Award-winning filmmaker, magazine editor and postumous author, Jesse Nishihata was born Hideo Nishihata in 1929 in Vancouver, to immigrant Japanese parents. Jesse spent his childhood on Powell Street, the former Japantown, where his father owned a tin metal shop. He was thirteen when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. His family was expelled from the BC coast and Jesse survived working in the sugar beet farms of Alberta. Later, he completed his education in Montreal and attended graduate school in London.

By the time Japanese-Canadians received an official apology from the Canadian government in 1988 after more than a decade of struggle for justice, Jesse was a well-established independent filmmaker who had been teaching film and media studies at Ryerson University and had already worked for 12 years as a contract producer for CBC. He brought the Japanese-Canadian internment story into Canadian homes as early as 1974 when he made Watari Dori: A Bird of Passage.

After the Canadian government redress to interned Japanese Canadians, Jesse became the first editor of the Nikkei Voice magazine. Jesse Nishihata died in 2006 after a long battle with Alzheimer?s Disease. Before he died, he wrote wrote a diary of his experiences growing up on Vancouver?s Powell Street, in the year before the Internment of Japanese-Canadians. His family self-published the book in 2017.


Powell Street Diary: A Remembrance of Life before Internment

by Jesse Nishihata, foreword by†Junji Nishihata

Montreal: Tombo Communications, 2017

$20.00 / 9781387054060

Reviewed by Patricia E. Roy


In the foreword to this fascinating little book, Junji Nishihata explains that it began when his late father, the award-winning documentary film-maker Jesse Nishihata, sketched the background for a proposed television series. The elder Nishihata imaginatively created a diary that he might have written as 12-year-old Hideo who lived on Powell Street, the centre of Vancouver?s Japanese community, in the ten months after Pearl Harbor.

Apart from describing the Latin origins of the word, ?diary,? a rather sophisticated observation for one so young, and minor discrepancies in some details, the ?diary? rings true. For example, Hideo mentioned how a classmate, Michiko Ishii, was always the first to volunteer. Now remembered as Midge Ayukawa, the author of Hiroshima Immigrants in Canada, 1891-1941 (UBC Press, 2008), she remained ?on the get up and go? for the rest of her days (p. 18).

Junji Nishihata, who was born after the war, compares the internment experience of Japanese-Canadians to the ?vivisection of the human heart? (p. 6). That was true for many adults; at least initially, it did not seem so for the mischievous Hideo. Some escapades were minor such as dropping pebbles on the tin roof of a Chinese restaurant from atop a neighbouring hotel. Others were more serious. A friend broke into a boarded-up Japanese shoe store, took shoes, sold them to other shoe stores and second-hand dealers, and shared the proceeds with friends, including Hideo.

Jesse Nishihata

For Hideo, Japan was simply his parents? birthplace, but he did follow the exploits of the Imperial Japanese Navy in which an uncle served. Yet, like his classmates at Strathcona School, he believed ?There?ll always be an England? (p. 23) On the night of Pearl Harbor he and a pal pretended to be RAF pilots.

Surprisingly, no ?diary? entry refers specifically to the announcement in late February that all Japanese must move inland, but Hideo noted the arrival of new students from upcoast points and their later departure to Hastings Park. He was smitten with one new classmate, Christine from Woodfibre who briefly attended Strathcona School. On his first visit to see her at Hastings Park, he was astounded by the noise and crowded conditions and the contrast with the well-dressed white women quietly playing golf on the other side of the fence.

Japanese-Canadian men?s dormitory at the Pacific National Exhibition, 1942, awaiting internment. City of Vancouver Archives

With his mother and siblings, he remained at home on Powell Street until mid-September. Apart from no longer having to go to Japanese Language School and having to endure a curfew, many things continued as usual. He still visited friends and relatives, attended grade seven classes, played marbles and other games, collected bottles for pocket money, went to the movies (an avocation which led to a career), and gathered driftwood to fuel the kitchen stove.

Yet, Hideo was aware of the war with blackouts, air raid drills, subdued celebrations of Christmas and the New Year, Japanese being held at the Immigration Building, the round-up of fishing boats, and the decline of his father?s tinsmithing business. The elder Nishihata, a Japanese National, went peacefully when ordered to go to an interior road camp, but several of Hideo?s acquaintances hid until they were caught and sent to the Angler, Ontario internment camp.

The internment camp at Tashme, between Hope and Princeton. Photo courtesy of the Japanese Canadian Community Association

Moreover, Powell Street changed. Businesses closed and families left either on their own or to the government-operated camps. By the end of the school year as the grade eight students sang ?We are leaving Strathcona. We are the graduates,? he chanted instead: ?We are the evacuees? (p. 79).

Junji Nishihata of McGill University

Shipyard workers and their families moved into vacated residences. A boy from Saskatchewan was a friend until he made derogatory comments about the Japanese and the actions of their army in Nanking in 1937.

Eventually, with his mother and siblings, Hideo left for Tashme, the government operated camp just east of Hope, where his father was already building houses. A few paragraphs about Hideo?s life between leaving Vancouver and emerging as a film maker would have been a welcome addition to the foreword.

As a child?s view of the disintegration of Powell Street as a Japanese community, the ?diary? is an unusual contribution to memoirs of the critical months after Pearl Harbor. It would be a fine way of introducing Middle School students to the wartime experiences of the Japanese Canadians.


Patricia Roy



Powell Street Diary: A Remembrance of Life Before Internment (Lulu, 2017) $13.98 9781387054060

[BCBW 2019]