Muriel Kitagawa

Tsukiye Muriel Kitagawa (née Fujiwara), writer, political activist, (born 3 April 1912 in Vancouver, BC; died 27 March 1974 in Toronto, ON). In the 1930s and 1940s, Kitagawa was variously an editor or regular contributor to The New Age, The New Canadian, and Nisei Affairs, publications founded with her fellow second-generation Japanese Canadians to advocate for the political rights of Canadians of Japanese ancestry. She is most well known for her 1941-42 letters to her brother, Mitsumori Wesley “Wes” Fujiwara, which contained her firsthand accounts of the Japanese Canadian community in Vancouver in the months following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor (December 1941) and as the Canadian government gradually implemented orders for the community’s forced removal from the coast (see War Measures Act; Internment of Japanese Canadians). Her letters were published posthumously in 1985 as This is My Own: Letters to Wes & Other Writings on Japanese Canadians, 1941-1948. Kitagawa’s writings were an important source for the Japanese Canadian Redress movement.

Tsukiye Muriel Kitagawa (née Fujiwara), writer, political activist, (born 3 April 1912 in Vancouver, BC; died 27 March 1974 in Toronto, ON). In the 1930s and 1940s, Kitagawa was variously an editor or regular contributor to The New Age, The New Canadian, and Nisei Affairs, publications founded with her fellow second-generation Japanese Canadians to advocate for the political rights of Canadians of Japanese ancestry. She is most well known for her 1941-42 letters to her brother, Mitsumori Wesley “Wes” Fujiwara, which contained her firsthand accounts of the Japanese Canadian community in Vancouver in the months following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor (December 1941) and as the Canadian government gradually implemented orders for the community’s forced removal from the coast (see War Measures Act; Internment of Japanese Canadians). Her letters were published posthumously in 1985 as This is My Own: Letters to Wes & Other Writings on Japanese Canadians, 1941-1948. Kitagawa’s writings were an important source for the Japanese Canadian Redress movement.
Muriel Kitagawa at the beach, Vancouver, BC, circa 1930.

1912-30: Early Life and Education

Muriel Kitagawa was the eldest child of Tsuru (née Toyofuku) and Asajiro Fujiwara, Japanese immigrants (see Immigration to Canada; Japanese Canadians). From a young age, Kitagawa was aware of how racism reduced her, in the eyes of many of those around her, to “a specimen of the yellow peril”. (See also Anti-Asian Racism in Canada.) Her family experienced severe poverty during her childhood: the Fujiwaras moved frequently in search of steady employment which sometimes led to one or both parents living separately from their children. Reunited in 1924, Muriel, her mother, and siblings lived in New Westminster, British Columbia, while her father studied dentistry in Oregon. Her father would eventually establish a practice in Vancouver.

Kitagawa attended Duke of Connaught High School in New Westminster, where she was a top student, particularly in the subjects of English, languages, and history. She graduated second in her class in 1929. She attended the University of British Columbia for one year before withdrawing for economic reasons.

1930-41: Political Activism and Marriage: The New Age, The New Canadian

Muriel Kitagawa’s talents as a writer became an important part of her involvement in the Japanese Canadian community, and in particular, the activism of her peers in the Nisei, or “second generation”. Also called “Canadian-born Japanese,” the Nisei were born in Canada to Japanese immigrants (see Immigration to Canada). Although legally Canadians, the Nisei were denied the right to vote on the basis of race (see Anti-Asian Racism in Canada.). Since many professions at the time were legally restricted to voters, political discrimination directly contributed to economic discrimination. (See also Prejudice and Discrimination in Canada.)

In the early 1930s, Muriel was a contributor to The Young People, the journal of the Young People’s Society of the United Church. She next became Senior Editor for The New Age, an English-language newspaper founded by and for Nisei. Founded in 1932, the newspaper folded after one year, but was succeeded by The New Canadian in 1938.

On 20 May 1933, she married Eizaburo “Ed” Kitagawa, her former colleague from The New Age. Ed Kitagawa was a celebrity in the local Japanese Canadian community due to his role as a longtime player, captain and then manager of the beloved Asahi baseball team. He also held a prestigious white-collar job at the Bank of Montreal, where he was in charge of Japanese Canadian clients. The couple’s children were born in Vancouver between 1934 and 1942, Shirley and Carolyn (a.k.a Carol) and twins Jon and Ellen. In 1940, the Kitagawas were able to purchase their own house, 2751 East Pender Street in East Vancouver, a remarkable achievement among their peers.


Muriel Kitagawa became a frequent contributor to and passionate supporter of The New Canadian, a successor to The New Age. Her interests varied beyond the political: her contributions included opinions on current events, musings on Japanese Canadian identity and motherhood, short stories, stories of Japanese Canadian immigrant experiences, and even lyrical poems. During these years, she also hosted a “Matrons’ Club” for married women, and “Scribblers’ Circle”, open to all who were interested in creative writing, at her home in East Vancouver.

Did you know?
Muriel Kitagawa was known to use pen names while writing for The New Canadian. Some of her articles were signed as “T.M.K.” or “Sue Sada.”


During this period, Kitagawa also became president of the Japanese Canadian Unit of the Red Cross Society. She acted as president until 1941, when she withdrew for health reasons during her third pregnancy.

1942: Forced Relocation to Toronto

Canada declared war on Japan in December 1941, following Japan's surprise attacks on Pearl Harbor, Hong Kong and the Philippines (see Second World War). The declaration of war threw the Japanese Canadian community of Vancouver into uncertainty. Muriel Kitagawa documented her experiences and observations in letters to her younger brother, Wes Fujiwara, who was a medical student in Toronto at the time. The letters not only detailed concerns over her own family’s arrangements, but also the attempts of the broader Japanese Canadian community to organize and advocate for themselves after the government used Orders in Council and the War Measures Act to order the forced removal of Japanese Canadians from coastal British Columbia. Her letters also recounted circumstances faced by Japanese Canadians held at Hastings Park or being ordered to road camps. (See also Internment of Japanese Canadians.)

Muriel’s correspondence with Wes was also closely concerned with the possibility and logistics of the Kitagawa family moving to Toronto. Without the assistance of Wes and his friends, the Kitagawas would have been separated, with Ed being sent to a work camp along with other adult Japanese Canadian males and Muriel sent to an internment camp with the children. Rev. James Finlay, a connection of Wes’s, offered the Kitagawas board in his home, which helped them obtain a government permit to relocate to Toronto as a family. The Kitagawas left Vancouver for Toronto on 1 June 1942.

Toronto: Japanese Canadian Committee for Democracy and Nisei Affairs

In 1943, the federal government began to sell Japanese Canadian-owned property without the consent of owners. (See also Internment of Japanese Canadians.) This included the Kitagawas’s Pender Street house in East Vancouver. Unable to prevent the sale of their home in British Columbia, Muriel and Ed lived the rest of their lives in Toronto.

In 1945, Muriel Kitagawa was elected vice-chairman of the Japanese Canadian Committee for Democracy (JCCD) in Toronto. The JCCD was an organization that aimed to advance "democratic Nisei thinking" along "a more progressive line" than was possible in Vancouver prior to forced dispersal.

In 1947, Kitagawa became managing editor of the JCCD’s magazine, Nisei Affairs. In this position, she encouraged readers to play an active role in fighting for equality and freedom. Kitagawa argued in a 1947 editorial that Japanese Canadians were "justified in their demand for reparation" for "material loss they suffered through prejudice and evacuation".

Kitagawa converted to Catholicism in the late 1940s, after which the focus of her community involvement shifted from the Japanese Canadian community towards Catholic organizations, including the Japanese Catholic community in Toronto. Kitagawa died in the spring of 1974, just before her 62nd birthday.

Legacy

Ed Kitagawa donated a selection of Muriel Kitagawa’s writings, including letters written to Wes Fujiwara, to the Public Archives of Canada (now Library and Archives Canada) in 1978. The collection includes writings that inspired passages in Joy Kogawa’s novel Obasan (1981), especially the character of Emily Kato, a writer and activist who was modelled after Kitagawa. In 1985, with support from Wes Fujiwara and Ed Kitagawa, Roy Miki edited the letters and a large collection of Muriel’s writings into This is My Own: Letters to Wes & Other Writings on Japanese Canadians, 1941-1948.

In addition to being a literary scholar, Miki was active in the National Association of Japanese Canadians (NAJC), which at that time was lobbying the Canadian government to acknowledge the injustices inflicted on Japanese Canadians during the 1940s. His introduction to This is My Own includes this evaluation of Kitagawa’s work:

“Muriel’s writings during the 1940s constitute a record of the direct impact of the government’s wartime measures on the Japanese Canadian community – a community torn apart, dispossessed, dispersed, and victimized for being “of the Japanese race.””


Miki concluded the introduction to This is My Own with the NAJC’s “Call for Redress” that was presented to the Canadian government in 1984. This is My Own was one of several books published in the 1980s addressing the wartime experiences of Japanese Canadians which supported the NAJC’s case for Redress. In 1988, the NAJC completed redress negotiations with the federal government and an agreement was signed on September 22 of that year. Gerry Weiner, the Minister of State for Multiculturalism at the time, made a statement to the press on the occasion and quoted a passage from Obasan inspired directly from Kitagawa’s writing.

Further Reading

  • Joy Kogawa, Obasan (1981).

  • Muriel Kitagawa, Wesley Fujiwara and Roy Miki, This Is My Own: Letters to Wes & Other Writings on Japanese Canada, 1941-1948 (1985).

  • Roy Miki, Justice in Our Time: The Japanese Canadian Redress Settlement (1991)

  • Roy Miki, Redress: Inside the Japanese Canadian Call for Justice (2004).

External Links