Terry Watada was a 19-year-old singer-songwriter searching for fodder when he asked his mother for the story of how she met his father. The inquiry was immediately rebuked: why would you want to know that?
Nevertheless, details surfaced that led to a song, and Watada subsequently learned of the Japanese-Canadian internment during the Second World War. It astounded him that his parents and older brother left Vancouver and wound up in Ontario as a result of the government-enforced expulsions from the British Columbia coast following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
“When I discovered that I had no past—I didn’t know what their lives were like and how I came to be and how we came to be in Toronto—that’s when I started doing research,” he says today, reached by the Georgia Straight at his Toronto home. “Talking to them, as reluctant as they were, they eventually did reveal stories.
“And then I started expanding and talking to other Japanese Canadians,” he continues. “I was just fascinated by the whole sense of community that was there before World War II, and even during the war, and how it became diffused throughout Canada afterwards.”
In the decades since that revelation, Watada has also written plays, poetry, nonfiction, fiction, and manga, emerging as an esteemed chronicler of Japanese-Canadian history. The Three Pleasures, his sophomore novel, builds on these accomplishments and looks at the exile that lasted from 1942 until 1949 and uprooted some 21,000 people.
Narrated by Daniel Sugiura, a young Powell Street–bred reporter with the New Canadian, the only real-life community publication that avoided government closure, the plot tracks the impacts of three men on the Japanese-Canadian resistance movement. Watanabe Etsuo, secretary of the Steveston Fishermen’s Association, strives to keep his family intact even if that means betraying his cohorts. Kaga Etsu, a steadfast supporter of the emperor, launches “a campaign of interference and protest in trying to upset the Canadian war machine”. Conspiring with authorities, Morii Etsuji, head of the criminal Black Dragon Society in Vancouver, urges Japanese Canadians to comply with the relocations.
Morii, a key figure in Watada’s 2007 debut novel, The Blood of Foxes, still exerts terror from the grave among the elder generation: “One in particular warned me that I was going to get threats, maybe even death threats,” Watada says. “I might be visited by violence and whatever else by these men who are still his supporters. I had to ask, ‘How old are these guys? Oh, they must be in their 80s? Good. I think I can outrun them.’ But the [legacy of] fear was still there.”
The Three Pleasures’ origins can be traced back to about the turn of the millennium, when Watada spoke to a prospective agent who encouraged him to do an epic novel. Response to the first draft was unenviable. “ ‘Oh, no. We want short novels now,’ ” Watada says, so he opted instead to write a loose trilogy covering Japanese Canadians before, during, and after the Second World War.
This allowed him to explore different characters and issues during the 10 years he spent on this second installment. Numerous events here “are true incidents. Others are made up by me but based on true facts.” (The novels bear the word Kuroshio on their title pages, a nod to the idea that the Japanese were brought to North America on that Pacific Ocean current.)
Like his 1997 short-story collection, Daruma Days, which conveyed the internment’s personal costs, The Three Pleasures proves Watada is a keen and worthy observer. More than depicting the discrimination and infighting fracturing the community, he sought to dispel the notion that Japanese Canadians were passive when the government seized their possessions and property, scattering individuals and families to remote regions of the B.C. Interior and beyond.
As Daniel reflects in the novel, “They didn’t care about the Germans and Italians living in this country; they only wanted us out of their industries, like logging, fishing, and mining. It was racism, pure and simple.”
Already dazed by this, and by the actions of Watanabe, Kaga, and Morii, Daniel grows further disenchanted as he travels across Canada, under the guise of journalism, and witnesses the despair gripping the internment camps. His accounts serve as a stark contrast to the censor-approved reports from actual copies of the New Canadian that appear through the novel.
The Three Pleasures memorializes those who endured the internment and offers a dispatch from past to present. In the wake of 9/11, Watada “noted that the front page of the newspapers looked exactly like the front page of the newspapers back in 1941”, after Pearl Harbor. The calls for internment of Muslims in America signalled to him that there was a need “to repeat and repeat the message, that you just can’t do this. It’s the constant reminders that have to be there.”
This belief in testimony underscores Watada’s works. In particular: “The value of storytelling, I think, comes through in the novel.
“That’s what I want to put forward,” he says, “you’ve got to tell these stories.”