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Thursday October 27, 2005

SHIZUYE TAKASHIMA, ARTIST AND WRITER: 1928-2005

Japanese Canadian who was interned during the Second World War published a moving and furious account of her experiences for children and then lost her spark, writes SANDRA MARTIN

Painter, writer and teacher Shizuye Takashima was the author of A Child in Prison Camp, the first book about the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. Called Shichan by family and friends, Ms. Takashima was the youngest of six children of Senji and Teru Takashima, a first-generation (Issei) gardener and a housekeeper.

She was born three months prematurely, weighing less than three pounds, and suffering from a congenital dislocation of both hips. As a small child she spent a year in traction in hospital as doctors tried unsuccessfully to correct her birth defect, which meant she was a year late enrolling in elementary school. She walked with a pronounced limp for the rest of her life.

After Japan bombed Pearl Harbour on Dec. 7, 1941, the Takashima family was caught up in reprisals against Japanese Canadians. Before the war, there were more than 22,000 Japanese Canadians in B.C., most of them either naturalized or native-born Canadians. Their homes, farms and fishing boats were confiscated and sold for paltry sums, single young men were sent to labour camps, and families were relocated to eight internment camps in the interior of B.C.

Her four older brothers were sent to work on road gangs in Ontario, while Ms. Takashima, her father, mother and older sister were removed to an internment camp outside the village of New Denver, in the Kootenay Mountains near the Alberta-B.C. border. They lived under surveillance in a hastily built one-bedroom wooden house without electricity or running water, and were forced to share their accommodation with another family. They had to walk more than a mile to get drinking water and there was no school beyond Grade 8.

In 1944, William Lyon Mackenzie King's Liberal government passed a law saying Japanese Canadians who returned to B.C. after the end of the war were liable to be deported. Ms. Takashima joined her older sister Mary in Hamilton in September of 1945 and was reunited with the rest of her family in Toronto a year later. She studied commercial art at Central Technical School and then went to the Ontario College of Art (now the Ontario College of Art and Design), graduating in fine arts in 1953.

She spent most of the next two decades travelling and studying art in Europe, Mexico (at the Fine Arts Institute in San Miguel Allende), New York (at the Pratt Graphic Art Centre), India, Asia and Europe. Toronto remained her home base, where she showed paintings, influenced by her travels, at the Jerrold Morris Gallery in Toronto. Writing in The Globe, art critic Kay Kritzwiser praised the paintings from her 1964 show as "mummified figures blindly searching in non-colour space."

A friend from those days says Ms. Takashima had a studio on the top floor of a mansion on Jarvis Street in Toronto. "She was a tiny little thing, with a pronounced limp and the biggest mouth I had ever heard. She could swear and she was sharp-tongued," said a friend who asked not to be named. "I remember her snapping at a visitor, 'If I knew why I painted bound figures, I'd be a writer.' "

May Cutler, founding publisher of Tundra Books, met Ms. Takashima at the Fine Arts Institute in San Miguel Allende, probably in 1968. Ms. Takashima was painting and weaving and "I was immediately interested in her background," said Ms. Cutler, with the result that Ms. Takashima wrote and illustrated a book for children about life in the internment camps.

Reading the ensuing manuscript, her "heart sank," Ms. Cutler said from her Montreal home. "It was so awful . . . just a kind of indignation letter that somebody might write to a newspaper . . . with none of the living information. But every so often she had these little sections that looked like poetry and suddenly it came alive."

In one of these scenes, Shichan and her older sister (called Yuki in the book) walk by an RCMP office "half hidden among the dark pines" and Yuki warns they are being watched. Shichan looks at the closed door and says: "Their power seems to come through the very walls. We walk quietly past."

"Do the whole book like this," commanded Ms. Cutler. The result is an evocative and poignant account of daily life in an internment camp, with all its deprivations, rivalries and small joys, accompanied by Ms. Takashima's impressionistic watercolours (which are now in the Osborne Collection of the Toronto Public Library).

The book had a huge impact. It went into several reprints, was excerpted in newspapers and magazines, won a gold medal from the Canadian Children's Library, and was published in several countries, including Japan, where it was also turned into a musical.

A Child in Prison Camp marked a transition for Ms. Takashima, from painter to writer and illustrator, but there were other more fundamental changes going on that had a profound impact on her life and her art.

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