Skip navigation

Wednesday February 20, 2013

He overcame wartime internment to flourish as a musician

Shocked at betrayal by Canada, Aoki became a passionate advocate of cross-cultural exchange and world music

Special to The Globe and Mail

Harry (Hiro-o) Aoki was 21 and living in Vancouver when he was labelled an enemy of Canada. It was spring, 1942, and he and his family - along with the rest of the Japanese-Canadian community - were given 48 hours notice of an enforced dispersal.

Internees were allowed to carry only a small suitcase of belongings. With no thought that the rest of his possessions would not be returned - Mr. Aoki, a talented musician, left his precious violin behind, tucking a harmonica into his pocket. Appalled at being termed an enemy of the land of his birth, he made a small, but significant show of resistance.

"I didn't like the idea of being kicked out," he told John Endo Greenaway, in an interview for Japanese-Canadian paper The Bulletin. "So when I went east I bought my own ticket."

While the rest of his family was moved to Alberta, Mr. Aoki took a job at a sawmill in B.C.'s Southern Interior. A nasty logging accident - his saw ricocheted off a trunk and sliced into his torso - put him in hospital. Discharged, he joined his family on the sugar beet farm where they were interned, in Iron Springs, Alta.

Joy Kogawa first heard of Mr. Aoki while listening to CJOC radio from Lethbridge, during her own internment.

"They had an annual talent show," she recalls. "And Harry always placed second to the pianist Dale Bartlett. I remember him playing his harmonica and feeling so proud that here was a Japanese-Canadian with so much talent."

They met years later and, when writing her celebrated novel, Obasan, Ms. Kogawa thought of Harry the wonderful musician and made the character Stephen a composite of him and her own brother.

Harry (Hiro-o) Aoki was born on Aug. 22, 1921, in the mining town of Cumberland on Vancouver Island. His parents - Sadayoshi and Masa Aoki - were educational diplomats, employed by the Japanese government to open and run Japanese language schools abroad.

Harry was the second of seven children, one of whom - Matsuko - died in infancy. It was, according to his younger brother Tatsuo, a regular small-town childhood. In 1932, the family spent five months in Japan, which the children, Tatsuo recalls, all found very different.

In 1934, the family moved to Vancouver, where Harry's parents opened another Japanese language school. Harry was a keen athlete, winning - along with his older brother Ted (Tetsuo) - the Greater Vancouver rugby championship for Britannia High School two years in a row. He also excelled at track, particularly the 100-yard dash.

But music was always his first love. Masa, his mother, was an accomplished pianist and taught him to play; his father loved music (he was a big Duke Ellington fan) and spent many hours listening to records with Harry.

The family's comfortable life ended with internment. The conditions they were forced to live in on the Alberta farm were dire and, though they, like other Japanese-Canadians, believed that if they behaved like model citizens, they would be returned to their homes, it was 1949 before the Aokis were allowed to return to Vancouver. Their possessions had been sold off.

The experience changed Mr. Aoki's outlook on life. Shocked to find himself no longer considered a Canadian citizen, he became a passionate proponent of cross-cultural exchange - a practitioner of world music long before it hit mainstream sensibilities.

"I've had so much experience with this thing called racism," he told the CBC. "Music is one of the first places where racism breaks down. Music is so easy to get at: You can just sit there, relax and listen. The colour of the person doesn't matter."

After the war, Mr. Aoki returned to logging - this time in Prince George - before moving to Nanaimo to work as an analyst on a dam project for BC Hydro (then, BC Electric).

His spare time was all about music. With little to do during the Alberta winters, he had taken a correspondence course in musical theory through the University of Chicago. His marks were so good that he was offered a scholarship to study in the U.S., but his citizenship prevented it.

He took up playing the bass on advice from a Calgary Philharmonic concertmaster, who told him he would never be out of work. He was in Prince George when he finally decided to ignore the expense and order the instrument. He was laid up with a broken leg from a skiing accident, and bored.

He met the American-born singer James (Jim) Johnson in Prince George, and the two men became friends. In the 1960s, they ran a summer folk group through a community café in Qualicum, Vancouver Island. Later, in 1968, they co-hosted the short-lived CBC television series Moods of Man.

It was during his time in Nanaimo that Mr. Aoki gave up his job at BC Hydro and became a full-time musician, performing and arranging professionally. He moved back into the family home in Vancouver. His youngest sister, Mary (Michiko), and his niece, Catherine Malcolm, also lived there, following the 1964 death of Mary's husband, an Alberta RCMP officer.

Ms. Malcolm recalls that internment and racism were often discussed in the house. Her grandfather, Sadayoshi, was a community leader, and believed it was important for subsequent generations to know their history. At the same time, the family home was filled with music; it was there Harry made all his recordings.

He toured the U.S. college circuit with Jim Johnson and went to Romania to explore his deep love of Roma music. He was the musical director of the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton. Many of the musicians he met there, he invited to Vancouver to play.

"Our house hosted some of the world's best jazz and folk musicians," remembers Ms. Malcolm. "It was a wonderful way to grow up."

Mr. Aoki was, Ms. Malcolm says, a "true artist," a man who refused to compromise either his music or his humanity for personal gain. He never married, but his serious relationships were with other artists, and he stayed close friends with many of them throughout his life.

He was 80 when he started the monthly world music get-together, First Friday Forum, bringing together musicians from all cultures and disciplines to play and talk. The monthly jam attracted musicians from around the globe - it was not uncommon to find artists from Russia, Mexico, Indonesia and India jamming away. Among them were African drummer Tembo Tano, Celtic violinist Max Nguen and Japanese flautist Chieko Konishi-Louie.

He was active in the campaign to save the Vancouver childhood home of Ms. Kogawa, as well as the Powell Street Festival, the annual celebration of Japanese-Canadian culture. He was also involved in Vancouver's annual celebration that fuses Chinese New Year with Robert Burns Day (Jan. 25), Gung Haggis Fat Choy.

He shared with Ms. Kogawa a "huge longing to belong." The war experience, she explains, was "the destruction of something that was essential in the core of our beings."

In 2008, a group of artists and friends decided to form the Friends of Harry Aoki, dedicated to continuing his legacy, promoting intercultural dialogue.

That group subsequently joined forces with St. John's College at the University of British Columbia to form the Aoki Legacy Fund, which also honours Mr. Aoki's late brother Tetsuo (Ted) Aoki, an emeritus professor of education at UBC.

Harry (Hiro-o) Aoki died peacefully on Jan. 24 at an extended care facility in Vancouver following complications from a fall.

He was predeceased by his brothers Tetsuo and Haruo and sister Matsuko. He leaves his brother Tatsuo Aoki and sisters Judy (Hideko) Matsuba and Mary (Michiko) Malcolm, as well as his nephews and niece.

Back to top