Manitoba History: The Life of Yosh Tashiro
by Kimmie Halwas
In considering our ancestral origins, we find that our past is often only vaguely sketched in our memories. For most of us, our heritage is the background music that has shaped who we are today, though often we are left with very little clear knowledge of it. For some, however, their ancestry was bid good-bye in return for acceptance within a society. Such was the case of Yosh Tashiro, one of the many Japanese-Canadians who were mistreated and humiliated by their fellow Canadian citizens both during and after the Second World War.
Yosh’s parents, Giichiro and Hyaku Tashiro, came to Canada via Hawaii, and Yosh was born in Vancouver on 20 September 1920. Yosh’s father, Giichiro, was a family-oriented man who worked as a farmer and a logger, and became foreman of Japanese workers at a gold mine in Atlin, BC.  They were a large family, with three sons and three daughters, living in Mission, BC, a farming community which attracted many Japanese families.
Governmental prejudice against Japanese-Canadians began after Pearl Harbor had been bombed by the Japanese on 7 December 1941. Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King announced that all Japanese-Canadians should be forcibly moved “to safeguard the defenses of the Pacific Coast of Canada.”  Tension was running high: Japanese-Canadians had been law abiding and loyal citizens, but they now came to be judged by the actions of a foreign power. Feared as spies and intruders, and scorned for their Japanese decent, they were perceived as a threat to peace in Canada. The Prime Minister made his proclamation in February of 1942, and immediate action was taken by the RCMP. Japanese-Canadians were branded “enemy aliens,”  uprooted from their homes – often given only 24 hours notice to leave – and incarcerated in the interior of the country. In 1943, Order in Council PC 469 gave the Custodian of Enemy Property the power to sell property without the owner’s consent. Many Japanese-Canadians lost all their possessions— not only homes, but everything in them, as well as boats, businesses and family heirlooms. These items were seized and auctioned off to other Canadians.
Yosh Tashiro was attending university in Vancouver at the time  and training to become a Lieutenant in the military.  When the evacuation took place, Yosh’s parents, brothers and sisters were forced to move to a sugar beet farm in Diamond City, Alberta.  In A Dream of Riches, his brother Eiji and his wife described their painful experiences:
Yosh, as part of the military, was sent to Dryden, Ontario; ironically, as a citizen presumed to be a threat to his country, he was given the job of guarding German prisoners. He was a military officer doing his duty while his family was imprisoned by the government he was serving.
The “fear” that these enemy Japanese-Canadians created in 1942, drastically faded in 1944. Prime Minister Mackenzie King stated, “It is a fact no person of Japanese race born in Canada has been charged with any act of sabotage or disloyalty during the years of war.”  The loyalty of Japanese-Canadians was proven. The government justified their earlier actions, claiming they had been fearful not only for the safety of Canadian citizens, but also for the Japanese-Canadians who would have suffered from hostility in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. 
Many Japanese-Canadians moved on. Yosh Tashiro left his military post and moved to Chicago.  Whether he left Canada due to displeasure with the government during the war years, or for other reasons, is unknown. However, the trip pointed him in a direction that would eventually lead him to Portage la Prairie.
While in Chicago, Yosh worked at a newspaper as a photographer, taking pictures of newsworthy events around Chicago and even meeting and photographing the famous blues musician Billie Holiday.  It is not known how long Yosh remained in Chicago, but a photo album, filled with 8x10 photographs, shows various places Yosh visited during the late 1940s: he captured the most recent car models for 1948, the Federal Government Building in Regina, St. Michael’s Catholic Hospital in Lethbridge, and photographs of the University of Minnesota Campus. Yosh also photographed Woody Herman in Grand Forks, Betty Atkinson (a famous figure skater from Hollywood, California) and Barbara Ann Scott (Canadian Olympic Gold Medalist.)
According to his widow, Bernice Tashiro, Yosh attended the University of Manitoba at this time. Due to tight finances, Yosh would attend university for one year, while the next he would work and save enough to attend school the following year. He studied Commerce Business Administration but continued doing freelance photography for Winnipeg newspapers.  When a newspaper in Portage la Prairie became interested in hiring a photographer for their newspaper, the Winnipeg Free Press recommended Yosh. Yosh came to Portage la Prairie thinking it was a mere road-trip; he had no idea he would call Portage la Prairie home for the rest of his life.
In 1952, Yosh joined the twenty-five staff members of The Daily Graphic. At that time, The Daily Graphic was located in a small newspaper print shop, across from Hill’s East Drug Store — just big enough to meet the news needs of a small town.  Yosh, coming from Winnipeg with a Reflex Camera and pictures of Billie Holiday clipped under his name, awed his fellow workers. He knew how to work with photographic equipment: he had brought his own photography equipment, and had practiced in his own photo lab in Winnipeg.  During his years traveling across Canada and the United States, Yosh had photographed portraits, landscapes, building and nature.  Yosh had experience and although he had never had formal education in photography, he was a clever thinker and a mechanical learner: “Yosh learned on his own. Many people were amateur photographers who had to be taught the basics. Yosh came to Portage with all his equipment already.” 
His boss, Ian McKenzie, was impressed with the quality of Yosh’s work and his ambitious nature. As a smaller newspaper, The Daily Graphic published few photographs: photos which did run were imported from newspapers in bigger cities, such as the Winnipeg Free Press.  “Overall, the staff at the Daily Graphic knew very little about photography,” Ian MacKenzie commented. Around the same time Yosh came to work at the newspaper they also changed locations, and at this time, they decided to build a dark room.
Yosh was a photo pioneer in Portage, a camera artist bringing a priceless view of the world. He was always on the beat, snapping pictures of common everyday events, joys, and misfortunes in the small town. People in the community began to know him as “an impressive photographer.”  The Daily Graphic also appreciated his knowledge–not simply regarding photographic equipment, but also for repairing every small or large mechanical machine that ever broke or malfunctioned. 
Yosh did not work alone. As a photographer, he captured the moment with a photo, and his partner, Elmer Moffat, captured it with words. Moffat was a news editor and reporter at the Graphic who worked with Yosh for 27 years.  He and Yosh were dedicated reporters with a common interest; neither would object when they went on out-of-town assignments, which were harder to cover and meant more work to prepare for the press. Moffat recalled once driving to Winnipeg at 7 a.m. to get up-to-date news reports and photos of the annual spring floods: “There was a lot of history in Yosh’s work. He did not just cover car wrecks and train wrecks, he got photographs of Royal Visits and the Royal Tour in 1970.” 
Everyone who worked with Yosh appreciated his work habits. He was “meticulous,” “professional” and “highly knowledgeable.”  Ian McKenzie always knew he could count on Yosh: “He never missed an assignment. You could call him at four AM and you had a guarantee that he would be there.”  According to those who worked with Yosh, he helped the newspaper prosper. Whether or not he was discriminated against by the community, he was respected by his colleagues, and was appreciated by those who knew him.
Many Portagers were not so broad minded when considering this pioneering man. Some window fronts still had signs reading “No Japs allowed” placed for all to see.  The war had been over for many years, yet Portage citizens still harbored resentment toward Japanese-Canadians. Many families in Portage had lost relatives serving in the Winnipeg Grenadiers: the Grenadiers had been sent to Hong Kong, where many were killed and those taken prisoner were cruelly treated by their Japanese captors. Hence, while Yosh Tashiro was working among Portage citizens, twisting in and out of their neighborhoods, capturing photographs of their children playing in the playground, he was sometimes viewed as a threat.
Yosh’s work captured many impressive moments in history. While, at times, Yosh seemed to be suffering from discrimination in his community, he managed to capture Portage in a favorable light through his artistry. Elmer Moffat commented: “He was quite a man; a wonderful friend. No one should have anything to say against him. He could do anything to help you out. If you were sick Yosh would step in and take over. No questions asked.” Other acquaintances of Yosh commented, “As a very friendly man, he was a credit to Portage,”  and, “He was a pleasant man, and I enjoyed his photography.” 
Yosh had not been working in Portage long before he met Bernice McRae, a receptionist, bookkeeper and proofreader at The Daily Graphic. Working together, they got to know one another on a personal and a professional level.  When Yosh proposed to Bernice, her family found it difficult to accept that Bernice, a Caucasian woman, could marry an Oriental man. It was difficult for many Portage people to accept. At the time, Portage was home to only 10,000 people: “It was home; everyone knew everyone.”  In a place so small, a different way of life may be looked upon warily, if not fearfully. The tension which accompanied the marriage proposal may have created a rift in Bernice’s relationship with her family had she not realized they loved her and wanted her to be happy.
On 4 September 1954, Bernice married Yosh Tashiro and they prepared to make a happy life together. However, most people found the interracial marriage hard to accept, and Yosh and Bernice learned to expect the stares when they went shopping in downtown Portage or attended church service on Sunday.  Fortunately, there were some who were not as narrow minded and accepted change: “Although Yosh and his wife were of different races … there was no difference. They were both Canadians.”  Luckily, Bernice’s family slowly learned to accept and respect Bernice’s choices: “He treated me better than any Caucasian man ever did.”  As Bernice’s family learned to appreciate Yosh, they not only accepted him for who he was, but they also learned to love him as a family man.
It was not long before Robert Tashiro, first son of Bernice and Yosh, came into the world. Born on 2 July 1956, Robert would later attend Fort la Reine and Yellowquill School, finishing his high school education at Portage Collegiate Institute.  At the time of his birth his parents were living in a rental apartment on 18th Street, which they named “Little Russia.” 
In 1959, they moved into their own home on 15th Street, when they added Trish Tashiro to their family on 25 September 1963. Trish, who was “Daddy’s Little Girl,” grew up in a “close knit family” that enjoyed going on family vacations during the summer months.  Often, the Tashiro family would alternate vacation destinations, going west to see relatives one summer, and going east the next.
Robert Tashiro thought his dad’s job was just like any other dad’s: “His job was a job... I never thought it was a big deal when I was growing up. I just remember what a hard worker he was – he went to work at 5 a.m. He was really dedicated.”  Trish felt the same way.  He was a man always carrying a camera with him and encouraging education, with a great sense of humor. He often revised school papers, proofreading and editing syntax and proper spelling, “always putting himself last ... a very caring person.” 
Although Trish realized that everyone in Portage knew her father, it took a while to comprehend what an effect he had on the community’s citizens: “I didn’t realize how much respect Dad had in the community.” Trish was surprised when she met people in Calgary who claimed to know him: “Sometimes I’ll bump into someone who’ll comment that he photographed their passport picture or a sports picture of them.”  Yosh Tashiro made a lasting impact on people. His photographs, some taken almost five decades ago, were the faces of “ordinary” people. He captured their actions in time – simple accomplishments which proved to be newsworthy. According to Bernice Tashiro, “Photography was his passion,” but he also had many other interests. An avid gardener, Yosh could be found tending his greenhouse and his outside gardens whenever he had a spare moment.  He grew beets, crab apple trees, plum trees, potatoes, beans, carrots and Chinese peas; he also grew some flowers, but vegetables were his forte. A man who could “turn his hand to anything,”  Yosh was a handy repair man, a carpenter and an excellent cook.
Yosh and his wife were part of the Kinsmen Club, a group whose main goal was to help children, with a particular interest in supporting children with cystic fibrosis. Yosh joined on 25 February 1957 and when he turned 40, he joined K-40, members who are still part of the club, but no longer have a vote. In 1993, Mrs. Tashiro was presented with a plaque to honor her late husband’s accomplishments and years of service.
Yosh was also a member of the Board of Managers at the Presbyterian Church, a group which was responsible for proper maintenance of the church. According to Mrs. Ferguson, Yosh’s sister-in-law, Yosh was also an elder in the church: “Elders were elected members who were an important ruling body. Yosh made important decisions and maintained the spiritual atmosphere in the Presbyterian Church.”  “He never missed a Sunday,”  and would “give the shirt off his back if he had to.” 
Yosh offered Portage more to think about than the color of his skin. As a community minded man, he coached Little League and helped organize the first official Portage Santa Claus Parade.  He was respected for his volunteerism and hard work. But with this esteem came a high cost: “Yosh was born on the Vancouver coast. When he came to Portage he seemed to drop his Japanese. He forgot how to read and write in the language.”  Through his dedication to an often insensitive community, Yosh seemed to lose his own sense of identity. As a man from a Japanese background, owing to the incarceration of Japanese people in 1942, he never managed to regain his heritage. Instead, he melded with society, sacrificing his customs for an ordinary life and acceptance in a small community like Portage.
His children experienced very little of his Japanese heritage. They do recall sharing special Oriental food with their father — stir-fry and tofu, which their father would prepare when their mother would not be home for supper.  Yosh Tashiro, a man who would “do anything for anyone,” did just that.  As a father, he was compelled to become an ordinary citizen, who would not stand out in a crowd and who would be accepted by community members and his new in-laws. He raised his children as distinctly “normal” citizens — who would never have to suffer the shame that a prejudiced government had forced him to live with. As time wore on, he forgot his language and ate the food of his culture only during evenings alone with his children.
Meanwhile, Yosh’s career continued to progress. He started as the Photographer Reporter at The Daily Graphic, but later became Associate Publisher, Advertising Manager and Editor. Yosh and his wife Bernice opened their door to other staff members at The Daily Graphic. Peter Liba remembers being a welcome houseguest in the Tashiro home while working at the local newspaper.
At one point, all other weekly newspapers wanted to produce pictures in their papers as well. They would send their negatives to Yosh, who would develop them and send them back to these smaller communities such as Treherne, Gladstone, Virden, Steinbach, Neepawa and Macgregor. Yet he still found time to do his own work for The Daily Graphic. 
Yosh, a “quiet” and “peaceful” man, seemed to move like a phantom within the community.  As time passed, people grew to appreciate his photography, perhaps seeing past his Oriental background to a man who was dedicated to his community and knew how to capture the essence of an unforgettable moment. According to Les Green, “Yosh had a knack of being able to find just the right spot from which to take a picture, without bothering anyone. Like the time the house next door caught fire, and he crept through my garden and parted my peonies.”
On Friday, 4 October 1985 Yosh retired, taking his 35 mm camera with him, and finally closing the doors to his office at The Daily Graphic. He had dedicated 33 years to his job, retiring as Purchasing Agent and leaving his collection of photographs at the Graphic. His love of photography had not waned in all his years of service, but as new technology was introduced, Yosh found that he wanted out of the business. Perhaps he wanted to remember his career fondly, rather than having to start anew to accommodate the changing times. 
Yosh was a traditionalist, who had taught himself how to use his equipment and had developed his own sense of classic style. He had become accustomed to the Portage setting in which he shot his pictures. Elmer Moffat recalled that Yosh knew every angle there was to shoot in Portage and every way the light would hit a specific spot: “If I needed a camera for a small assignment Yosh would preset the camera for me. All I had to do was focus and take the picture.”  Yosh was an incredible photographer, who touched the lives of Portage citizens. The photos may have captured unforgettable moments when the camera clicked, but as the years passed they not only become a link to our past, but also a bit of priceless nostalgia that anyone may embrace and appreciate.
Yosh passed away suddenly, at 69 years of age in 1989. Yosh and his wife had been planning a trip to Japan and were set to leave. An anemia patient, he went into the Portage General Hospital on 15 September, and passed away two days later. Remembered by the people of Portage as an incredible photographer, he was more than that to the people who loved him. Viewed as a “friendly guy,”  in death he would be remembered as “One of Portage’s best known and loved citizens,”  and “A good guy.” 
Yosh will be remembered not only as a photographer, but also as a husband and a father.  “He was always out on the beat,”  dedicated to his career, but also keeping scrupulous records of everything their family bought: food, beer, gas, movies and electrical bills in a record book that the family still holds close to their hearts.  Shortly before his death, Yosh had presented his daughter Trish with a beautiful baby album which he had spent months putting together. Although she can hold this memorabilia close to her heart, “I only wish my kids could have known him. He passed away before Kim or Cody was born. It’s too bad they couldn’t have met him. They would’ve loved him.” 
At present, Yosh’s collection of photographs is being preserved by a group of archivists at the Portage Collegiate Archive. His collection, which speaks volumes more than words could ever represent, has thousands of stories behind it. His work creates a visual time line of Portage history, creating a map that leads us from 1952 to 1977.
Mr. Ferguson, whose wife is Yosh’s sister, seemed to sum up Yosh Tashiro most effectively: “He was of modest stature... with a slight build. And he had one big heart,” which reached citizens far and wide. This photographer captured the history of a small community but lost his own heritage in the process. Yosh Tashiro became an accepted, and eventually, a respected man, in exchange for the loss of his Japanese customs and traditions. Yet, Yosh Tashiro will be remembered for more than the collection of photographs he created.
53. Tashiro Collection, PCI Archive, Portage Collegiate Institute.
All photographs were selected from the Yosh Tashiro Collection of the PCI Archives in Portage la Prairie, based at Portage Collegiate Institute, one of the oldest high schools in Manitoba. The editors of Manitoba History thank James Kostuchuk and Bernice Tashiro for their help in the preparation of this article.
Page revised: 12 July 2015Back to top of page