June 24th, 2024

University of Lethbridge to honour long-time letter writer

By Al Beeber - Lethbridge Herald on May 23, 2024.

Herald photo by Al Beeber Tad Mitsui will be recognized with an honorary degree at the spring convocation ceremonies next week at the University of Lethbridge.

LETHBRIDGE HERALDabeeber@lethbridgeherald.com

His letters to the editor on a wide range of subjects showing humanity, empathy sensitivity and understanding have long graced the opinion pages of the Lethbridge Herald.

His devotion to enriching the lives of others through his words and actions here and elsewhere in the world is a reason why Tad Mitsui is being awarded an honorary degree at the spring convocation of the University of Lethbridge on May 30 at 9:30 a.m.

Born in Japan to a United Church minister, Mitsui himself became a minister of that church and during his life in Canada and overseas from Switzerland to South Africa, he has devoted himself to showing compassion to others.

Humble and gracious to the core, Mitsui says he was surprised when got the call from U of L chancellor Terry Whitehead about the upcoming honour.

“My first reaction was ‘why?”, said Mitsui in a recent interview at his southside home.

“It was a total surprise,” he said of Whitehead’s call.

“I didn’t think anybody would know me.”

Mitsui took early retirement – at the age of 70 – and came to Lethbridge from Montreal with his spouse Dr. Muriel Mellow who took on a teaching position at the U of L in the sociology department. In Montreal he was in administration with the United Church covering an area from Ottawa to Newfoundland which included 300 congregations.

Needing something to do upon arriving in this city, he started writing letters to the editor.

Those letters played a role in his honour with the U of L writing in a statement by Whitehead that “it’s hard to grasp all the ways in which Tad Mitsui has made a difference in people’s lives, through his work as a minister, a volunteer or simply a caring citizen. Still today, the letters he pens in the local paper are poignant, thoughtful and extremely insightful.”

Mitsui, Minister Emeritus at Southminster United Church, began crafting his letters upon moving to Lethbridge 24 years ago and while he’s lived here for more than two decades, he says he still somehow feels a stranger.

However, he is no stranger to the community through his letters or his presence in the community where he has volunteered at Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden, telling what he calls Tad and Tomo (‘friend’ in Japanese) stories to children.

His work involving human rights and other issues has taken him around the world.

Mitsui served as a lecturer and Dean of Student Affairs at the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland, from 1968 to 1974, his experiences and observations there which are among the topics he’s addressed in his letters over the past years. He also spent time living in Geneva, Switzerland doing advocacy work for various non-governmental organizations.

Mitsui began writing letters after telling Jim Taylor, a former managing editor of the United Church Observer that he was thinking about writing a book in his retirement.

“He said ‘don’t,” Mitsui recalled. Taylor told his colleague that he was an unknown in the world of literature and if he printed a thousand copies of his first book, it would take years to sell and nobody would read it so he suggested writing letters to the newspaper instead.

“That was his advice,” said Mitsui.

His experiences in life have taught him much about the world around him. He has seen the impact of apartheid on South Africa where he lived for eight years and heard members of the Japanese Canadian community who were removed from their homes during the Second World War not want to talk about reparations for the humiliation and harm caused them by the Canadian government.

Living in Japan during wartime, he said he and so many others nearly starved after the conflict ended when the country’s infrastructure collapsed.

In 1950 at the age of 56 his father suddenly died, his dad whose Christian church and others were considered by the Imperial Army to be the church of the enemy. Because Christian churches were so poor, they nearly disappeared.

The military assumed absolute power in the name of Japan’s emperor and took control of the Imperial household and declared the emperor to be god.

“That was a point pressed on the Christian church in Japan. Do you believe the emperor to be god’?”

A lot of ministers compromised but the position of Mitsui’s father was he respected the emperor but didn’t consider him to be a god. Mitsui remembers his dad not coming home for several days and learning later he had been jailed and interrogated.

Mitsui first came to Canada in 1957 when he was 24 years old, a suggestion made at his seminary by missionaries, some of whom were former Spitfire pilots. He earned a Bachelor of Art and Bachelor of Divinity from Tokyo Union Theological Seminary in 1956.

He came to Canada with no English with an assignment to start a Japanese language church in Vancouver. For a decade he worked as a minister with the Vancouver Japanese United Church and earned a Master of Sacred Theology at United Theological College.

In 1949, Japanese internees were allowed to return to the West Coast after the war ended so Japanese Canadians began to come home to Vancouver, he recalled.

When he arrived in Vancouver, he saw people returning and taking any sort of jobs from cutting grass, to operating cleaning businesses to working in sawmills to restart their lives that had been uprooted after the Canadian government forced them to leave the west coast starting in 1942 upon declaring war on Japan out of fear they might act against Canada’s interests.

The businesses and homes owned by he Japanese Canadians were sold by the federal government to pay for their detention. Finally in 1988 then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney issued an apology on behalf of Canada and paid financial compensation.

“I didn’t think of anything deep but they never complained. . .the most common thing I heard from them was ‘what did we do wrong?’ That’s how they felt,” he said.

“Until the third generation Japanese immigrants grew up to be adults, complaining and claiming redress of treatment didn’t happen,” those conversations which didn’t start until the 1980s, he said.

“Why did they wait so long? Because most of the first generation immigrants and second Canadian born who were interned who were the victims didn’t complain,” he recalled, saying it took prominent Japanese Canadians such as David Suzuki and Joy Kogawa to speak up.

He recalls asking people why they kept quiet and was told “shut up, we don’t want to talk about it. That was my experience when I came to Canada. I thought it was very strange.”

While internees were granted financial compensation by the Canadian government, what they wanted was an apology, said Mitsui, calling the $72,000 per person awarded to internees a pittance.

One third of the victims were dead by then, he said.

Mitsui says he gets a lot of reaction to his from readers which he calls embarrassing. Some people will tell him on the street they don’t like his letters while others are supportive.

When he steps to the stage next week, Mitsui isn’t sure what he’s going to say in the five minutes of time he’s being allotted.

“That’s the point that makes me nervous. What can be helpful? Because when you receive something like that, the natural tendency is to be proud, arrogant and I don’t want to do that because it’s not my nature. The natural tendency is to become ‘I’m somebody,'” Mitsui added.

“That is ugly. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to boast about myself. What else can I say? That’s the point I’m struggling with.”

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