Behind the Page: Sally Ito on The Emperor's Orphans

 If a writer doesn’t write the stories, they are lost to silence, and that silence is deafening. 


Over the Christmas holidays, we were sitting at my mom’s dining table with old friends from Edmonton.  Jocelyn and Yasuko are an inter-married couple.  Jocelyn is French Canadian and Yasuko, Japanese.  Their three daughters were raised in a trilingual family environment – at home, Jocelyn spoke French to the girls and Yasuko, Japanese, while outside everyone negotiated life in predominantly English-speaking Edmonton.  The girls went to French schools and also, for a spell, like my kids, to the Japanese community language school.  Their middle daughter, Maya, had recently returned from 10 months of study at Tokyo’s International Christian University, her mother’s alma mater.

            My son, Kenji, who is the same age as Maya, had spent the long car ride we take to Edmonton from Winnipeg every year curled up in the back seat, reading The Emperor’s Orphans.   I didn’t ask him to read it, but I did ask him earlier if he would do a trailer for the book.

            In the middle of our dinner conversation which centered on our cultural identities as parents, and as mixed-race children working and living in different linguistic and cultural environments, Kenji suddenly spoke out about how our identities were shaped by stories of the people around us. 

            How true, I thought, wondering if he’d somehow concluded that from his reading in the back seat of the car.


Listening to the stories of the people around you is a form of loving them.  Writing them down with the hopes of having others read them, however, is a fraught exercise.  When you’re the writer, you carry the weight of your perspective and biases to everything you see and record.  You make choices of what to include and what not to include.  You say things that might be better left unsaid.  You name names.

            But if a writer doesn’t write the stories, they are lost to silence, and that silence is deafening. 


The Emperor’s Orphans was created by listening to and reading stories of two significant family members.  When I was a child, the only person who told me about what happened to Japanese Canadians during the war was my paternal great Aunty Kay.  Aunty Kay was a Nisei; she was born and raised on the west coast of B.C.  She was the daughter of an Issei fisherman, and became a strawberry farmer with her first husband, Ichiro ‘Charlie’ Imahashi in Surrey.  When war broke out between Japan and Canada, 22, 000 Japanese Canadians were forcibly moved from their properties to internment camps in interior British Columbia.  My Aunty Kay was one of them.  She and Charlie lost their property.  Then Charlie died.  My Aunty Kay moved to Alberta where her parents were, then remarried and moved to a farm in Opal, Alberta, north of Edmonton.  She was there when I came into the world and she became the one whose stories I listened to as a child growing up in Edmonton. 

            The story I read about my family was in a memoir written in Japanese by my maternal grandfather, Toshiro Saito.   A meticulous diarist, Toshiro wrote frequently throughout his life, culminating in a memoir he put together in 1990.  I knew this memoir was a treasure trove of information of life in Taisho, and early Showa-era Japan but I could not access it without someone helping me to translate it.  Initially, my mom helped, but then I enlisted the aid of her younger sister, Michiko Tsuboi and we finished translating the document in 2007 when I got a grant to go to Japan to research the family history.

            Aunty Kay and grandfather Toshiro were, to me, the two most important storytellers in my life, and I tried at first to just tell their stories when it dawned on me that there was someone else’s voice missing: my own.  My voice was hiding behind the others because I didn’t think my voice was all that important.  Except that it was.  For why was I writing this book in the first place?  It was not to just tell other people’s stories but to tell myself who I was because of those stories.   


Every Christmas when I visit my mother, I go into her basement and find old stuff.  I’ve been doing this since I was a child.  This year, my son, for the first time, accompanied me into the basement. He took a keen interest in the things that were there probably because he had been reading my book.  I showed him an old white suitcase of photos.  In it, were boxes of slides of my parents before they were married – my father in his radio operator office in Sachs Harbour, Northwest Territories – and my mother in front of the School of Theology at Kansai Gakuin University in Nishinomiya where she worked as a secretary.  Another box was filled with pictures from their wedding in Osaka in 1962 and their honeymoon in Kobe and Tottori.  And then there were slides of Mom’s arrival in Vancouver and her visit to her cousin Keiko in Nanaimo who had helped arranged my parents’ marriage.

            My son and I marveled at these old slides. I had not seen them before, and for my son, the slides themselves were so ‘analog’ as to be ‘hip’.  Geez, my son said, you sure look a lot like your mom when she was young.  I nodded; I’d been told that many times before but now it was apparent to my son who probably took my looks as his mother for granted, not thinking of where I might have gotten them from.

            I took the slides up to my mother and one quiet afternoon when everyone was out shopping at West Edmonton Mall, we went through them together.  There she was in a hotel dressing room wearing her traditional white kimono with the tsunokakushi head-piece.  On her honeymoon, she wore a bright red dress that made her stand out in places like in front of the Rokko Hotel in Kobe.  In another slide, she was sitting on a large stone in a traditional Japanese garden designed by Mr. Mura, a friend Dad had made in Canada who had returned to his native Tottori.  There were slides of the Hankyu Department Store in Osaka and of pigeons on the platform at one of the stations Mom and Dad must have traveled through. I notice that there are a lot of photos of Mom, and not so many of Dad.  He was probably holding the camera most of the time and with it, was gazing on my mother, his new wife, with love and affection.


Is there any reason why someone should be interested in reading The Emperor’s Orphans?  No.  There are countless family stories out there and I do not flatter myself in thinking everyone should be interested in mine.   But as the writer, I have fulfilled one important ambition  – that is, to complete a work of love for the people to whom I owe my life, my identity, my vocation and most importantly of all, my voice






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