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Canadian Japanese Volunteer Corps Founded

For the week of Monday December 30, 2013

On January 5, 1916, Japanese Canadians in Vancouver, British Columbia, founded the Canadian Japanese Volunteer Corps. Denied the right to fight as a unit, 222 Japanese Canadian individuals overcame prejudice and barriers to enlistment. They fought for Canada on the Western Front between 1916 and 1918.

The Canadian Japanese Volunteer Corps on its first day, January 5, 1916, Vancouver.
Photograph courtesy of Lieutenant Colonel Roy Kawamoto, Kelowna, British Columbia.
Japanese Canadians in the 19th and early 20th centuries were consistently discriminated against. They were denied the right to vote and had been the victims of riots. Yet as soon as Canada declared war on Germany in August 1914, those in Vancouver tried to enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. They were rejected. Determined to prove their loyalty to Canada, the Canadian Japanese Association, led by Yasushi Yamazaki, founded the Canadian Japanese Volunteer Corps.

More than 200 men joined the Volunteer Corps and began military training on January 17, 1916 at Cordova Hall. Some of the volunteers were already experienced veterans, having fought for Japan in the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-05. The Corps trained for months and, in early April, they were applauded for the precision of their movements at a military tournament.

Japanese-Canadian veterans, in front of the Japanese Canadian War Memorial, Vancouver, 1939.
Photograph courtesy of Lieutenant Colonel Roy Kawamoto, Kelowna.

That month, Yamazaki travelled to Parliament in Ottawa to seek approval for a Japanese Canadian regiment. His request was denied. On May 11, after a tearful ceremony, the Volunteer Corps disbanded.

Japanese-Canadian volunteers did not give up. They crossed the Rocky Mountains to Alberta and successfully enlisted in the militia as individuals, rather than a large group. Though Yamazaki’s Japanese-Canadian battalion was never realized, small groups of Japanese Canadians were able to enlist in various regiments across the country.

After the war, the struggle for equality continued for the Japanese-Canadian community. The next prize was the right to vote. Japanese Canadians were finally granted full suffrage in 1948 as a result of their political action and, notably, because of the loyal service of many Japanese Canadians in the First World War.

The Japanese Canadian Soldiers of the First World War and the Fight to Win the Vote was designated a National Historic Event in 2009. To learn more about the soldiers, read: A Missed Memo: Japanese-Canadians enlist in the First World War.

This year is the first in the 100th anniversary of the First World War. For more stories on Canadian efforts, read United at Vimy Ridge, The First Black Battalion in Canada, and Canadians Join the Fight at Passchendaele.

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