Aiko Saita was a well-loved Nisei mezzo-soprano/contralto singer. Born in BC in 1909, Aiko grew up in Cumberland and dreamed of becoming a dentist. At the age of 14, she moved to Vancouver to attend high school, working for the dentist Dr. Miyake and his wife as a live-in maid and nurse for their children. Dr. and Mrs. Miyake bonded with Aiko over her love of music, and encouraged her to sing.
In 1932, Saita graduated from the Toronto Conservatory of Music. Japanese soprano Toshiko Sekiya told her to study in Italy; Saita was able to realize that ambition with the help of the Japanese Canadian community, who raised funds under the “Saita Aiko Kouenkai (support group)” to finance her trip. After completing her European studies in 1935, Saita had offers to stay in Italy, but instead signed a contract with the Japan Victor Company, and made her debut in Japan later that year.
Saita made many recordings of both classical and semi-classical songs, as well as folk and pop songs under the stage name “Yoshie Tachibana.” She toured Canada in 1937 and North America, including an extended visit to British Columbia, in 1939-1940. During these tours, she travelled to several remote areas of British Columbia to perform for Japanese immigrant communities, including some who had never attended a concert before. She also performed in concert with local baritone Sally Nakamura, and was warmly welcomed by the Japanese Canadian community.
Early in her career, Saita seemed to cultivate something of an ‘exotic’ image (perhaps because she was born outside of Japan) by recording Japanese versions of “foreign” songs, including Mexican, Irish, Indian, American, and Italian songs. However, in wartime Japan she was forbidden to sing in English. In 1945, Saita toured Manchuria to perform for the Japanese army and civilians stationed there; she was interned there by the Russians in 1946.
After returning to Japan, she was able to sing in opera again, and to sing in English. Her voice had changed during her internment, however, from a mezzo-soprano to contralto range. In 1953, she toured Canada for a third time, but this was cut short when she was hospitalized in Vancouver. In 1954, she returned to Japan and passed away in September of that year in Tokyo.
Many Nisei fondly remember going to hear Aiko Saita sing, and she shared a strong affection for her Nikkei audiences. Two Aiko Saita memorial concerts, with recordings of her singing, were held in the 21st century: one in Toronto in 2002, and another in Vancouver in 2004.