion secretary Corporal Sainosuke Kubota and CJA officer Saburo Shinobu, took up another fight: for the right to vote. Many Japanese Canadian veterans had enlisted for precisely this reason, but they did not receive voting rights upon returning home. After years of struggle, in 1931 the provincial government finally passed a bill allowing Japanese Canadian veterans the right to vote, a bill that passed by a single vote on its third attempt through the legislature. But this victory was bittersweet: although the veterans could now vote, the right was not extended to their families.

Mitsui was still president of the legion in December 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in the United States and Canada followed its ally in declaring war on Japan. As representative of the Japanese Canadian veterans, Mitsui sent the following message in a telegram to the Prime Minister and the Minister of Defence:

"The members of the Japanese Branch of the Canadian Legion, BESL are resolved to pledge their unflinching loyalty to Canada, as they did in the Last Great War, and furthermore resolved to make supreme sacrifice in defence of Canada in this unprecedented crisis which faces her now. Although they are well on in years, they are fully prepared to serve in the defence of the principle for which Canada stands whenever and wherever their services are required."


Medals for service in the First World War, circa 1920s. Left to right: Military Medal, British War Medal, Victory Medal.

When Mitsui learned that his Port Coquitlam poultry farm was to be seized and he and his family would be forcibly relocated one hundred miles inland from the coast, he threw his medals on the floor of the BC Security Commission office, asking what good they were.

Mitsui represented his comrades in 1985 when he re-lit the Japanese Canadian War Memorial lantern in Stanley Park, Vancouver, which had been extinguished during the wave of anti-Japanese racism in 1942. He passed away in 1987, months shy of his 100th birthday.


Identification discs, circa 1916.

Sergeant Mitsui (seated, in wheelchair) placing a wreath at the Japanese Canadian War Memorial in Stanley Park, 1985. NNM 1992.23

Sergeant Mitsui (seated, in wheelchair) placing a wreath at the Japanese Canadian War Memorial in Stanley Park, 1985. NNM 1992.23


Canteen, circa 1916.


Shoulder badge for 10th Battalion, circa 1916.

Legion pin, circa 1920s.

Legion pin, circa 1920s.


Watch, circa 1920s.

Artefacts on this page belonged to Masumi Mitsui. Loan courtesy of David Mitsui.