Surrey Museum exhibit explores the personal stories of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War

This February marks the 80th anniversary of the dispossession of Japanese Canadians in the 1940s, when approximately 22,000 Japanese Canadians in British Columbia were forcibly removed from their homes and stripped of their businesses and of their property by the federal government.

This period of history is explored in Broken Promises, a traveling exhibition on view until April 24 at the Museum of Surrey.

The exhibit presents the personal stories of members of seven Japanese Canadian families who were interned during the Second World War. Its title comes from government promises to protect their property – from their land, homes and farms to their fishing boats, pets and other possessions – all of which have been sold without consent.

It is co-organized by the Nikkei National Museum in Burnaby with the Royal British Columbia Museum and the research collective Landscapes of Injustice.

Many Japanese Canadians were forcibly evicted from their homes and stripped of their possessions during the 1940s, promised that their possessions would be protected. Instead, their possessions were sold. (Kiran Singh)

The Surrey exhibit also highlights the stories of Surrey residents of Japanese descent.

“If you were to imagine the map of Surrey and all around it would have been [filled with] Farmers. It would have been Japanese Canadian farmers,” said Lorene Oikawa, lifelong Surrey resident and president of the National Association of Japanese Canadians. His grandfather, a pitcher for the Canadian-Japanese Asahi baseball team in Vancouver, was among the thousands who were forced from their homes and possessions during the internment.

According to Oikawa, Japanese-Canadian farmers owned large pockets of farmland that once occupied the Surrey Museum sites in Cloverdale up to the present-day town centre, until their dispossession in 1942.

“Strawberry Hill was named after Canadian strawberry growers of Japanese descent,” she said, adding that they established the Surrey Berry Growers Cooperative and the Japanese Strawberry Hill Farmers Association.

Lorene Oikawa’s grandfather was among thousands who were forced from their homes and belongings. He pitched for the Japanese-Canadian Asahi baseball team in Vancouver. (Lorene Oikawa)

Colleen Sharpe, curator of exhibits at the Museum of Surrey, says more awareness is needed about the contributions of Japanese-Canadian farmers in Surrey and surrounding areas.

“Things like the sex of chickens…it’s a very important thing in agriculture to know what sex the chickens are, male or female, and that’s something that Japanese Canadians brought…into the region. “, she said.

Through the prism of family stories

In addition to the personal stories presented, the exhibition also presents previously unseen photos and historical objects.

“We talk about the larger story, but we also look at very personal items from families and very personal artifacts,” Sharpe said.

Personal stories help illustrate how things went for families at the time.

“It really looks at how people were treated by government administrations and what happened to them. It shows you the whole process of history, of what happened to people,” Sharpe said.

Oikawa says it’s important to remember this history to prevent similar events from happening again.

“We cannot let ignorance or forgetfulness decide the actions we take as a society and especially when we are under pressure, such as right now, a pandemic or an economic downturn.”


CBC British Columbia has launched a bureau in Surrey to help tell your stories with journalist Kiran Singh. Story ideas and tips can be sent to [email protected].

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