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Two Different Worlds
Michael Farber
January 26, 1998
Superstar Paul Kariya is proud of his heritage but also proud to be an Olympian for Canada, the country that punished his grandparents for being Japanese
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January 26, 1998

Two Different Worlds

Superstar Paul Kariya is proud of his heritage but also proud to be an Olympian for Canada, the country that punished his grandparents for being Japanese

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The internment of 23,000) Japanese-Canadians after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, is a shameful chapter in Canada's history. (The U.S. impounded about 120,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II.) Although there was no bona fide military or security reason for displacing Japanese-Canadians—75% of whom either had been born in Canada, like Fumiko and Isamu, or were naturalized citizens—the government used its War Measures Act to designate them as "enemy aliens" and herd them beyond a protected zone that extended from the Pacific Ocean to 100 miles inland. Almost 4,000 were exiled to sugar beet farms in Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario. Most others were sent to six internment camps in the interior of British Columbia.

Isamu, who had to give up his job with a trading company in Vancouver because of the internment, worked for a short time on a road crew near Taft, B.C., for 25 cents an hour—less than half the 60 cents an hour Caucasian workers were being paid—before joining Fumiko and Yasi in Greenwood, a mining town whose heyday had come during the turn-of-the-century silver boom. With 10 other families, they settled into an abandoned hotel in 1942, just as the final whiff of a Japanese threat to the West Coast ended with the Battle of Midway. By the end of October, 1,177 Japanese-Canadians were being held in Greenwood.

No barbed wire ringed the internment camps. For Canada, the isolation and travel restrictions on "enemy aliens" were as effective as armed guards. The war ended in 1945, and the camps were shut by the end of the following year. Only the purgatory continued. The government had given Japanese-Canadians two choices: repatriate to war-ravaged Japan, a cruel irony and semantic impossibility considering they could hardly go home to a country that had never been theirs, or move east of the Rockies. Japanese-Canadians would not be allowed to return to the West Coast until 1949, the year they were given the right to vote.

Isamu, Fumiko and their sons remained in Greenwood until 1949, when they decided to take Canada up on its offer to send them to Mio, the fishing village in southern Japan that was the ancestral home of both their families. They had their inoculations and had shipped their clothes and other goods to Japan. They were scheduled to go on the last ship, but the Canadian government abruptly terminated the program. Their 10 boxes crossed the Pacific. They didn't. A vast ocean lay between the Kariya family and Japan in '49. So it has remained for almost 50 years.

T.K. and Sharon Kariya provided their children with the most resolute of Canadian upbringings. They were nominally Japanese-Canadian in that the boys, Paul Tetsuhiko, Steven Tetsuo and Martin Tetsuya, were given English first names and Japanese middle names, while the girls' names, Michiko Joanna and Noriko Ann, were the reverse, but there were few other Japanese grace notes to their lives. Any Asian artifacts in their house were gifts. The cuisine was mostly standard Vancouver fare. When they were young, Michiko and Paul attended a Japanese language school a few days a week for three years, a concession to their bachan, but the language eluded them. The Kariya siblings, in the argot of the day, are "half-ers."

For the Kariya brothers the only thing that mattered was sports. Paul, who played lacrosse, rugby, tennis, basketball and almost anything else in which the score was kept, was so proficient a golfer that at 13 he almost quit hockey to concentrate on that sport. Steve, 20, is a hockey star at Maine, where Paul, as a freshman, won the Hobey Baker Award as the outstanding U.S. collegian in 1993. Martin, 16, plays Tier II junior hockey in Victoria, B.C. "The biggest thing with my parents was letting you find out who you are and then making sure you were happy about it," Paul says. "You weren't pushed. If you didn't want to learn Japanese, fine."

"One of the tough things for Paul is that the Japanese community wants him to be a part of it," Michiko says. "They want his involvement. The relevancy just isn't there for Paul. To associate with a group of people based only on heritage is a strange concept to Paul and me."

As Paul said one night last month in a Calgary steak house, "The past is history."

The waiters come and go, clearing the last of the plates. If they recognize Kariya, they don't let on, either because they are extraordinarily discreet or because he's a household name in Canada without being a household face. "It's weird, but most people think I look more [American] Indian than Japanese," he says. "My mom's of Scottish descent. But you don't hear, 'Paul Kariya's from Scotland.' I don't care, but it's all part of this business of sticking labels on people."

For Kariya, labels are things you sew on kids' underwear, not things you slap on people. He has detested labels since someone first called him too small. Really? For what? But because his truncated 1997-98 NHL season has left him fresher than his battle-nicked teammates and rivals; because his speed, hockey sense and wondrous timing are an ideal marriage with the larger 200'x 100' international ice surface; because he will be playing in a country that considers him a long-lost son; and because representing Canada means so much to him, there's one label even Kariya will have difficulty dodging: most dangerous player in the Olympics.

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