Cy Saimoto was the embodiment of the Japanese-Canadian experience

Globe & Mail - November 3, 2010

In his 82 years, Vancouver entrepreneur Cy Saimoto toiled in an internment camp, built a company and shook hands with an emperor.

The arc of his life – from the dark days when his family was uprooted from the coast, to his giddy delight when Japan’s royal couple visited Vancouver in 2009 – mirrors the trajectory of the Japanese-Canadian experience in British Columbia over the past century. He has died at 82.

“We always told him that he was living history,” says his daughter, Laura Saimoto. “His life and the immigrant experience and rebuilding after the war – he lived through that whole era.”

Cy Hisao Saimoto was born in 1928 in Steveston, B.C. fishing village that at the turn of the century was a beacon for Japanese immigrants. The sixth of 10 children, he grew up in a community where families were large, work days were long and children played at the ocean’s edge. The sounds of Japanese rang through village streets and shops, making Steveston as much of a ‘Japantown’ – and as much as a ghetto – as Vancouver’s Powell Street enclave.

His parents insisted that Saimoto and his siblings attend Japanese school after regular, English-language school – something that he balked at, preferring to play outside. But it likely played a role in his lifetime commitment to Japanese language and culture.

By the time he was a teenager, the family was well-established. His grandfather owned four fish-packing boats, which were leased to fishing crews that numbered 200 in peak season. The family owned a car and lived in a two-storey house with a big front porch.

Those prosperous days ended on Dec. 7, 1941, with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. On Dec. 8, more than a thousand Japanese-Canadian fishing boats were impounded. By early 1942, mass evacuations had begun. The Saimotos, along with hundreds of other families, lost nearly everything they owned.

For the rest of his days, Saimoto would be haunted by the image of Japanese-Canadians, including family friends, crowded in the stables of Vancouver’s Hastings Park, from where rail cars would carry them to ghost towns in the interior.

The Saimotos wound up in the former gold-mining town of Minto. At Minto, Saimoto’s grandfather and father were soon running logging crews. He worked as a labourer – clearing brush, loading and unloading trucks, slinging blocks of ice in an icehouse. He finished high school in Revelstoke.

The family returned to the coast in 1949, a year after Japanese Canadians were granted the right to vote and by which time, the last remaining restrictions on Japanese-Canadians’ movement in Canada had finally been lifted.

Saimoto’s father and grandfather started over, launching an import-export business that specialized in shipping B.C. salmon roe to Japan. Saimoto also went into business, with the Great West Paper Box Co. Ltd., in 1955. He served as chairman until he died and the company is now run by his two daughters.

Told that golf was popular with businessmen, he took up the sport, becoming one of the first non-white members of the Point Grey Golf & Country Club. Around the same time, Saimoto also went house-shopping, determined to find a home where his parents could live out their days in comfort. He and his father went door-to-door in Kerrisdale, a well-to-do neighbourhood on the city’s west side. Many homeowners slammed the door in his face, saying they did not want to sell to a ‘Jap,’ Laura recounts. Finally, one homeowner was receptive, saying his money was as good as anybody else’s. Saimoto bought that house in 1955 and lived there for the rest of his life. Until he became ill in June, he went to his office daily to keep an eye on company affairs.

He devoted countless hours to the Vancouver Buddhist Temple and the Vancouver Japanese Language School and Hall. The school and hall – in the heart of Vancouver’s Japantown – opened in 1906 and have operated since, except between 1942 and 1952, when the property was confiscated and used first by the Canadian military and then by local businesses.

In 1953, after a lengthy campaign by Japanese-Canadians in Vancouver, half of the property was turned over to the community. Of all the assets seized from Japanese-Canadians during the war, the school is the only property to have been returned.

As the years passed, Vancouver’s Japantown fell on hard times, squeezed by the poverty and social problems of the Downtown Eastside. Saimoto, however, never gave up on the neighbourhood. He spearheaded the construction of a new temple and an expansion of the school.

In 2009, Japan’s Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko visited Canada, marking the first time that the Emperor had been to Canada since 1953, when he visited as the crown prince. When the royal couple’s official itinerary was announced, it did not include a visit to the Language School in what had become a rough-edged neighbourhood.

Aghast, Saimoto and others launched a fierce campaign, writing politicians, tapping connections in Vancouver and Japan and insisting that the historic school merited a stop on the royal tour. After weeks of behind-the-scenes lobbying, those efforts paid off, with officials even acquiescing to Saimoto’s insistence that more people be allowed inside the school to meet the royal couple and that there be minimal restrictions on crowds outside.

Cy Saimoto, Honourary Chairman of the Japanese Language School,
raises his arms while escorting visiting Emperor Akihito of Japan (L) in Vancouver, B.C. July 12, 2009. --

When the royal couple visited the site, Saimoto was there to greet them. As the couple departed in a chauffeured limousine, waving at the crowds that lined the street in front of the school, he could not stop grinning.

“It meant a lot to the people, to the Japanese community. And the Downtown Eastside. Because the first Japanese settlement was here,” he said at the time.

In November, 2009, he travelled to Japan to receive the Order of the Rising Sun from the Emperor, in recognition of a lifetime of volunteering in the Japanese-Canadian community.

He leaves his wife Ritsu and his children Mark, Laura and Debbie.

Namu Amida Butsu