The cenotaph in front of Branch No.23 of the Royal Canadian Legion in Cumberland bears brass plaques to commemorate the war dead from wars over the past 100+ years. There are twenty-eight names inscribed on the WW1 plaques: all men from Cumberland. Most of the names are familiar with descendants or other family still in the area- Williamson, Whyte, Campbell, Armstrong – but some are less familiar, specifically two Japanese names: T. Matsumura and M.Yamada.
Japanese men are recruited from coal mining areas of Japan starting in 1891 to work in the Dunsmuir mines around Cumberland. Many come to settle but Toraki Matsumura and Masaji Yamada arrive without their families, probably dekasegi rodo – a group of single Japanese men working in foreign countries intending to return to Japan. These men follow the work where they can find it and depending on their skills work as miners but also fishermen, loggers and general labourers. By the beginning of WW1 more than 10,000 Japanese are living in Canada, the majority in British Columbia. It is likely Toraki Matsumura emigrated to Canada before 1905 but he doesn’t appear in Cumberland until after the 1911 census, working as a miner. Masaji Yamada arrives around the same time and is a general labourer.
In 1914 Great Britain declares war with Germany. As the Canadian Expeditionary Force starts to take shape, racism in British Columbia bars many Japanese living in the province from enlisting. Yasushi Yamazaki, president of the Canadian Japanese Association (CJA) and editor of the Tairku Nippo (Vancouver Continental Daily News ), a Japanese Canadian newspaper published in Vancouver, writes a series of articles appealing to Canadian authorities to accept Japanese Canadian recruits. He strongly feels that fighting for Canada is an opportunity to demonstrate the loyalty of Japanese immigrant men to their newly adopted country, which will help break down some of the barriers of discrimination.
Yamazaki’s appeal to the Canadian government is unsuccessful but by 1916, undeterred, he helps raise funds to form the Canadian Japanese Volunteer Corps in Vancouver and hires Robert Colquhoun, a commanding officer of an army reserve unit, and Sergeant Major Hall to train two hundred and twenty-seven Japanese Canadian men. Over the five-month training period, Yamazaki campaigns to have the Corps accepted into the Canadian army. Politicians in B.C. fear the enfranchisement of Japanese Canadians and are instrumental in this offer being refused by the War Cabinet in Ottawa, which leads to the disbandment of the Canadian Japanese Volunteer Corps in May 1916.
Yamazaki is determined. B.C. is unwilling to accept Japanese Canadian volunteers, but other provinces are not. Recruiting centres in Southern Alberta are contacted by the CJA and are happy to accept Japanese Canadian volunteers to fill their enlistment quotas. Twenty-five former CJVC volunteers, using their own money, ride to Medicine Hat to enlist into the 13th Canadian Mounted Rifles. Other B.C. based Japanese Canadian recruits follow, signing up with various units throughout southern Alberta. Matsumura joins the 192nd Overseas Battalion in Calgary on August 17, 1916. Yamada joins the same battalion in September 20th, 1916.
The 192nd sails from Halifax on the S.S. Empress of Britain on October 31, 1916. Privates Matsumura and Yamada are initially assigned to the 9th Battalion before their final placement into the 10th Battalion in January 1917. Concerned about the English-language proficiency of some of the recruits, the lieutenant-colonel of the 10th places all the Japanese Canadian soldiers in the battalion under the leadership of Private Mitsui who is fluent in English and Japanese. Mitsui proves to be an able leader. Although wounded in the Battle of Arleux on April 28, 1917, he returns to the front to lead 35 Japanese Canadians into the Battle for Hill 70 near Lens, France at Vimy Ridge in August 1917.
At 0425 on August 15th, 1917, Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Currie, commander of the Canadian Corps, begins the attack. Sadly, Toraki Matsumura and Masaji Yamada die in the first assault. In two subsequent attacks, a total of 1505 Canadian soldiers die. 9198 Canadian soldiers die between August 15th and August 25th. For Canadians, Vimy Ridge is considered one of the most significant, successful and bloodiest campaigns of the war, achieving a tactical victory which had eluded previous attacks by both the French and the English.
The families of Toraki Matsumura and Masaji Yamada might not have heard for months, if not longer, that their sons were dead. Next of kin for both are in Japan and notification would first go to the Japanese Consulate in Vancouver before any letters to family abroad. As part of the enlistment process, all soldiers are required to prepare a will. Masaji Yamada leaves his army pay to his parents in Japan but his metals and decorations are willed to his friend Masaichi Tanaha Esq., Box 129, Cumberland, B.C.
In the deadly trenches of France, the remaining Japanese Canadian volunteers hold their own, gaining a solid reputation for courage and steadfastness under fire. They are among the most highly decorated soldiers of WW1. Two hundred Japanese Canadians serve overseas, fifty-four die and many are wounded or incapacitated. Only twelve return to Canada unscathed.
The 7th, 10th and 16th Canadian Infantry Battalions assisted in the battle and the capture of Hill 70 at Vimy Ridge. For the 10th Battalion’s part in the battle, the remains of sixty-eight men killed-in-action have no known grave, including Toraki Matsumura. Between September 2010 and February 2014 eighteen sets of human remains are discovered during excavations for a construction project near the village of Vendin-le-Vieil, France near Lens where the battle for Hill 70 took place in 1917. The Department of National Defence is working with the Casualty Identification Program and genealogist Lyn Meehan, who provided some of the research for this blog, to seek out relatives of Toraki Matsumura to provide a genetic sample to confirm the identity of the unknown remains. If a positive genetic identification can be made with Toraki Matsumura his human remains will be interred in France. Toraki Matsumura can finally rest.
This process is especially challenging for researchers as place names and locations in Japan have changed since 1917. There are discrepancies in the military documents that show Toraki Matsumura as the son of Tohachi (or Torahachi) Matsumura of Tachioka (or Tatsuoka) Hanosonomura, Ulo-gun, Kumamoto-ken, Japan. He died in a battle over one hundred years ago, but mystery remains.
Toraki Matsumura and Masaji Yamada have their names engraved on a cenotaph in Stanley Park in Vancouver honouring Japanese Canadian veterans from WW1. They are also named at the Vimy Memorial in France. There is a photo in the Cumberland Museum and Archives collection of a memorial service at the Japanese Cemetery in Cumberland after the war, with photos of the two men prominently displayed on a shrine. One of the photos is a man in uniform, but the other is a studio portrait probably taken to send back to Japan to woo a wife to Canada. They came to Canada intending to go back to Japan but died for their new country.
Fourteen years after the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the B.C. Legislature, by a margin of one vote, elect to enfranchise the surviving Japanese Canadian Veterans of WW1.
Lest we forget.
With thanks to Linda Kawamoto Reid, Research Archivist NNMCC and Lyn Meehan, Genealogist
photo credits (in order): Dawn Copeman, courtesy of Nikkei National Museum NNM 2010.23.2.4.551, NNM 19184.108.40.206.9, NNM 199223.1.2. Featured image: Cumberland Museum & Archives C140.003