How a piano found its way back home after 80 years

The Takata family left some of their possessions, including a piano, with friends in Victoria when they were forced into an internment camp in 1942


How a piano found its way back home after 80 years

The Takata family left some of their possessions, including a piano, with friends in Victoria when they were forced into an internment camp in 1942

Dillon and Lisa Takata stand with their youngest daughter, Kana, in front of the piano that belonged to Dillon's great aunt Toshie. Photo: Jolene Rudisuela / Capital Daily
Dillon and Lisa Takata stand with their youngest daughter, Kana, in front of the piano that belonged to Dillon's great aunt Toshie. Photo: Jolene Rudisuela / Capital Daily

How a piano found its way back home after 80 years

The Takata family left some of their possessions, including a piano, with friends in Victoria when they were forced into an internment camp in 1942

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How a piano found its way back home after 80 years
Dillon and Lisa Takata stand with their youngest daughter, Kana, in front of the piano that belonged to Dillon's great aunt Toshie. Photo: Jolene Rudisuela / Capital Daily

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The Heintzman & Co. upright grand piano sits against a blank wall in the Takata home, set atop a shaggy rug amongst toys and a small jungle gym.

Its glossy, rich mahogany finish makes it look practically new, but this piano is an antique; its ivory keys have been played by generations of hands. Reflected in the finish is the newest member of the Takata family, 9-month-old Kana, who crawls over and reaches to touch one of the shiny foot pedals with her tiny hand.

The piano is a new addition to the Victoria home—if only temporary—but its history in the family dates back decades. When the Takatas and more than 22,000 Japanese Canadians were forcibly interned in 1942, the piano would leave their possession, not to return for nearly 80 years.

“It’s just such a unique situation that this survived and then survived to be returned to its original owner’s family three generations later,” said Dillon Takata, sitting on the floor in front of the piano with his youngest daughter and wife, Lisa. “So, I just think it’s quite remarkable how that happened.”

It is rare for the descendants of those interned to recover possessions lost during the war—rarer still to recover something as big as a piano. The Takatas are searching for a permanent home for the instrument where it can shine a spotlight on the forced internment and dispossession of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War—and maybe where it can be played again.

“It’s such a unique symbol of reconciliation almost—you know, having a possession returned so many years later,” said Dillon. “I think it’s a piece of history that deserves to be displayed.”

The tea house

The Japanese tea gardens in Esquimalt’s Gorge Park—the oldest Japanese Gardens in Canada, opened in 1907 by Hayato Takata, Dillon's great great uncle, and Yoshijiro Kishida—were officially reopened in October 2009 after decades of disrepair. The ornamental stream was refurbished, a traditional Japanese bridge was built over it, and a new Japanese entry gate was constructed. The Township of Esquimalt held a ceremony, including a Budhhist garden blessing and performances by the Uminari Drum Group and the Furusato Dancers, to commemorate the revival of the historical gardens.

Since then, more work has been done: cherry trees and Japanese maples, many of which were donated by the Takata family, have been planted throughout the park and the construction of the Gorge Park Pavillion, which is a community space designed with Japanese architectural features to commemorate the original tea house, is nearly finished.

“Esquimalt has done a really good job of putting the Japanese Garden in here,” said Mike Abe, project manager for UVic’s Landscapes of Injustice, as we walked around the gardens in Gorge Park. The original Japanese tea gardens were destroyed in the 1940s, he tells me, after Japanese Canadians were forced into internment camps and locals began looting the property. The current iteration of the gardens is smaller than it once was, and the layout is different, but Abe is proud of the amount of work that has gone into celebrating the park’s history.

Abe points to a spot east of the gardens where a cherry tree-lined road cuts through a grassy slope. That is approximately where the Japanese tea house sat, he said. Opened the same year as the gardens and run successfully for decades by the Takata family, the tea house served traditional English fare to the thousands of visitors who took the tramway across from Victoria to the site.

A photo of the Japanese Tea House, dated 1912. Credit: City of Victoria Archives CVA M07761

The Takata family continued to run the tea house all the way up until 1942. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbour, the Canadian government enacted the War Measures Act, granting it the power to suspend the rights and freedoms of Canadian Citizens and allowing the detainment and dispossession of Japanese Canadians.

On April 22, 1942, the Takata family and other local Japanese Canadians were herded onto a CPR steamship in the Victoria Harbour and brought to a detainment centre in Hastings Park Exhibition Grounds in Vancouver. There they stayed in squalor and horrible unsanitary conditions for five months before being moved to an internment camp in the abandoned silver mining town of Sandon, BC, in the Kootenay region.

Back at Gorge Park, the gardens were getting destroyed by locals: plants were dug up and dragged away, and the tea house was looted.

An agent from the federal Office of the Custodian visited in 1944 and wrote that “the place is just a wreck. Practically everything of value has been removed… The place has been ravaged and wanton destruction has taken place all over the premises.”

Deemed to be a fire hazard, the tea house was destroyed.

The piano

The Takatas received their first piano from the Nishimoto family, who once owned a pleasure boat that toured the Gorge waterway. For 10 cents, visitors could sail up and down the Gorge as they enjoyed refreshments and music. When the boat's owner Zenkichi Nishimoto moved to Tillicum to focus on boat building and farming, he took the piano with him. But when the family moved to Vancouver in 1938 after his death, they gave the piano to Toshie Takata, Dillon’s great aunt who was a teenager at the time.

“My mother loved music,” said George Takata, Toshie’s younger brother, who I reached by phone at his home in Ontario. “She had the piano fixed and had Toshie take piano lessons.”

After the Takatas received the first piano, George’s mother purchased another piano from a family who was moving back to Japan and couldn’t take it with them. This second piano was the Heintzman, which Toshie prized, George said.

Now 96 years old, George still has lots of memories of growing up in the tea gardens with his five siblings. He remembers swimming in the Gorge before it became polluted with sewage, and recalls serving tea in the tea house when his family needed help.

The Takatas lived in a house right beside the gardens that previously housed workers. The living room in particular was quite large—and this is where both pianos were kept.

George says his mother was musically gifted, but music did not come naturally to most of his five siblings.

“My oldest brother was musical. Toshie was not musical, unfortunately,” he said. “But she was determined to learn piano and she did take lessons.”

When the Takatas were being forced to leave, they gave their possessions to friends, the Stancils, to hold until their return. As her prized possession, Toshie asked them to keep her Heintzman piano safe.  But the Takatas weren’t able to go back after the war.

“My family sort of relocated to Ontario after the war, like a lot of Japanese Canadian families did,” Dillon said. “They weren’t even allowed to live in Toronto still, they had to sort of live outside the city of Toronto since major cities were still off limits and they couldn’t return to their original coastal homes.”

And even if they had returned to Victoria, there would have been little left for them.

Aside from the looting, the federal government auctioned off Japanese Canadians’ possessions to fund the internment.

Letters accessed through the UVic-led Landscapes of Injustice research project between the federal government’s Office of the Custodian and then-18-year-old Toshie Takata documented her attempts to get her piano back. After determining the cost of shipping the piano across the country would be too high, she eventually agreed to sell it to the Stancils for $100.

“I would like to stress that the piano was sold owing to financial circumstances otherwise it would have been preferably shipped here despite the high freight expenses,” she wrote.

A letter sent by Toshie Takata to the Office of the Custodian on Aug. 20, 1945. Courtesy: Landscapes of Injustice archive

Passed down

In the 80 years since the piano left the possession of the Takatas, it has stayed in Victoria with the Stancil family. It was passed down through multiple generations to land in the possession of Steven Lennon.

Sixty-nine-year-old Lennon, who is related to the Stancils through his mother, says he has always known the story of how the piano came to be with his family. He remembers it in his home growing up and playing it while he was in piano lessons as a child—though he was never particularly musically gifted.  

“It was just always there. And then when I was old enough to buy my own place when I was 25, the piano came with me and I’ve had it ever since,” Lennon said.

It was in 2019, when the campaign to rebuild the Japanese tea house was in full force (what would later become the Gorge Park Pavilion), that Lennon read an article about the work and realized the piano did not belong in his home.

“It was just a matter of, this needs to go back to the original owners or someplace where it’s valued for its historical significance,” he said.

He reached out to the Victoria Nikkei Cultural Society, who passed the message on to the Takata family.

The Takatas came to see it, but before passing it on to them, Lennon paid to have it professionally restored. The piano hadn’t been played for years, it badly needed a tuning, the shellac coating was cracking in places, and the wood had been damaged by house cats. The $11,000 restoration, completed by Allison Piano, took about nine months.

“Somehow life has treated me very fairly,” Lennon said. “Now that I’m going to be 70 this year, it’s kind of like, well, I’m not going to be able to spend it all, and I’d like to see the piano look the way it was back in the ’40s. It just seemed like the right thing to do.”

Lost and found

The fact that the piano was never sold outside the Stancil family is very unusual, Abe said. So few Japanese Canadians were able to find their possessions, even if they did leave them with friends, because so much was seized by the government and auctioned off.

“I think that’s the biggest thing is that so much of it was sold through auction and just dispersed. There was really nothing that came back,” Abe said. “So they were uprooted and forcibly relocated, and then dispossessed—they really had to start over again.”

The more time goes on, the more likely it is that those possessions are lost forever. But on rare occasions things, like the piano, make their way back.

Abe, a third generation Japanese Canadian, has in his possession an end table made by his uncle that had also been passed to a family friend for safekeeping during the war.

In 2000, with the help of a map, he found the place where his mother had lived, picked plums from the trees that had been on their property, and made umeboshi, sour pickled plums.

After he wrote about the experience, a woman got in touch, saying that she had one piece of furniture that her husband’s family had kept for Abe’s family during the war. She wanted to give it to him.

When he went to pick up the end table, he recalls saying “fushigi”—a wondrous, unexplainable thing. His wife responded with the word “kiseki”: a miracle.

The piano is also not the only possession the Takatas have from that time. Dillon and Lisa were recently visiting Dillon’s grandfather, George, in Ontario when he gave them a teacup that was from the original pre-war tea garden. He had found it in a secondhand shop in Victoria years earlier.

“It must have been looted from the tea house when it was abandoned and somebody turned it into a thrift shop somewhere,” Dillon said. “It’s the only surviving one that we’re aware of, but we were just curious if there are others that are floating around people’s houses.”

The Takata family is looking for other similar teacups in Victoria that may have been used in the Japanese tea house. Photo: Jolene Rudisuela / Capital Daily

Dillon is currently working on a proposal to have the piano and tea cup displayed in the Gorge Park Pavilion. If not there, somewhere where they can be appreciated, he said.

“It’s an acknowledgement of what happened,” Lisa said. “There’s really almost no awareness of the history of Gorge Park Gardens. All of these pieces continue to keep the story alive. We’re hoping to keep people talking about it.”

Toshie died about three years ago, and never got to see the piano returned. But George will see the piano in her stead. This June, for the grand opening of the Gorge Park Pavilion, George and Dillon’s father Dave will travel across the country and see the piano in person.

“At least some of that generation who went through internment and had their possessions taken from them are still alive to learn of its return,” Dillon said. “It’s very, very, very meaningful, for sure.”

George was amazed to hear of the piano’s return. He said it brought back memories of his sister.

Toshie purchased a piano as soon as she was able when the family relocated to Ontario. And throughout the years, she always owned a piano and continued to play.

“She wasn’t, as I say, musical, but she loved to play the piano. I guess it was her way of doing something for herself. It was an accomplishment,” George said.

And to learn of its return, “She would have been excited in a way that we wouldn’t be able to picture.”

Correction at 8:15am on May 30: The story has been edited to correct the spelling of of Yoshijiro Kishida and Zenkichi Nishimoto's names, and to reflect that Zenkichi had died before his piano was passed on to Toshie Takata.


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