After the cherry trees fell, the Shimizu family legend found its historical beginnings.
“When I grew up, and when my grandfather passed away, I remember whispering of cherry trees, but it was like a myth, short on details and specifics,” Gregory Shimizu said at a presentation on his grandfather’s cherry trees held inside the federal building in Prince Rupert.
Two years ago, going through a box of old photos and documents, he found letters dating back to the 1950s and 1960s with more details on the trees. He took photos and figured he would return to the story in time.
“Then we all learned some of the more prominent trees had been mistakenly cut,” he said.
On March 23, contractors were removing trees next to Prince Rupert’s federal building as part of a landscaping project commissioned by Public Services and Procurement Canada, the agency responsible for federal properties. A federal employee ran outside the building and told them to stop, although some of the damage had been done.
Before the incident, people walked by the trees at Second Avenue West and Fourth Street. Many admired the beauty of the cherry blossoms, but not everyone knew the history. Now, the story of Shotaro “Tom” Shimizu and the trees are set in stone on a plaque outside where one of the trees used to stand.
After losing everything when he was sent to an internment camp, 14 years later and nearly blind, Shotaro Shimizu decided he would donate 1,500 cherry trees to beautify the city that helped him get on his feet when he first came to Canada.
Then on March 23, the same date he was forced to leave Prince Rupert, some of the cherry trees were cut down in error. On Nov. 15, in an attempt to right the wrong, the government planted two more trees and installed the plaque.
“It should outlast all of us, it should outlast the building that it’s next to. The trees may last as long as the plaque but the history of Mr. Shimizu’s generosity isn’t going to be forgotten,” said Dan Del Villano, regional manager for Public Services and Procurement Canada.
|The federal government installed a plaque to honour the memory of Shotaro Shimizu. The wood resting on the plaque is from the cherry trees that were cut down in March 23. (Matthew Allen / The Northern View)|
Shimizu history and internment
Seven members of the family were present to witness the unveiling. First, there was a presentation inside the federal building where the full history of the family was told through 90-year-old Henry Shimizu, Shotaro’s son, and his grandson, Gregory.
“On March 23, 1942, my family and I were trucked down to the CN railway along with 600 other people who were mostly women and children and older men,” Henry said to city council members, federal employees and media.
“There were about 15 passenger cars and a kitchen car. Able-bodied men had been sent ahead to work in camps in the Interior of B.C. as well, people like my father and Mr. Nishikaze, were sent to build the internment facilities.”
His family lost their restaurant, hotel, as well as three houses. Henry remembers residents coming down to the station to say goodbye.
“My Grade 7 teacher, and a few of my classmates came down to see me off. One of my classmates asked me where I was going, I said ‘I didn’t know’ — and I never returned,” he said.
They stayed in the internment camp for four years, and then the war ended and they were allowed to go to Edmonton, but not the west coast. Restrictions weren’t lifted off Canada’s Japanese until 1949.
“I think they forgot us,” Henry said.
By then, they were allowed to return, but there was nothing left for the Shimizu family in Prince Rupert.
None of the family really know why Shotaro decided to donated the 1,500 cherry trees to Prince Rupert.
“That’s still mystifies me to some degree but he also had a soft spot for Prince Rupert. After all, he lived here for 36 years, that’s probably the longest period that he spent in one place,” Henry said.
“The other thing was that he arrived here as a penniless second son from Japan and he didn’t expect to be so prosperous with his restaurant and his hotel and his houses.”
Despite losing everything, Shotaro felt it was necessary to beautify the city that had once given him so much.
|Gregory Shimizu and his fiancée Twilla MacLeod at the unveiling of the plaque. (Shannon Lough / The Northern View)|
Residents who witnessed the trees being cut down were at the unveiling of the plaque. Some of them had reached out to Gregory, including councillor Reid Skelton-Morven, who tried to return some of the salvaged wood to the family.
Patrick Davis, who spent over a decade living in Japan, was upset when he saw contractors chopping the trees down. He said the federal government needs to have better policies to avoid another incident such as this in the future.
Some of the trees received grafts in an attempt to save them. “These will never recover the way they were in our lifetime but I think it’s a good gesture,” Davis said.
Gregory and his fiancée Twilla MacLeod found a silver lining. MacLeod said it means a lot for the family to be in Prince Rupert — for some of them it was their first time. Henry’s brother, Kaien, was there too. Yes, he was named after the island his father loved.
But the trees themselves, and now the monument, have reopened the story that was once a family myth shared by few.
“It’s a hidden history. People had these in their lives for 60 years not knowing where they came from, they just exist, and its fun for people to just enjoy something not knowing where they’re from and then having a whole other chapter of history open up so I think it’s even fun for them and to know that there’s trees that will still survive and they can learn more about them as we learn more about the Rupertites that saved them,” Gregory said.
|A new cherry tree was planted to replace the one that was removed in March 23, 2018. (Shannon Lough / The Northern View)|