The Canadian Japanese Volunteer Corps

Yasushi Yamazaki, president of the Canadian Japanese Association (CJA) from 1909-1917, was a man of ideals. One of the early features in his newspaper, the Tairiku Nippo, was an expose of Japanese prostitution in Canada: he believed that brothels were contributing to prejudice against Japanese immigrants, and discouraged engagement in this profession for the sake of the community's reputation. With the First World War, he saw an opportunity for Japanese Canadians to prove themselves by  offering their service and their lives along with other Canadians: surely the Canadian public would then come to see them as equals. The son of a samurai family, Yamazaki believed in the honour of battle, and saw Japanese Canadians fighting not just for king and country, but also for civil liberties and against racism.

Due to racist politics in British Columbia influencing federal decisions, the Canadian Expeditionary Force was reluctant to take in Japanese Canadian soldiers, so the Canadian Japanese Association funded and organized an all-Japanese unit for the Canadian army. Lieutenant Robert Colquhoun, commanding officer of the reserve unit No. 19 Company of the Canadian Army Service Corps, offered to oversee their basic training. Recruitment for this group began in December 1915.

The Tairiku Nippo newspaper ran notices encouraging men to volunteer, and the CJA hosted community meetings where speakers urged people to enlist. Iku Kumagawa was among them - he explained:

“Chivalry is an essential virtue of us Japanese. We come to the aid of the weak and are fearless before the powerful. Now we have an excellent opportunity to show that in both spirit and actions we are not inferior to white people.”

 

Tadashi (Tow) Inouye's military will. Copy from Library and Archives Canada, courtesy of Michiko Yano Shuttleworth.

Tadashi (Tow) Inouye's military will. Copy from Library and Archives Canada, courtesy of Michiko Yano Shuttleworth.

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Postcards to and from Japanese Canadian soldiers in Europe, circa 1916-1918. Tomomi Okutake collection: NNM 2016.6.1.3.1-4; Iwasaki family collection: NNM 2016.21.1.1.4

The Canadian Japanese Volunteer Corps began training in January 1916. Over 220 men trained as part of the Corps until its disbandment in May. Despite initial messages of encouragement relayed unofficially to Colquhoun and community members, the Canadian government ultimately refused the offer of an all-Japanese Canadian battalion.

The members of the Corps were not deterred. They immediately formed the Association of Japanese Volunteers, and one of its vice presidents, Kumagawa, was among the first to travel to Alberta in order to enlist with the 13th Canadian Mounted Rifles in Calgary. Kumagawa was soon promoted to Corporal in the legendary Princess Patricia Light Infantry Unit. Over two hundred of his comrades followed suit, travelling at their own expense to enlist in Alberta.

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Private Tomomi Okutake's discharge certificate, 1919. Tomomi Okutake collection, NNM 2016.6.1.2.1

The Canadian Japanese Volunteer Corps in front of Cordova Hall where they trained, 1916. NNM 1994.70.8

The Canadian Japanese Volunteer Corps in front of Cordova Hall where they trained, 1916. NNM 1994.70.8