This is a photo of Arlene and Don Kawasoe at the opening of Redefining Home at Campbell House museum. The exhibit is about their parents, Harold and Hana (featured in the framed photos here) who lived in the attic of what is now Campbell House from 1948 to 1951
I highly recommend the latest exhibit at Campbell House Museum called Redefining Home. It’s a great example of how a colonial-era historic house museum can stay relevant and contribute to conversations about current issues. It’s a story of enduring love and it’s a story with national resonance.
I liked the exhibit so much that I wrote the following news article for a local newspaper. It didn’t get published so I am posting it here.
Don and Arlene Kawasoe remember their parents pointing out a stately mansion in downtown Toronto “That was our honeymoon house, they used to joke.” But they could never have imagined that their “honeymoon house” would eventually become a museum featuring an exhibit about their life.
In 1948, Harold and Hana Kawasoe were newlyweds and lived in the third-floor attic of what is now Campbell House Museum. Both of their families had been uprooted from their British Columbia homes as part of the Canadian government’s decision to intern Japanese Canadian citizens as “enemy aliens” during the Second World War.
Harold and Hana have both passed away but their grown children, Don and Arlene Kawasoe, were on hand to tour the exhibit on opening night. “It’s a thrill” Don says about having his parents’ story told in a museum. “They took tremendous pride when someone of Japanese ancestry did well. It was a ratification that they were not these aliens.”
Campbell House, built in 1822 for Chief Justice William Campbell, a member of Toronto’s ruling elite, was moved to the corner of Queen St. and University Ave. in 1972. But in the 1940s the house was located at Adelaide and Frederick streets and was home to Hobb’s Glass, a manufacturing business run by successful businessman Clare Wood who disagreed with how the Canadian government was treating citizens of Japanese origin.
For the month of March, the museum is telling Harold and Hana’s story with help from a family photo album shared by Don and Arlene. Called Redefining Home, it traces the journey of Harold and Hana through detention centres and labour camps, first jobs, their eventual meeting in Toronto and marriage. But Don is quick to point out that “what’s important is also the larger story of the 22,000 Japanese Canadians who were labelled enemy aliens and taken from their homes on Canada’s west coast in 1942.”
Kawasoe family photos line the stairwell at Campbell House
Typically, museums like Campbell House tell the story of leading pioneer citizens. But Campbell House Museum Director Liz Driver believes historic house museums can do much more. “People think these colonial houses can only do one thing. But there’s a whole lot more going on in these places.“
Harold’s and Hana’s story came to light because of a chance meeting with a film producer. “He wandered into the house looking for a backdrop for a movie and mentioned that the house had once belonged to his father-in-law, Clare Wood”, says Driver. She knew that a Japanese couple had once lived in the house but didn’t know much more. The museum staff was then able to connect with Clare’s son, David Wood, who put them in touch with Don and Arlene.
Don talks about the feelings of hurt, anger and disbelief his parents felt and the humiliation of reporting in to a detention centre with a few belongings in a suitcase. Japanese Canadians were given 24 hours’ notice to evacuate their homes and were allowed to bring 150 pounds of personal belongings. A brown suitcase that held some of these possessions holds pride of place in the exhibit.
Harold and his brother, Mits, were working at a farm camp near London, Ontario when Harold responded to an advertisement from Clare Wood who was looking for a gardener for his estate. Wood hired both Harold and Mits. “That was a transformative moment,” says Don. “Wood gave Dad and Mits a chance to work and that was pretty unusual in 1942.”
In 1945 Wood moved his glass business to Toronto and located it in what is now Campbell House and asked Harold to be the gardener at his new Rosedale home. Harold became like a big brother to Clare’s son David, who has stayed in touch with the Kawasoe family ever since. David Wood fondly remembers Harold giving him and his brother piggy back rides. Wood also says he remembers the “society ladies” asking his mother how she could leave her boys with “those Japanese.” His mother’s response, recalls Wood, was “My boys are safe.”
Included in the exhibit is a letter from then-Toronto Mayor Frederick Conboy refusing a request from a Japanese Canadian citizen to take up residence in Toronto in order to attend university.
Once in Toronto, Harold lived at the Japanese Man’s Cooperative Residence, one of the few places where Japanese Canadians were welcomed. Hana worked in the kitchen.
When they decided to get married, Wood offered the couple the attic above his business offices. “He knew it would provide them with a safe space,” says Driver. “In fact he would often drive Harold home from work because he knew how difficult it was for a Japanese man to walk through the city.”
Don says the story of the Japanese internment is now well known but “what is not so well known is that there were so many Canadians that reached out to help.” He says the Wood family continued to support his parents after they moved to their house in East York. The exhibit notes other Torontonians who helped, including Ed Mirvish, who established a baseball team welcoming Japanese Canadians.
The exhibit, which includes tours of the attic, closes April 1, exactly 70 years to the day when Japanese Canadians regained their freedom and legal restrictions used to control their movements were removed.