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A Japanese-Canadian soldier’s grave

Updated: Dec 3, 2023

The most unusual military grave in the Nelson cemetery is the one seen below, which belongs to Usaku Shibuta, who died at the Balfour sanitarium in 1919. He was one of 54 Japanese Canadians whose death resulted from serving in the First World War. Of those, 27 have known graves in France. Shibuta’s is the only one in Canada.

Shibuta enlisted on June 19, 1916 at Medicine Hat, where he lived. He was born on Feb. 20, either 1888, 1889, or 1890 to Shiyotado (or Nobujiro) and Kura Shibuta. His attestation papers say he was born in Oaza, Mushirouchi, Kasuya, Fukuoka-ken, Japan. A Google search turned up nothing on that place, but author/historian Chuck Tasaka determined it is more commonly spelled Ozasa. Kasuya is a suburb northeast of Fukuoka city.


Shibuta gave his occupation as labourer (elsewhere he was described as a lumberman). He listed himself as a widower and his next of kin as his son Minoru, who was then in Oaza. He became a private with the 13th Regiment of the Canadian Mounted Rifles and within a few weeks shipped out for England.

Usaku Shibuta (Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre 1993.23.1.2.030)


Roy Ito’s book, We Went to War, mentions Shibuta a few times. It quotes a letter home from Ike Kumagawa, who sailed with Shibuta on the SS Olympic from Halifax to Liverpool, along with 6,000 other soldiers.

At every station the Canadians were given a tremendous welcome. It was very exciting. We reached Shorncliffe Camp and on the following day an English general inspected the battalion … Our training schedule is very strenuous … British airplanes are constantly in the air. We hear German Zeppelins passing overhead but we have not experienced any bombing.

Shibuta and Kumagawa were both soon transferred to Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. But Shibuta’s health problems began almost immediately. While digging trenches at night, he started to cough and experienced chest pains. By August 1916, he was admitted to a military hospital complaining of headache, fever, sore throat, and cough.


He was in and out of hospital constantly for the next year with what was variously diagnosed as influenza, chronic bronchitis, pneumonia, measles, pleurisy, and pulmonary tuberculosis. A medical report of June 11, 1917 stated:

Patient speaks and understands English very imperfectly. Medical case sheets states “that he took ill in London on Dec. 7 [1916] while on leave from Seaford Camp and was sent to Endell St. Military Hospital, where he was diagnosed [with] pneumonia.” He remained here till admitted to Bushy Park, where it was found he had rales over both lungs particularly at bases and most marked at left base. Patient was admitted to Ontario Military Hospital [at Orpington], March 2, 1917 with cough, expectoration and rales at bases of both lungs. Patient is losing weight and strength still.

Kumagawa noted in his letter home: “Two men were left behind in England in hospital — Gohachi Shibata and Usaku Shibuta.”

Card from Usaku Shibuta’s military file


Shibuta was finally sent back to Canada aboard the SS Letitia on July 21, 1917. The Vancouver Daily World reported his arrival:

Pte. W. [sic] Shibuta is one of the many Japanese soldiers who have fought side by side with the Canadians in France. He resides at 240 Alexander street, but enlisted with the 13th Battalion at Medicine Hat, being later attached to the Princess Pats. He was in France [sic] fighting for nine months and was finally taken sick and sent home as a convalescent.

240 Alexander St. was in Vancouver’s Japantown and was the address given by other Japanese-Canadian soldiers at enlistment.

It may have been related to the Canadian-Japanese Association, as a note in Shibuta’s file indicated the association would be his address upon his discharge — which finally occurred on July 8, 1918 after he was declared medically unfit for further service.


Although Shibuta’s file is 110 pages, it is vague on when he was admitted to the Balfour sanitarium, which opened in January 1917 in a former CPR hotel. It appears, however, to have been around that November. He survived another 13 months.


In We Went to War, fellow soldier Toranosuke Danjo recalled:

Usaku Shibuta, after a long illness, died on Dec. 26, 1917 [sic]. Shibuta, Sato, and I were like brothers. Just before his death, he called for us, but Sato, because of his wounds, was unable to go to his bed. Shibuta said “Danjo, I am going to die. This is the end. Would you be kind enough to write my last testament.” When I finished reading it back to him, he smiled and chuckled.

This reveals Shibuta was not the only Japanese-Canadian soldier at Balfour — although he was the only one to die there. But Danjo was mistaken on the date; elsewhere the book incorrectly gives it as Dec. 26, 1918. In fact, Shibuta died on Jan. 26, 1919 — one of three soldiers who passed away at the Balfour sanitarium that week. They were buried with military honours side-by-side in the soldiers plot of the Nelson cemetery. Shibuta’s pall bearers were fellow soldiers Pascoe, Dee, Holmes, and Capt. Shaw of Balfour. Flowers for his grave came from the Great War Veterans Association and its auxiliary, and the patients of the sanitarium.


While Shibuta indicated he was a widower when he enlisted, elsewhere in his file, his wife Tomo was listed as a dependent. In reporting Shibuta’s death, the Nelson Daily News of Jan. 29, 1919 shed some light on the subject:

Shibuta was born in Japan. He was about 28 and came to Canada 10 years ago … It was thought at the sanitarium that he was a widower, until a short time [ago] when he applied for the regulation separation allowance. Upon investigating it was discovered that he had been married some time ago to a woman in Japan. The marriage took place with Shibuta in Canada and the woman in Japan, and was arranged by photograph, and legal according to Japanese law. It was found impossible, however, to grant the Canadian separation allowance.

This appears to have been Shibuta’s second marriage, for on Feb. 29, 1912, he wed Take Oniwa in Victoria. The marriage registration said he was 23 and a labourer residing in Vancouver. She was 21 and living in Victoria, the daughter of Wakazo and Oki Oniwa. The ceremony was performed by A.N. Miller at the Oriental Home and School at 732 Cormorant St. The witnesses were Maggie Smith and Mary Dever.


The marriage must have been arranged, for Take appears to have only just arrived in Canada. A record exists of her trip from Yokohama to Victoria aboard the Awa Maru. However, her age is given as 18 rather than 21, the ship’s arrival date is shown as March 1, even though the wedding apparently happened two days earlier, and her name on the manifest was Take Shibuta, rather than Take Oniwa.


In any case, their son Minoru was born in Vancouver on April 10, 1913.


Tragedy struck exactly seven months later, when Take died in Vancouver. I can’t find an obituary and haven’t yet looked up her death registration to learn the cause. Her age was listed as 18. The following month, Usaku sent his infant son to his hometown in Japan to live with relatives. Did they make the journey together? I don’t know.

Card from Usaku Shibuta’s military file, mentioning his second wife


Usaku presumably married Tomo, his picture bride, between 1916 and 1918. Her address was given in his military file as the same as his son’s. Did she help raise Minoru? Again, I don’t know.


In 1931, at age 18, Minoru returned to Canada, sailing from Yokohama to Victoria. He indicated his next-of-kin was his uncle, M. Shibuta, at 814 Mushirouchi, Fukouka-ken. He also stated that he was going to Albion (a neighbourhood of Maple Ridge) to see his cousin, Kuro Kido. Kido married Yuku Oba in Victoria on March 29, 1912, one month after Minoru’s parents wed. Maggie Smith, whoever she was, was a witness at their wedding too.


I lose track of Minoru for the next 11 years, but he turns up in 1942 as a millhand for the Hammond Cedar Co. of Hammond, another Maple Ridge neighbourhood. Despite the fact his father fought and died for Canada in World War I, he was nevertheless interned during World War II. Oddly, we don’t know where, as his file with the Office of the Custodian of Enemy Property doesn’t specify.


On Sept. 21, 1947, Minoru married nursing assistant Kiyoko (Kay) Takiguchi in Toronto. She was the daughter of Mrs. Hisa Takiguchi, formerly of Albion. They settled in York, now part of Toronto. His occupations were given on voters lists as “hide inspector” and “chemical worker.” They had two children, Misako Karen, born in 1948, and David Akira, born in 1954.


Minoru died on June 23, 1993 in Missisagua, age 80, followed by his wife Kay in 2002, age 78 or 79, and daughter Karen in 2011, age 62. Their cremains are all in Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto. I don’t know what became of David.


Did Minoru ever visit his father’s grave in Nelson? That’s something I’d love to know.


UPDATE: I received a note from Ava Edwards, a great-grandniece of Minoru Shibuta through the Takiguchi family. She said the last anyone heard of David was probably between 1996 and 2002. “I know from my family’s stories, however, that Uncle Min (Minoru) and Aunt Kay (Kiyoko) were loved by the family, as was Karen,” she says.


As I was updating this post with those details, I was stunned to discover the Nikkei National Museum had a portrait of Usaku, which I have since added above. I was struck by how young he looked.


Daien Ide, the research archivist at the museum, explained the photo was part of an honour roll poster of the 54 Japanese-Canadian soldiers who served in World War I. The accession record on the museum website further explains its provenance, which is an interesting story in itself:

Sainosuke Kubota, First World War veteran and secretary of the Royal Canadian Legion, Branch 9, was the custodian of the Japanese-Canadian Honour Roll from 1942-77. For 25 years, including the forced dispersal and dispossession during the Second World War, Kubota kept the Legion Banners, Honour Roll, and photographs in safe custody. In April 1977, Kubota (at the age of 87) and his wife flew from Toronto to Vancouver to return the Honour Roll and the photographs of the dead to the Japanese Hall on Alexander Street. He gave the banners of the Japanese Canadian veterans’ organization to the Vancouver Japanese Canadian Citizens’ Association for safekeeping. He expressed his great joy and satisfaction in being able to complete his last duty as secretary, he died a year later in 1978 ...
Many of the photos have been removed from the poster and are separated or still attached to old poster board. The honour roll was restored in 1985 by the Japanese Canadian War memorial Committee and the original images were stored with the chair of the committee Frank Kamiya until donated in full to the museum.

The recreated poster and honour roll is framed and owned by the Vancouver Japanese Language School.


Updated on March 3, 2019 to add the date and place of Minoru Shibuta’s marriage; on March 10, 2019 to add details of Usaku’s funeral (thanks to Greg Scott); on Nov. 26, 2023 to add that Minoru was interned and other details from Ava Edwards; and on Nov. 29, 2023 to add the portrait of Usaku from the Nikkei National Museum and the explanation of where it came from.

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Greg Nesteroff
Greg Nesteroff
Mar 01, 2019

Thanks! Will fix.

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The ship that brought him back was probably the HMHS Letitia (formerly the SS Letitia, the first with this name). It ran aground just outside of Halifax on August 1 (with Usaku on board) and was a total loss. All crew and passengers were saved except for one crewman. The ship is very broken up now due to the shallow depths (20-120') with large pieces of wreckage scattered about.


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMHS_Letitia_(1912)

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