SURREY — By the time Zennosuke Inouye returned from fighting for Canada during the Great War, he’d settled in Surrey to grow berries on a farm.
Years later, during the Second World War, he’d found himself in an internment camp, his land taken away from him by the Canadian government.
Inouye was among many Japanese-Canadians who suffered through such hardships after the bombing of Pearl Harbour. It didn’t matter that he was president of the Surrey Berry Growers’ Association for a time and, according to those who knew him, a good neighbour and community member.
Today, Inouye’s story is told by Kevin Takahide Lee, a New Westminster-based actor and musician who works as a member of The Re-Enactors.
At community events, mostly in the summer months, the troupe’s professional actors recreate the lives of early Surrey settlers, including reeve T.J. Sullivan, teacher Mary Jane Shannon, carpenter Eric Anderson and others.
Lee didn’t know much about Inouye before he took on the role.
“His story is so unique,” Lee said, “because he was the only Canadian veteran of Japanese descent to have kept his land in the end, and that’s quite phenomenal. The internment and, even more so, the reparation is something that resonates with Japanese-Canadians.”
Inouye’s 80-acre farm was located on Sandell Road, today known as 128th Street, in the heart of the Strawberry Hill area. During the Second World War, the “enemy” property was repossessed by the government. Eventually, his land, along with many other pieces of property owned by Japanese-Canadians, was sold under the Veterans’ Land Act of 1942 and banked for distribution to veterans of the war once it was over.
But, in a flurry of letters and verbal appeals, Inouye, a war veteran, successfully fought to get his property back.
“If you have a chance,” Lee encouraged, “the museum has those letters and, if you work from the first one to the last one, and you know his story, it’s a very emotional journey, just to go through it. The man tried so hard, and it wasn’t just writing letters, because he was going out of his way to connect with different individuals. Some of those individuals were supportive and tried to help him, but others were racist, and that was something that really resonated with me.”
Lee, who is Japanese-Canadian, has performed with the Re-enactors over the course of three summers.
“I went on a tour of a Japanese internment camp here and there was a lady on that tour who actually knew Zennosuke and I got so much information from her,” Lee explained. “That was so valuable to bring that character to life because, of course, he was a real person.”
In his first summer with the troupe, Lee met and performed for members of Inouye’s family at Surrey’s Fusion Festival and also at an event at Surrey Museum.
“That was a bit intimidating, because you want to be sure to do the job well and, especially when it’s an ethnic role,
(Zennosuke Inouye is pictured above)
you’re not tokenizing it,” he related.
Each member of the Re-enactors troupe has three stories to tell about their character during a performance, from three different periods of their life.
In Lee’s case, the monologue about Inouye’s internment is the heaviest and, for him and others, the most emotional.
“The first two are the happier ones and with the third one, I get the strongest audience reaction, and it really varies,” Lee said. “Some (people) celebrate, others apologize. I feel some people feel that they have played a role in the internment. There was one lady who came up to me and more or less apologized, because her father was one of the individuals who was selling the Japanese-Canadian land. It’s really interesting, the reaction.”