Mary Nagata is one of 76 Japanese Canadian UBC students from 1942 who will be honoured by UBC this May
Mary Nagata remembers how she felt, attending UBC in the 1940s as a young woman, the oldest of seven children and from a minority community.
“For me to be the first person in the family to go to university was a real privilege,” said Nagata, now 90 and living in Toronto. “In those days very few Japanese Canadians could go to university – it was expensive.”
Nagata’s parents were adamant that she and her siblings get a good education. Her father’s dream was for Nagata to graduate from UBC and go on to further studies at Cambridge University in England. But as a Japanese Canadian student on Canada’s West Coast during the Second World War, those dreams soon evaporated.
In 1942, 21,000 Japanese Canadians living on the Pacific coast were forced to leave their homes under the federal government’s internment policy.
Nagata was one of 75 Japanese Canadian students at UBC at the time. Unable to complete their studies as planned, their lives were changed forever.
Now, 70 years later, UBC is recognizing what was lost. This May, the university is awarding honorary degrees to the students who were unable to complete their UBC education, and re-conferring degrees on students who completed their studies but were unable to attend their graduation because of internment.
In 1940, Nagata and her family lived in Vancouver’s east side. At the age of 18, she began working towards a Bachelor of Arts degree with a major in English at UBC. Nagata remembers the joys of studying in the library, walking around the big campus, and being a member of the Japanese Students Club, a social group.
“University life was very, very nice for me,” she said. “I liked to study. And sharing ideas with other students was my joy. It was a very safe world.”
On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbour. That night, two police officers showed up at Nagata’s door and asked to see her father. Although he had done nothing wrong, Nagata said the police took him away “like a criminal.”
Nagata remembers asking – “Where are you taking my father?” “Why are you taking my father?” – but received no answers.
“The moment that I saw my father walking out that door between those two mounted police, something happened inside of me,” said Nagata. “Over the years, I could not bring myself to talk about it or think about it.”
Only recently has Nagata decided to share her experience from that traumatic period.
“I owe it to my father and mother; I owe it to the Canadian people to know what happened,” said Nagata. “It was not correct but it happened.”
“As my mother said, ‘it was shikata ga nai’– it couldn’t be helped.”
Shortly after her father was taken away, Nagata stopped going to UBC. Her mother was very upset but was determined to keep the family together and make sure her children got a good education.
Before the spring of 1942 when internment forced Japanese Canadians in Vancouver out of their homes, Nagata’s family decided to leave the city for Edmonton. They thought that prisoners, like Nagata’s father, might be interned nearby.
Nagata left Vancouver ahead of her family, taking a train filled with soldiers to Edmonton and renting a house. Nagata’s mother and siblings soon joined her. After a year, they headed east to Toronto, where the family settled permanently. Nagata and her remaining siblings still live there today.
Nagata’s father joined the family in Toronto towards the end of 1943 but he never spoke of his experience in a Prisoner of War camp.
As her parents had hoped, Nagata continued to focus on her education. She took some courses during the year in Edmonton and then went on to study at the University of Toronto. Nagata completed her English degree in 1946.
Nagata will not be in Vancouver for the congregation ceremony where the Japanese Canadian students of 1942 are to be honoured. But she is deeply gratified that finally, she will be formally welcomed into the UBC alumni family.
For more information about the Japanese Canadian students of 1942, visit: http://japanese-canadian-student-tribute.ubc.ca/