This week in history 

Masumi Mitsui (1887–1987)

Masumi Mitsui at the end of the First World War after he had been promoted to Sergeant. © David R. Mitsui

For the week of April 22, 2024.

On April 22, 1987, Masumi Mitsui died at the age of 100. The last surviving Japanese Canadian veteran of the First World War (1914–1918), he was among the estimated 222 Canadians of Japanese descent to serve in uniform on the Western Front.

Born in Tokyo, Japan, in 1887, Mitsui immigrated to Canada in 1908 at the age of 21. He first landed in Victoria, British Columbia, where he worked as a dishwasher at a hotel and a chauffeur before moving to the mainland and working on a farm. When the First World War began, Mitsui and other Japanese Canadian men sought to enlist in the military but enlistment centres in British Columbia were generally not welcoming to Canadians of Asian descent. Mitsui travelled to Calgary to join the Canadian Expeditionary Forces on September 1, 1917.

Mitsui was part of the 192nd Battalion before being transferred to the 9th Reserve Battalion and then assigned to the 10th Battalion, when he arrived in France. A few months after he fought in the Battle of Vimy Ridge, Mitsui demonstrated his leadership and bravery at Hill 70 in August 1917. There, he led a platoon of 35 Japanese Canadian soldiers and was one of only five to survive the battle. In recognition of his valour, Mitsui received the Military Medal. He was promoted to Lance-Corporal soon thereafter and then to Sergeant in 1919.

When the war ended, Mitsui returned to British Columbia. The all-Japanese Canadian Legion Local Branch No. 9 was founded there in the mid-1920s, with Mitsui as its first president. In 1931, he led First World War veterans and their supporters in successfully lobbying legislators in Victoria for the right to vote, arguing that their military service more than earned them the right to cast a ballot in provincial elections. It would be another 18 years before other Japanese Canadians won the same right to vote.

Mitsui was operating a 17-acre poultry vegetable farm in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, with his wife and four children, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The attack inflamed anti-Japanese sentiment in Canada and was used by the government to justify the removal of approximately 22,000 people of Japanese descent from the Pacific Coast. When forced to register as an “enemy alien,” Mitsui protested by throwing his First World War medals on the table at the registration centre asking, “What are the good of my medals?” In the months that followed, the Mitsui family were uprooted from their farm, which was dispossessed and sold without their consent, and they were forced to live at an internment camp at Greenwood, British Columbia, for the duration of the Second World War (1939–1945).

Mitsui lived the rest of his life in Hamilton, Ontario, and marked Remembrance Day privately in the years that followed. On August 2, 1985, he was the guest of honour at the re-dedication of the Japanese Canadian War Memorial at Stanley Park in Vancouver, British Columbia. As he stood at attention, saluted, and re-lit the eternal flame atop the cenotaph, he stated, “I have done my last duty for my comrades. They are gone but not forgotten.”

Japanese Canadian Soldiers of the First World War and the Fight to Win the Vote and Japanese Canadian Internment were designated as national historic events in 2011 and 1984, respectively, and Vimy Ridge was designated as a national historic site in 1997. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada advises the Government of Canada on the commemoration of national historic events—which evoke significant moments, episodes, movements, or experiences in the history of Canada—and national historic sites, which can include a wide range of historic places such as gardens, complexes of buildings, and cultural landscapes.

The National Program of Historical Commemoration relies on the participation of Canadians in the identification of places, events, and persons of national historic significance. Any member of the public can nominate a topic for consideration by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. Learn how to participate in this process.

Check out previously published articles in the This Week in History archives.

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