Photo/Illutration Katsukuni Tanaka poses outside the Former Army Clothing Depot in Hiroshima’s Minami Ward on Sept. 13. (Kazutaka Toda)

HIROSHIMA—Inspired by his great-aunt and her undiscussed period of misery overseas, Katsukuni Tanaka plans to open a museum in Hiroshima’s Minami Ward about Japanese emigrants.

The 78-year-old native of the city wants to use the Former Army Clothing Depot building that survived the 1945 atomic bombing for the project.

He has proposed the idea to the Hiroshima prefectural government and is setting up a citizens group to realize his dream.

“We are the ones who should be leaving records,” said Tanaka, who lives in Hiroshima’s Nishi Ward.

When Tanaka was in elementary school, his family received chocolates and rare color photos at the time from his great-aunt who had moved to Canada in 1926.

The gifts were Tanaka’s first encounter with the North American country.

After graduating from university, Tanaka went to the United States to study in 1967.

On a summer vacation, he traveled north and visited his great-aunt, who lived in a small town in western Canada. The town was the site of an internment camp for Japanese descendants during World War II.

“We lost possession of all our property and were rounded up here when the war began,” Tanaka quoted his grandaunt as telling him.

Katsukuni Tanaka poses with his great-aunt, Sumiko Doi, in Vancouver in the 1980s. (Provided by Katsukuni Tanaka)

Tanaka was shown memoirs of his great-aunt’s life that her son had compiled. The documents said innumerable shacks lined the grounds of the internment camp in a mountainous area, where winter temperatures fell below zero.

He was shocked to learn she was stuck in such a place for seven years. But she did not talk much about her wartime experience.

She died in 1991 at age 85.

“I should have asked her for more accounts,” Tanaka said he thought at the time. “The only thing I could do is learn about the history myself.”

He has visited Canada more than 50 times so far in his endeavor.

While working at a Hiroshima TV station, Tanaka became secretary-general of the Hiroshima Canada Association (HCA) in 1988 to help develop friendship ties between Canada and Hiroshima.

Tanaka also joined the Japanese Association for Canadian Studies to learn more about Canada, including the history of Japanese descendants there.

He learned that the experiences of Japanese emigrants were largely unknown in Japan.

“Nobody Ever Talks about That,” the book-format memoirs of Katsukuni Tanaka’s great-aunt, includes a map of a camp in western Canada where she was interned between 1942 and 1946. (Provided by Katsukuni Tanaka)

When he gave a talk about the history of Japanese-Canadians about 10 years ago at a high school in Hiroshima, students asked him, “Oh, were there emigrants to Canada?” and “Why were they interned?”

More than 100,000 people from Hiroshima Prefecture emigrated overseas during the prewar and postwar periods, the most of any prefecture in Japan.

Tanaka believes it is his mission to pass down their history.

His planned exhibits at the museum include household goods and photos showing how the emigrants lived abroad.

“My generation is the last to know emigrants firsthand,” Tanaka said. “I wish to pass on, for posterity, accounts of the lives of emigrants, which were a succession of hardships, including what they went through during the wartime.”

Tanaka worked as a news reporter and did other duties at the Hiroshima TV station from the time it was opened.

As secretary-general of the HCA, he helped to facilitate a sister-city agreement between Hiroshima and Montreal. He is currently one of the HCA directors.