Kathy Yamashita: In Her Own Words

Dr Kathy Yamashita has served both her church as a volunteer and her community as a family physician for many years. She will be Alberta and Northwest Conference’s final president as it moves into two regions. During her tenure, I frequently work with Kathy via email. I suggested to Kathy that it would be good to do a profile on her. She suggested I send her a list of questions. So I asked about how her faith influenced her vocation as a doctor, how her own family was affected by the Japanese internment during World War II and more.  A short time later, I received these beautiful words in response.  Shelley Den Haan, Communications for Alberta and Northwest Conference.

Kathy Yamashita

Kathy Yamashita in Japan last May. The critter beside Kathy is a Tanuki, a capricious mythical Japanese magical animal.

I have been a family doctor in Lethbridge for 40 years which had always been my goal. I was inspired by Dr Campbell who was our family’s doctor in Vauxhall. He was friendly and concerned, not just about the patient, but he would always ask about the activities and welfare of our family members. I wanted to be like him. Christian faith did not seem to be involved in this decision, flying under the radar at the beginning.

I became more spiritual as a resident in family medicine. When I was learning Anesthesia and sitting in the quiet of operating rooms most of my day, I began to ponder where the “patient” went during their invasive surgeries. I began to think about how we are not just a group of organs held together by our skin. There is a spirit that animates us and makes us unique. My style of practice is to treat each patient as if they were a family member who deserves nonjudgmental love and concern. That in itself is a healing atmosphere where hope and trust can thrive. Then I just do the very best medicine that I can.

However, it was not until I was married and had children that I remembered the benefits of church life. I believe that Sunday School helped to make me a good person, and I wanted that for my children too. So, I returned to church and never looked back. I became involved in United Church camping and in Presbytery. I cannot exactly explain why these organizations have held my loyalty and interest for so long, except to say that I believe they both do good work in society.

Yamashita Family 1959

Kathy Yamashita (centre) with her father, Yasuo Yamashita, and siblings in 1959 on the family farm near Vauxhall, Alberta. From left to right: Linda, Yasuo, Kathy, Bob, Geary. Yasuo died this past summer.

Next year, in 2019, it will be 70 years since Japanese Canadians were formally recognised as Canadians with certain rights, like the right to vote. World War II had been over for four years, but the Japanese were still required to be registered with the RCMP and to ask for permission to travel. When my parents were married in 1948 they still had to ask permission to travel to Moose Jaw for a weekend honeymoon. I don’t remember either Mom or Dad talking politics and I don’t think they were keen on politics or elections. Having been excluded before, they did not fully feel included after enfranchisement.

I read the book “Forgiveness” by Mark Sakamoto, the 2018 Canada Reads winner. His father’s family was settled at Celtic Cannery before the war. It was a thriving fishing community of about 23 Japanese families and among them was the Yamashita family. His book is very well-written and a compelling story about the destructive nature of war well beyond the battlefields which changes the lives of citizens on both sides.

There was a Baptist mission at Celtic Cannery and that is where the Yamashita family were embraced by Christianity. The children would go to school in Vancouver and would return to Japanese language school at home. My mother’s family were Buddhist and she grew up on a Strawberry farm in Port Hammond.

When the Pacific theatre of World War II began with the bombing of Pearl Harbour, Canada engaged the War Measures Act to remove the Japanese from the west coast. At the beginning of the war, there were about 30,000 Japanese living there. At the end of the war, there were no Japanese living there.

Many people do not know that there was a thriving Japanese United Church on Powell Street in Vancouver, in the heart of Japan town. It was like any church with regular Sunday worship, Sunday School and a women’s auxiliary. Just like any Christian church, it provided a gathering place for this unique community. When the congregation was given the order to pack their bags and to relocate to internment camps in the ghost towns of interior B.C. many families left their belongings at the church which they had built, for safekeeping. I cannot explain the actions of the Vancouver Presbytery who then gave the church to First United Church for management. The Japanese United church and its contents were eventually dispersed, and the building was sold to the Buddhists. I do not believe that the United Church people in the Vancouver presbytery ever expected the Japanese people to return to Vancouver.

Not all the people went to internment camps. Some were offered the opportunity to relocate directly to farms in Southern Alberta to work as field hands on sugar beet fields. This was a need because many men had left to become soldiers in the war. Both my parents’ families moved to Coaldale to do this work. My paternal grandfather said that their first house was a converted chicken coop and the wind would blow through the boards. In addition, there were fleas left behind by the previous occupants. My maternal grandfather was instrumental in founding a Buddhist temple in Coaldale.

The United Church of Canada sent Japanese speaking ministers, missionaries sent by the United Church of Christ in Japan, to be with these exiles in the farming communities and also in the internment camps in B.C. The Women’s Missionary Society also sent staff to be teachers for the children and friends to the families. I believe their witness also prevented further abuse of the internees. The United Church stopped short of speaking against the federal government’s actions against Japanese Canadians, but it was generous in its ministry to those who were relocated.

I have a photograph of the Southern Alberta Japanese United Church congregation standing on the steps of Southminster United Church in Lethbridge, for a mass baptism at Easter The first minister, Rev. Jun Kabayama started his ministry to these farm families on a bicycle, later receiving a car to make his visitations. The early days were of house church gatherings. We were not allowed to be in the city until 1949. By the 1970’s we purchased the former Hungarian Hall in North Lethbridge where the Southern Alberta Japanese United Church meets today.

The third largest population of Japanese Canadians is in Southern Alberta, the first and second being Toronto and Vancouver. It is obvious that the majority of people relocated here in WWII did not return to Vancouver and I believe it was because of the racist environment in Vancouver at the time. If you read the book “Forgiveness” you will get a taste of what I mean.

I visited Japan this past May for 10 days on a vacation/medical course in Tokyo and Kyoto. I was amazed by how different it was from Canada. People are polite, quiet and tidy. There is no litter on the streets. It is expected that people would respect the environment and other people. There were incredible love and respect for nature with an almost worshipful attention to detail in the public gardens and ancient temples. However, in order to enjoy these vistas properly, one must somehow ignore the fact that there are fifty other people jostling for position to take the same photograph that you want to take. Yes, there are a lot of people in Japan. Fortunately, they are not too big so you can fit a lot of them in a small country. I think that is why they are so polite, quiet and tidy… so they can preserve their quality of life and live together in harmony.

Our tour guide, Yumiko, said that in Japan, Christianity is a very minor religion. Most people practise Shinto, a form of ancestor and nature worship where Mount Fuji, ancient temples, beautiful rivers and scenery are all worshipped.

Having been to Kenya in 2017, where more than 80% people are Christian and then to Japan where less than 1% are Christian, I had a question in my mind as to the benefit of Christianity in society. While I know that my Christianity has been a powerful influence on how I live my life personally, I surely do not believe it is the only faith experience that can create a good world.