Jennoji Kubota

Japanese-Canadian servicemen of the CEF are an underrepresented group in the national memory of the First World War, and whose stories remain largely untold. Between 1915 and 1918, 222 Japanese men served in the CEF.[1] Jennijo Kubota was among them, a private in the 49th Battalion out of Edmonton.

Like many Japanese immigrants in Canada from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Kubota had settled in British Columbia.[2] There enlistment was particularly discriminatory based on race, completely barring Japanese recruits in 1914.[3] This was partially to prevent language-barriers in the ranks, but was more prominently due to the systemic objection to legitimizing minority groups, particularly the Japanese in the case of BC, and to avoid ceding citizenship rights such as voting.[4] The Japanese community used this to their advantage to resist conscription in 1917, though their position was not formally recognized until January 17, 1918, when they were exempted from service as non-citizens.[5] Prior to that, there was a small but eager wave of Japanese volunteers who attempted to form an all-Japanese unit. In mid-1915, a full company received training from the Canadian Japanese Association of Vancouver, but their offer to raise a full battalion was rejected by Militia Headquarters in 1916 on the basis of a lack of faith to draw sufficient volunteer numbers.[6] Because of these factors, Kubota and most other Japanese volunteers journeyed to Alberta to enlist in a more racially tolerant regiment.[7] It is unclear whether Kubota was a part of the training program in Vancouver, as his service record began in February 1915, yet he formally enlisted in Swift Current, Alberta on November 19th, 1915 to join the 49th at the age of 25. He was likely among the very first Japanese volunteers, since it was not until mid-1916 that the Japanese began to be actively recruited, and most ended up in the 10th, 50th, and 52nd battalions. The 10th eventually absorbed the rest in 1917 and became recognized as the dominant Japanese unit.[8] In an already racially isolated environment, Kubota stood even more isolated from his countrymen.

Kubota was a minority in the CEF on a second account as a Methodist, a group which collectively made up only 8% of volunteers in the CEF before 1916.[9] He spent only 5 months on the Western Front before he took a bullet in his left arm in France and returned to England in June 1917. The post-war years were unkind to Kubota. His marriage on July 2, 1920 was carried out by proxy through his father in Japan, and it appears that Kubota’s wife never lived with him in Canada. Much of his file is correspondence regarding his appeal to send his pension money to her in Japan. The marriage was not formally acknowledged in Canada until 1924 due to unrecognized foreign customs. In the following years, Kubota moved between Saskatchewan and Alberta, working as a farmer, and grew paranoid of other Japanese farmers. He eventually telegraphed a complaint to the Lethbridge Albertan police headquarters in 1925 to document his fear of harassment from his fellow Japanese neighbours. Investigation into this deemed Kubota as “quite delusional”, and he was admitted into Weyburn Mental Hospital in Saskatchewan on November 22, 1927, where he was diagnosed with dementia praecox. His pension money went to the hospital to cover his care. It is unknown how his marriage was affected by this, but the hospital records in 1927 record his wife as still living in Japan. Jennijo Kubota’s life after the war was tragic, but he proved himself as a true Canadian through his service.

The few Japanese-Canadians who made their way into the Canadian ranks had a true passion to serve their new country, as they had to fight just for the right to die for it. The 222 Japanese-Canadians volunteers, of which 54 died in combat, are commemorated by a memorial in Stanley Park, Vancouver, erected in 1920. Japanese Service in the CEF was a catalyst for their enfranchisement as Canadian citizens, and they earned the right to vote in British Columbia in 1931.[10] The Japanese-Canadian experience in the First World War is vastly understudied, and stories like Jennijo Kubota deserve further investigation to understand the diversity of Canada’s military history.

 

Click here to access Jennoji Kubota’s Service File At Library and Archives Canada

Citations

[1] Tim Cook, Shock Troops, (Toronto: Penguin Group, 2008), 280.

[2] Donald Avery and Peter Neary, “Laurier, Borden and a White British Columbia,” Journal of Canadian Studies 12, 4 (1977), 24.

[3] James W. St. G. Walker, “Race and Recruitment in World War I: Enlistment of Visible Minorites in the Canadian Expeditionary Force,” Canadian Historical Review LXX, 1 (1989): 4.

[4] J. L. Granatstein, “The Problem of Religion in Canadian Forces Postings: Liebmann vs the Minister of National Defence et al.,” Canadian Military History 19, 4 (2015): 68-69.

[5] Walker, “Race and Recruitment…,” 19.

[6] Ibid, 7.

[7] Granatstein, “The Problem of Religion in Canadian Forces Postings…,” 69.

[8] Lyle Dick, “Sergeant Masumi Mitsui and the Japanese Canadian War Memorial,” The Canadian Historical Review, 91, 3 (2010): 446-447.

[9] Desmond Morton, When Your Number’s Up: The Canadian Soldier in the First World War, (Toronto: Random House of Canada Ltd., 1993), 54.

[10] Dick, “Sergeant Masumi Mitsui,” 452-454.

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