Ottawa Writers Festival: Forgiveness and family the foundation of Mark Sakamoto’s timeless story

Mark Sakamoto

Mark Sakamoto has a lot on his mind. He is in the centre of a business success story that has seen the big data health company ThinkResearch mushroom in size and in revenue.

“It’s a hot area and we have done really well. We sleep with one eye open and never take the foot off the gas.  We’ve had a great six year run.”

Every time he walks into his office though he asks himself: “Is this a place where I would want my two daughters to work? That just drives all of the decisions that hit my desk.” Clearly he’s a family man.

And he knows where he comes from. Sakamoto was born in Medicine Hat, Alberta where his dad Stan was a restaurateur and business man and his uncle was a music promoter out of Lethbridge, who was just out on the road with the country singer Johnny Reid.

Sakamoto’s family history matters to him. It’s something he has detailed in the book Forgiveness which essentially tells the stories of two of his grandparents. Mitsue Sakamoto and Ralph MacLean.

When the Second World War began MacLean left his home on the Magdalen Islands and enlisted. That same war totally rearranged Mitsue Sakamoto’s life. Her family joined hundreds of other Japanese Canadians who lost everything when they were forcibly uprooted from their lives on the West Coast and sent inland to a home in what was basically a chicken coop working for farmers in southern Alberta for about $1 a day.

Ralph, meanwhile, fought the Japanese at Hong Kong and was made a prisoner of war for the duration. He endured some of the most difficult conditions in Japanese internment camps with regular beatings and starvation. He was strong and he made it through. Their lives intersected when Ralph’s daughter and Mitsue’s son met, fell in love and married. That led to Mark.

The book Forgiveness was actually published in 2014, but it has been revived by the CBC’s Canada Reads program and is one of this year’s five books. It is being defended by the fashion journalist Jeanne Beker, whose parents came to Canada in the 1950s after surviving the Holocaust. The rest of the Canada Reads lineup includes: singer-songwriter Mozhdah Jamalzadah, defending Sharon Bala’s  The Boat People; actor Tahmoh Penikett, defending Omar El Akkad’s  American War; tornado hunter Greg Johnson, defending Craig Davidson’s Precious Cargo and soul singer Jully Black, defending Cherie Dimaline’s  The Marrow Thieves. The winner will be selected after a series of debates from March 26-29.

As a result of all this, Mark Sakamoto is back on a book tour, coming to Ottawa on Monday to talk again about Forgiveness.

When he wrote the memoir, Sakamoto was working for then Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff in Ottawa. The young lawyer became aware of a certain room inside Parliament. It was Mackenzie King’s war room; the place where the decisions to send troops to Hong Kong and Japanese-Canadians into detention were made.

That connected to his family story resonated and he decided to write a memoir. HarperCollins bought into the idea and he decided to begin to interview his grandparents who were both still alive at the time.

“I was interested in politics from a young age and I was the grandkid who asked a lot of questions. On both sides of my family, my Grandma Sakamoto and my Grandpa MacLean would answer me, but they would keep it at a high level. I knew the bones of my family’s story.

“But once I got the book deal I dove very deep. Fortunately both of them were alive. So I just got on a plane and went to Medicine Hat and spent literally a week with my grandmother interviewing her. She was about 90 at the time. Similarly I drove to Calgary and spent the next week with my grandfather.

“What a blessing that was. These are some of the most sacred nights of my life, getting this much time to spend with people that I loved so dearly and really understanding at a very granular sense what their life story was.”

It was also something that he felt privileged to do for his own young children who would not know them.

“In the small world, big world play, the thing that was so fascinating for me was how geopolitical events and government decisions around Mackenzie King’s cabinet table worked their way down through the bureaucracy into the mail and all of a sudden my (Sakamoto) grandparents have the RCMP knocking at their door.

“It was such a very eye-opening thing. I was working for Ignatieff then and I would report into King’s war room every day. That’s where we held all our meetings.

“When you are at a table like that you can affect the lives of your countrymen.”

He believes political leaders need to learn this lesson every day and his family’s story is proof of that.

The other aspect of this family memoir is what it reveals about Canada in part because that world his grandparents lived in is not so far removed from today.

“The first day I sat down with my grandma, I asked her about why she hadn’t talked about this all before.

“She looked at me in the eye and said ‘Because hate can come back.'”

The prejudice and intolerance of those days was supposed to be gone. History was supposed to be progressive.

“And here we are today. You can’t turn around without seeing some level of intolerance and nativism that is the precursor to a lot of the acts that occurred in Canada during the Second World War” when people were driven out of their homes and saw their businesses stolen.

“I think, like most Canadians, that this is the finest country in the world to live in, but there is a caveat: To love something you need to love it honestly, warts and all. I love my Grandma Sakamoto warts and all. I love my mom, warts and all. She passed away from alcoholism and I wish that disease didn’t take her.”

Same with a country, he says. Look at the warts, examine them and try to remove them, he added.

“In terms of lessons learned, when hate comes, it always comes wrapped in the flag, whether it’s 1920 or 2018. Citizens have to remember and not get swept in that.”

And it’s incremental: “My grandparents had to report in. Then they got cards and then there was a curfew. And then they all of their stuff and then they were sent to a vacant mining town just outside Lethbridge with a chicken coop for a home.

“They had to drink out of a cattle trough. These were folks that were going to university. Their lives weren’t that different from the rest of society in the 1930s and ’40s in Vancouver.”

This book has a new life with the Canada Reads selection but it has been selling steadily ever since it was published.

“Ultimately this is an incredibly hopeful book,” Sakamoto said. As Leonard Cohen said, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.

“The message is they were never defined by those (terrible) years. They recognized that if they let the hate and anger and pain that they felt fester, they would be doing the worst thing possible. They used forgiveness to cleanse their hearts. Forgiveness was personal and forward-looking.”

Forgiveness (HarperCollins)
Mark Sakamoto
In town: The author will be at Library and Archives Canada, Pellan Room on March 19 at 7 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.