In 1918, Japanese–Canadians came together to battle another pandemic

By Tim Hornyak

Covid-19 has turned the world upside down. With widespread lockdowns, economies impacted and more than 130,000 deaths and two million infections around the globe, it seems we’ve entered a whole new reality.

But just over a century ago, the world was overtaken by another pandemic, and it proved far more deadly. It also tested a community of Japanese–Canadians in British Columbia.

The Spanish flu erupted in 1918, the final year of World War I, and eventually killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide. It first struck in spring 1918. And in the fall it hit a second time, with a mutation that proved even more contagious and deadly. Soldiers returning from the front via eastern Canada brought the virus to British Columbia, and Vancouver saw its first death on October 10. Eight days later, the city had an estimated 900 cases and 32 deaths.

The School Hospital

Japanese–Canadians weren’t spared. City hos­pi­tals were already short of doctors and nurses because they were in the battlefields of Europe, so community members banded together to help care for the sick. Born in Miyagi Prefecture in 1894, Tsune Yatabe was one of those who joined this community effort.

A memoir Yatabe wrote in the 1950s and deposited with Library and Archives Canada describes how Yoshimitsu Akagawa, a pastor at the city’s Japanese Methodist church, set up a field hospital at Lord Strathcona Elementary School for people of Japanese origin. As cough­ing, feverish patients began streaming in, doctors — including Kozo Shimotakahara, the first Japanese–Canadian physician — cared for them with the rudimentary equipment and medicine available at the time. The doctors were supported by nurses, including Akagawa’s wife Yasuno.

“I had never seen a dead body before I worked in the hospital, but there I saw many bodies every day.”

Tsune Yatabe

Volunteers also played an important role in caring for patients at the school. People in Yatabe’s circle wanted to help, but they feared becoming infected with the virus. When Yatabe’s husband went to the school to volunteer, he was told they wanted women to serve as nurses. After Yatabe herself volunteered, two of her friends followed. Soon they were working in the school’s kitchen and tending patients.

“I had never seen a dead body before I worked in the hospital, but there I saw many bodies every day,” Yatabe recalls in her memoir. “The funeral parlour was too busy to remove the bodies immediately, so the bodies were left on the beds.”

The staff witnessed other incredible scenes. One couple arrived at the hospital, both other­wise healthy and the wife pregnant. Three days later they were dead, leaving behind another child. Another pregnant woman gave birth while at the hospital.

Eventually, Yatabe herself was infected. She was hospitalized at Strathcona. Then her husband and 18-month-old son became ill and joined her. Delirious with fever, Yatabe had an unusual vision: “I was overwhelmed when I saw my father standing at the hospital gate, wearing fine clothing. I spoke to him in my dream.”

Strange to be alive

Her husband and son were released after a few days, but Yatabe’s condition worsened. Doctors feared the worst, and proposed moving her to a different hospital. Learning that she hadn’t much longer to live, former patients visited to pay their last respects.

Then, a miracle. Yatabe’s fever suddenly disappeared. She was allowed to convalesce in the school, one of only two remaining patients; the epidemic had peaked and most staff had left. One day, the other woman in Yatabe’s room called the nurses for help but no one came. She began to cry. In an example of her perseverance and compassion, Yatabe got out of bed and crawled to the nursing station to find someone.

“I later learned the reason why no one came to our room. Later that night, it became very noisy outside,” wrote Yatabe. “News from the battlefield often came to the hospital, and the three staff members were excited to hear the news about the end of the war. Many people were honking their car horns and making cel­ebra­tory noises. I was allowed to return home on that exciting day. I was in a car decorated with flags from different countries. It was November 11, 1918, an historic day for not only the world but also for me. As I had been about to die three days before, it felt strange to be alive. At the same time, I felt very sorry for many friends who had lost their lives to the Spanish flu.”

Tsune Yatabe eventually settled in Toronto and died in 1984. Her granddaughter Susan Yatabe has researched and written extensively about Japanese–Canadian history.