Excerpt from Letters to My Grandchildren: In Search of Roots



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The following is an excerpt from David Suzuki’s forthcoming book, Letters to My Grandchildren, available spring 2015 from Greystone Books.

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My darling grandchildren,
I write to you—Tamo, Midori, and Jonathan—as adults, and to you—Ganhi and Tiis—as the older children or young adults you will be when you read this letter. First, though, thank you for sharing your lives with me; it has been a delight to watch each of you since you were a baby and to bear witness to the miracle that every life is. You have been such a joy and have brought so much happiness (and a headache or two) into my life. Thank you, thank you for the privilege of being Grandpa or Bompa to you.

Even though three of you—Tamo, Midori, and Jonathan— were born in the 1990s, you will spend most of your lives in the twenty-first century. And, of course, Ganhi and Tiis, your entire lives will be spent in the twenty-first century. The stories from my life that I will recount here will seem like the stuff of history books to you because what is my living memory you only know through such books, movies, and videos.

A few years ago, Nana and I visited Japan, and while we were in Yokohama, we visited the last ship (Hikawa Maru) to regularly make the trip from Japan to North America. Launched in 1929, it crossed the Pacific from Yokohama to Seattle and carried 75 first-class, 70 tourist-class, and 186 third-class passengers. It’s now a museum, and we were fascinated as we walked through it. Each class was on a separate floor and had its own kitchen. First-class passengers traveled in luxury on the top level, with art deco furnishings, lace curtains, and mahogany woodwork. Third-class passengers were confined to the bowels of the hold—deep below the other passengers and next to the immense engines driving the vessel—where it was hot, noisy, and smelly. The royal family had made a trip in that ship, where they occupied the sumptuous top floor. Charlie Chaplin crossed the ocean in the ship as well.

My grandparents had come over much earlier, between 1904 and 1908, and I am sure they traveled in a far less hospitable ship and under worse conditions. They were poor and spent years in Canada paying back the cost of the trip. I imagine they came on a tramp steamer, a cargo ship that took at least three weeks to make the crossing. How tough it must have been, crammed into a tiny space, under heavy seas, with no opportunity to go on deck and breathe fresh air. And remember, there were no television sets, movies, radios, or telephones. Visiting the Hikawa Maru filled me with admiration for my grandparents’ willingness to take a chance and immigrate to Canada. It must have been a harrowing trip, and they must have felt they were leaving Japan forever.

My father’s parents never did make a trip, or even a phone call, back to Japan. After being kept in camps during World War II, my mother’s parents decided to leave Canada. They were dropped off in Hiroshima, which had been flattened by the first atomic bomb ever dropped over a city. I can only imagine the suffering of the terribly injured survivors, who had radiation burns and injuries that had never been encountered before and needed medical help, food, and shelter. All of Japan had been hammered by war, but Hiroshima was in a category by itself. Not surprisingly, my elderly grandparents both died less than a year after their return.

Why would my grandparents—your great-great-grandparents— leave a country that was their home for an unknown future in Canada? Like desperate people today fleeing Vietnam, Haiti, or Cuba and crossing treacherous bodies of water to get to new lands, my father’s parents were driven by poverty so severe that it was worth it to them to take that risk.

Japan was in the throes of shedding its feudal class system of shoguns, samurai, farmers, craftspeople, and merchants to follow a Western industrial path. Grandpa Suzuki apprenticed as a carpenter when he was a teenager and became a superb boatbuilder in Canada. Suzuki boats had an excellent reputation, and I hear there is a Suzuki-built boat still in use on Vancouver Island. Grandpa Nakamura was a disenfranchised samurai—a member of Japan’s warrior aristocracy—and never did hold down a job. Grandma Nakamura was a nurse, and she was revered for treating people during the horrendous epidemic of Spanish flu in 1918. My mother’s most important hope was to be reunited with her mother after she died.

When my grandparents arrived in Vancouver, it was a resource town built on mining, fishing, and logging and drew people from all over the world. It was a rough-andtumble place, where racist assumptions about people of color were embedded in the culture. After all, when Europeans first arrived in North America, they claimed to have “discovered” it, despite the hundreds of thousands of people living in rich and varied cultures all across the continent. Because the indigenous people were completely alien to the incoming Europeans, they were dismissed as “primitive.” The newcomers were focused on finding wealth and had little interest in the indigenous people, flora, and fauna except as resources. They regarded indigenous people as savages who should be forced to adopt European ways. This attitude continued through the twentieth century, when indigenous children were sent to residential schools and their languages and traditional ways were officially banned. Asians and blacks, too, were considered different and assumed to be inferior and so were not given the right to vote or, in many parts of British Columbia, to own property. They were also prohibited from entering certain professions, such as medicine and pharmacy. That was British Columbia and much of Canada in the early twentieth century.

Each of you is a quarter Japanese, so I hope you find your Asian heritage of interest. My knowledge of Japanese history is pretty minimal, but I have been intrigued by the way the country was brought into the global community. For over two and a half centuries (1603-1868), Japan had deliberately isolated itself from the rest of the world, rebuffing attempts to open its ports for foreign traffic and trade. This was called the Edo, or Tokugawa, period, when Japan was under the rule of the Tokugawa family. The ruling class was kept in power by the samurai class, trained fighters who made up about 5 percent of the population. Below the samurai was the peasant class, which included 80 percent of the people. As in every civilization throughout time, it was people who grew food who enabled other kinds of activities to evolve. Below the peasants were the craftspeople, and below them were the merchants, who sold what the craftspeople made. There was also a class called Eta, or burakumin, who were referred to as “untouchables.” They were considered contaminated because they disposed of dead people, butchered animals, or worked with animal skins. In modern Japan, class distinctions are supposed to be gone, but burakumin still suffer tremendous discrimination.

Under the Tokugawas, Japanese culture flourished and the economy grew during a long period of relative peace and isolation. Today we hear over and over how globalization of economies is critical to our future prosperity, but the history of the Edo period offers a different lesson. In 1883, U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry and four heavily armed “black ships” steamed into Edo (Tokyo) Bay, demonstrating the advanced military technology of steamships and cannons and demanding access to Japanese harbors. The following year a treaty was signed that ended Japan’s isolation from the rest of the world and ushered in the Meiji Restoration, under Emperor Meiji, which combined Western technological advances with traditional Eastern values. Iron smelters, shipyards, and spinning mills sprang up as Japan became industrialized and built up its military power. The samurai no longer had a position as a class in a nation on the way to Western-style industrial development.

The rapid change made by the Japanese after Perry shows that dramatic social and economic transformation is possible in a short time. In the 1930s Japan veered into militarism and ended up in a world war that it lost in 1945. But again, forced by military defeat and devastation of the country, Japan rose from that terrible time to become an economic giant within a few decades. Today we are told that changing from fossil fuels to renewable energy will not only destroy the economy but also throw us back into the dark ages. I don’t believe it. If we can pull together as a society, as Japan has done, all kinds of changes are possible.

Grandpa Nakamura was born at a time when there was no longer a place for him as a samurai, and the end of Japan’s global isolation meant all of my grandparents had the chance to move to Canada. So thanks to Commodore Perry, you are all here.

Nana and I had an opportunity to find out more about Grandpa Nakamura when she and I were in Japan taking care of you, Ganhi and Tiis, while your mom and dad were on a speaking tour there. Did you two know that your mom is like a rock star in Japan?

In 1992, when she was twelve, she attended the Earth Summit in Rio and gave a speech that became famous and has been published in textbooks in Japan. As a result, she is well known among young people there. I think the fact that she looks Asian and has a part-Japanese last name (Severn Cullis-Suzuki) means Japanese kids can identify with her.

One of the places where she spoke on her tour was Kyushu, south of Honshu, the big island where Tokyo and Kyoto are located. I knew that Grandpa Nakamura was from Kumamoto, on Kyushu, so we decided to see whether we could find out anything about him. Sure enough, we discovered that he had been trained as a samurai and that he had gone to a very elite high school, which we visited. There we learned that he had been unable to carry on as a samurai and had applied to enter the navy but was rejected because of bad eyesight. Perhaps that was the reason he decided to come to Canada.

I don’t think he ever worked in Canada. Since he was born into nobility, working was not part of his background. There is one story about him that I love but which may not be true. He was in Trail, a mining town in British Columbia, when the workers at one of the mines went on strike. The company decided to break the strike by bringing in “scabs”— those who were willing to do the work for low wages—and many happened to be Japanese. The strikers threatened to beat up any scab who tried to cross the picket line, and the Japanese were terrified. They asked Grandpa Nakamura to lead them past the strikers, and he agreed. When he walked up to the strikers, they could tell by the way he carried himself that he was tough, so they moved aside and let the men in. Great story, even if it is about strikebreaking—which I don’t support.

My grandparents never learned to speak more than a primitive level of English. They knew Japanese people in Canada who spoke English well enough to help them get established, and as their kids—my parents—grew up, they interpreted for my grandparents. I never learned to speak Japanese, because after the war, Mom and Dad were anxious that we be Canadians and not draw attention to our differences by speaking another language.

How I regret that. The more languages we know, the richer our lives can be. I studied French for five years, Latin for four years, and German for three years, all in high school. But I have needed Spanish for the many Latin American countries I’ve done work in. Tamo and Midori, you are so fortunate that your dad took you to Chile and other countries in South America and that you learned Spanish.

I never got to ask my grandparents why they left Japan, what the trip was like, what the conditions were when they arrived, and whether they were glad they had come. So many questions that will never be answered. I never got a chance to thank them for making that incredible journey and enduring the hardships in this foreign place so that their children would have a better future and their grandchildren— my sisters and I—could grow up as Canadians.

My grandparents are called issei, the first generation of Japanese in Canada. My parents, your great-grandparents, were born in Vancouver—Dad in 1909 and Mom in 1911—and are called nisei (second generation, but first Canadian-born). They were among the first nisei in Canada and truly straddled the two cultures, being fluently bilingual in Japanese and English. Their knowledge of Japan was only secondhand, however, because neither ever lived in or even visited Japan. Because they were bilingual, they carried out all the family transactions in English from an early age, and their parents felt less and less pressure to learn the language. Because my parents had to work when they were still young and act as interpreters for their parents in everything they did, Mom and Dad both grew up fast.

I am a sansei (third generation), and like most of those in my generation, I was born around the time of World War II, when Japan was the enemy, and so I was not encouraged to speak Japanese. During the war my grandparents must have been torn emotionally—they had relatives in Japan, but they had moved to Canada.

Each subsequent generation is also identified by the number of generations since the first generation of Japanese arrived here. Your moms, my daughters, are yonsei (fourth generation). You are all gosei (fifth generation), but by now your Japanese heritage is pretty diluted. Ganhi and Tiis, you are half Haida, so it’s ridiculous to consider you fifth-generation Japanese, especially when your dad’s ancestry in Canada goes back perhaps thousands of years.

My mother and father, like most nisei at that time, grew up without elders or grandparents because they remained in Japan. My parents’ primary connection to the “old country” was through language, food, and some cultural activities, like odori (dance) or martial arts such as judo or kendo.

Can you imagine growing up without ever knowing Bachan (my first wife and grandmother to three of you), Nana, or me? Until recently this lack of grandparents and other elders was significant for children of immigrants to all new and distant lands, not just Canada, because it meant they had only the shallowest of roots to the old country and no roots at all in the new one. Today, of course, we have long-distance phone calls, Skype, and jet travel to keep us connected with elders who live far away.

I know it’s hard to believe that Canada was not a welcoming place for immigrants from a country like Japan. But it wasn’t. To already established Canadians, my grandparents looked different, acted different, and ate strange foods. They couldn’t speak English and hung out with other Japanese. But they worked hard for low wages.

First Nations people in many parts of Canada were also treated horribly, and they were here first. In Prince Rupert, British Columbia, for example, they were subject to what can only be described as a kind of apartheid. They could only eat in certain restaurants and stay in certain hotels, and they were segregated in movie theaters.

This attitude was prevalent right up until the 1960s, and not just in British Columbia. After the war, my family moved to Leamington, in southern Ontario, a town of about ten thousand people. In 1947, when we arrived, people openly boasted that “no colored person stays in Leamington past sundown.” This statement was aimed at African-Americans who came from Detroit to fish off the docks in Lake Erie. We were the first people of color to move into Leamington, but we were treated more as a curiosity, and besides, we worked hard and spoke English like everyone else, so we were accepted.

In the late 1890s and early 1900s, Chinese and Japanese people were allowed into Canada so they could work as coolies, or lowly laborers, on the railroad or go into fishing or farming. Chinese were allowed into Canada only if they paid a “head tax,” which was not levied against any other immigrants. Most Asians lived on the west coast, where they had first arrived in Canada. In Vancouver, they settled in Little Tokyo or Chinatown, which could be described as ghettos.

I’m telling you this not to make you sad or angry, but to make you aware of Canada’s history. I love this country and am committed to it. Much of the overt racism and obvious discrimination of the past is now gone. In fact, people in the Canada of the early 1900s could not have had all the genetic lines in them that you have mixed in you today. But people fought hard for the gains made in social justice and democracy over time—women’s right to vote; visible minorities’ right to vote; freedom for all to move, seek professions, and live where they wish; gay rights; apologies for past wrongs. Please, dear grandchildren, be ever vigilant—if others lose their rights or are treated unfairly, speak up. As the history of First Nations and Japanese-Canadians has taught us, these are fragile freedoms and we have to fight for them.

Despite the anti-Asian racism and discrimination, for the issei who arrived here at the beginning of the twentieth century, Canada offered opportunities that Japan didn’t. When the issei arrived, they did not have the historical or cultural attachment to the land that indigenous people have, and so they saw it as a commodity or real estate. If there were fish, catch them and sell them; if there were trees, cut them down and sell them; if there were minerals, dig them up and sell them; if there was rich soil, plant vegetables and sell them. Everything was a resource to exploit for economic return. That’s why people sought new lands, and that’s the way it’s been with new immigrants ever since the great wave of exploration, conquest, and settlement in North and South America, Africa, Australia, and New Zealand that began more than five centuries ago.

As you know, Nana and I have worked a lot with First Nations people in Canada and with indigenous communities in other parts of the world. We have learned so much from them about radically different ways of seeing the land. For people who have lived in an area for thousands of years rather than decades or even centuries, land is far more than a commodity; it is sacred.

Indigenous people didn’t automatically venerate the earth, however. They learned to respect it through the mistakes and insights of their ancestors. Remember, my background is in genetics, and I have been amazed to see how scientists can use DNA , our genetic material, to trace the movement of people across the planet over time. And all trails lead back to Africa 150,000 years ago. That’s the birthplace of our species, meaning that we are all Africans by origin.

Can you imagine what Africa must have been like when humans first appeared on the planet? The plains must have been teeming with animals in abundance and variety far beyond anything we would see in the Serengeti today. And if we think about our earliest ancestors, who would have been a small group of people lacking in size, speed, and strength, as well as acuity of vision, hearing, and smell, we have to wonder how we ever survived with all the large, strong, fleet-footed animals around. Our big advantage was the two-kilogram organ buried deep in our skulls—the human brain. It endowed us with a prodigious memory, insatiable curiosity, keen observation, and astonishing creativity, qualities that compensated for our inferior physical and sensory abilities.

The Nobel Prize-winning French geneticist François Jacob once wrote that the human brain has an “inbuilt need for order.” In other words, we don’t like it when things happen that don’t make sense to us. So, as curious creatures, constantly looking, tinkering, and learning, we acquired knowledge about our surroundings, and, if Jacob is right (and I think he is), we had an itch to put everything together in a cohesive picture of interconnection and causal relationships, or what some call a worldview, in which everything is connected and nothing exists separate and in isolation.

Using their big brains, early humans found ways to exploit their surroundings. They could coat themselves in mud or camouflage themselves with grass or branches to sneak up on prey. They could dig pits to trap animals, spear even bigger creatures like mammoths, drive animals over cliffs along walls of rocks they had placed there. With simple baskets or wooden hooks, they caught fish. They made shelters in caves using rocks, branches, and reeds. What observant, imaginative animals our ancestors were. They had to be to survive.

As their numbers increased, things they found uses for, like certain trees, medicinal plants, mammals, and birds, would have decreased, and there would be pressure to find more resources (and maybe teenagers wanted to find some excitement and check out the Neanderthal ladies over the mountain—there is evidence that humans and Neanderthals crossbred). In their search for more resources, people began to explore beyond their normal territory. As they moved into new territories, they found more big, slow-moving animals that were easy targets. What I find amazing is that even with such simple tools as spears, clubs, and stone axes, those early people were able to drive species to extinction.

Scientists suggest that humans eliminated mammoths (one animal would have fed a lot of people for quite a while), giant elk, marsupial lions, giant sloths, and aurochs. As humans moved into new areas, they extirpated some of the plants and animals. When people reached Australia over forty thousand years ago, the continent was covered with a vast forest. Those early migrants brought the technology of fire, and burning remains a key part of Australian aboriginal culture today. As a result, the entire country has been completely transformed.

Tamo, Midori, and Jonathan, you may have heard the classic story about Easter Island. When Europeans arrived there, they found giant stone carvings of heads. But people lived lives of extreme poverty and violence, often raiding and even eating each other. How could such miserable people have had the knowledge and ability to carve the monoliths? Then the Europeans found the place where the stone was quarried and discovered that the stones had been moved to the sites along the island’s edges by rollers made of trees. The island had once been covered in forest, and at some point, the people must have seen that it was disappearing as it was being overcut. Yet they continued cutting until all the trees were gone, and their way of life disappeared.

Early people learned through their mistakes that their survival and well-being were utterly dependent on nature. They also came to understand that we are created by Earth’s fundamental elements—earth, air, fire, and water—and therefore that Earth is our mother.

Over very long periods of time, as people moved to different parts of Earth, they began to recognize that nature was the source of their lives and livelihood and that Earth should be treated with respect and care. This knowledge became the basis of indigenous understanding and cultures, which are the result of hard-earned lessons gained over thousands of years. That is why it is so important to fight to keep those cultures alive. Once they are gone, they will never be reproduced.

This is not to say that indigenous people are always in balance with nature. But they have a different perspective on our relationship with our surroundings. Thinking of the biosphere as Mother Earth and understanding that we are literally created by her body of air, water, earth, and sunlight is radically different from thinking of the world as a resource; when that happens, Mother Earth becomes a mother lode. And indigenous people have learned this truth by their own acts of extinguishing plants and animals.

I have told you these stories because they have been an important part of my learning, and I hope they will help you understand your place in the world. Ganhi and Tiis, your Haida father and nannai and chinnai have taught Nana and me a great deal and have already instilled in you that sense of connectedness to place. Tamo, Midori, and Jonathan, I hope you have also gained that sense from us.

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COMMENTS:

  1. Arniece

    Reply

    I find this writing fascinating and will definitely continue to read, as well as share with my family and friends. As with most things I read, I need time to process, however I have a question.

    Is there a name for people who were born during the last generation (or so); who were raised in paved cities with technology, etc, – and have now gone back to these indigenous beliefs and perhaps lifestyle, or practicing life style. A term that separates them from those who read the books but do not practice what they read?

    I hope that makes sense.

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