Saburo Shinobu (1888 – 1956) –  About my grandpa

By Susan Yatabe, granddaughter

Because his grandmother had been interned at Kaslo, my son Ewan wrote a high school essay on the Japanese Canadian internment. We borrowed Ken Adachi’s book “The Enemy that Never Was” from the library, and it fell open to a page that read, “Saburo Shinobu, who led the fight for the franchise, declared ‘I cannot help thinking…of the future of the Japanese Canadians as a whole. While I write this letter, thoughts of the morrow come and why, I do not know, but the tears spring unbidden’ ”.  

We told my mother, “We didn’t realize that your dad got the franchise for WW1 Japanese Canadian soldiers, or that he could foretell the future!”  How correct he was in 1931 to worry about his community’s future. My late mother often spoke of her father, who died before my birth, as a wise and educated Renaissance man who could have been a diplomat. Because of his work and his command of English, he was acquainted with many people throughout BC. He is our undisputed family rock star. He met royalty, received many awards and honors, was greeted as a hero in France, and was interned for 3 and a half years by his own country.

Grandpa, Saburo Shinobu, arrived in Canada in 1907 with no inkling of how two world wars would shape his life. He planned to study medicine, but instead became an interpreter with the Canadian Japanese Association, and later an insurance underwriter in Vancouver. His work for the Association supported and rehabilitated Nikkei soldiers returning to Canada from WW1 in Europe, where they had fought as members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.  He had recruited some of these men and felt deeply responsible for their welfare. He began a campaign in BC to obtain the franchise for the returning veterans. He was heavily involved in fundraising for the Japanese Canadian War Memorial, and gave a speech in English at the unveiling in Stanley Park one hundred years ago. Our family has a well-worn picture of Grandpa giving this speech in front of a crowd at the War Memorial. Vancouver Branch #9 of the Legion was established by veterans Masumi Mitsui and Sainosuke Kubota, and Grandpa Shinobu (a civilian) in 1927.

Eleven years later, Mitsui, Kubota, Shinobu and veteran Noboru Murakami went to the B.C. Legislature to seek the franchise for the veterans. They met with every member of the Legislature to promote their cause, and were supported by MLAs who were war veterans. Nikkei WWI veterans gained the provincial and federal franchise on that day, but their descendants did not. The franchise was earned by a single vote breaking a deadlock.  Nikkei veterans became the first Asians allowed to vote in Canada. Grandpa’s account of this day reads like a thriller, with raised hopes, tears of disappointment, and many twists and turns. Grandfather and his friends wept with relief and exhaustion when they heard the good news; they had struggled for 12 years to reach that goal. Receiving a heroes’ welcome when they returned from Victoria, they drove directly to the War Memorial to honour their fallen colleagues. The four men were single-minded in their quest to honor the veterans’ sacrifices and to obtain the franchise for them. We are proud that they succeeded.

A major event in Grandpa’s life was to represent Legion Branch #9 at the 1936 unveiling of the Vimy Memorial in France. It was a reward for his work in obtaining the vote for veterans in 1931, and fishing rights in 1930 for Nikkei veterans equal to rights of other veterans. Grandpa, WW1 Veteran Bunshiro Furukawa, and businessman Eikichi Kagetsu were the three Japanese Canadian delegates among 6000 Canadian Vimy pilgrims.
Grandpa’s Vimy Pilgrimage diary was translated into English and has been quoted by historians around the world.  After enduring anti-Asian racism in B.C. for years, he was treated as an equal on the passenger ship that sailed from Montréal to Belgium, at the unveiling of the Memorial by Edward VIII, at the garden party at Buckingham Palace where he met the Duke of Gloucester, and during veterans’ marches in France in front of cheering crowds.  The three Japanese Canadians visited the French graves of as many Japanese Canadian soldiers as possible, despite not being able to speak French. 

Six years later, Grandpa and many Japanese Canadian WW1 veterans were interned. Having the vote did not protect war veterans from internment.

When there was an opportunity to improve life for fellow Nikkei, Grandpa was there to help.  In Vancouver, he volunteered on the boards of the Japanese United Church, Asahi baseball park association, and Alexander Street Japanese Language School. In Kaslo, he and Kozo Shimotakahara formed the Japanese Canadian Property Protection Association.  In Toronto, post-internment, he volunteered with the Japanese Canadian Committee for Democracy, Japanese Canadian Citizens’ Association and Japan Relief. He organized the visit of Crown Prince Akihito to Toronto in 1953. Grandpa died in 1956.

Grandpa was not a war veteran, but he was a fighter.  This resolute and principled man fought most of his life for the rights of Nikkei in Canada, particularly the veterans represented by the Memorial. He would be very proud of what Japanese Canadians have accomplished in the 64 years since his death. 

At the centennial of the Japanese Canadian War Memorial, we, like Grandpa, must remember the soldiers who sacrificed so much for us.