Chiru Sakura, a Mother and Daughter’s Journey by Grace Eiko Thomson
One day a number of years ago, while Grace Eiko Thomson was visiting her 84-year-old mother in the care home where she was living, her mother handed her a small booklet with the title Journal. The book, written in Japanese, began with the date, March 1, 1997. Grace read the first page of what appeared to be a diary out loud, after which her mother smiled and took the book back. Several years later, Grace’s mother handed her the booklet back to her and said, “It’s finished.”
Grace scanned the book, then put it away and didn’t give it much thought until a few years later, when her mother began to experience health issues. Grace discovered within herself not only an urgency to reread the journal/memoir but to excavate her own memories from her early years growing up with her family, along with the complicated relationship the two shared during difficult times.
As she writes in the introduction to her new book, Chiru Sakura, Falling Cherry Blossoms, a Mother and Daughter’s Journey through Racism, Internment and Oppression, “I did not begin translating her memoir until after she passed. And it was in rereading it that I began realizing how generational differences affect interpretation of those years, the many years of struggle each of us, together and apart, had lived and endured. I decided them to complete the journey began by mother, each of us find our own resolution.”
The resulting book, published by Caitlin Press, is an affecting read. Sawae (née Yamamoto) Nishikihama’s writing is interspersed with Grace’s own writing, providing a twin narrative covering two lifetimes, from the 1920s up to the present day.
Grace was born Eiko Nishikihama in Steveston Fisherman’s hospital in 1933. She grew up in the Powell Street area until 1942 when the family moved to the self-supporting site of Minto Mines, BC.
At the end of the war, the family relocated to Manitoba, where Eiko took the name Grace in an attempt to avoid discriminatory remarks in the classroom. The family moved to Winnipeg in 1949 when government restrictions on the movement of Japanese Canadians were finally removed. She work at various jobs while going to school in order to help the family financially.
In 1959, she married Alistar MacDonald Thomson, with whom she would raise two sons.
After studying history, sociology, and political science as a mature student at the University of Winnipeg, Grace enrolled in the University of Manitoba’s School of Art where she graduated with honours, earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1977. Then, from 1980 to 1982, she attended the University of British Columbia to undertake graduate studies in Asian Art History.
Grace returned to the University of Manitoba as Assistant Director and Curator at the University’s School of Art Gallery, teaching art history as a part time instructor. During this time, she travelled north to Nunavut to assist Inuit artists.
In 1990, she studied for a master’s degree in Social History of Art under renowned feminist scholar Dr. Griselda Pollock at the University of Leeds before returning to Canada to become Executive Director and Curator at the Prince Albert Art Gallery, where she continued to work with Indigenous artists to promote their art.
After three years in Prince Albert, Grace returned to her birthplace, Vancouver where she continued to highlight cross-cultural themes as curator at the Burnaby Art Gallery, including a series of exhibitions titled Tracing Cultures. In 1996, she co-founded Asian Heritage Month, a non-profit society dedicated to recognizing Asian Canadian arts and culture in the month of May.
Grace’s relationship with the Nikkei National Museum began in 1998 as a volunteer consultant for what was then the Japanese Canadian National Museum. She was appointed as the founding Executive Director and Curator in 2000 and The Japanese Canadian National Museum opened on September 22, 2000, as a tenant in the new National Nikkei Heritage Centre, with an exhibition curated by Grace entitled Re-shaping Memory, Owning History: Through the Lens of Japanese Canadian Redress.
After the Japanese Canadian National Museum and National Nikkei Heritage Boards merged in 2002, Grace was offered and accepted a contract to curate two exhibitions that she had previously proposed: Shashin: Japanese Canadian Studio Photographers to 1942 and Levelling the Playing Field: The Legacy of Vancouver Asahi Baseball Team.
From 2005 to 2010, Grace served as president of the National Association of Japanese Canadians. During her leadership, Grace coordinated with poet and author Dr. Roy Miki and legal historian Ann Gomer Sunahara to produce a position paper for the Government of Canada entitled Taking Responsibility, A Submission to the Canadian Government on the Misrepresentation of Japanese Canadians and Their History.
Over the last ten years, Grace has continued her work in the Japanese Canadian community. In 2012, she was awarded the Japanese Canadian History Preservation and Education Award by the Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre. In 2016, Grace was invited to speak at several events, including as keynote speaker at both an arts symposium held at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre in Toronto, and for programming related to her Two Views exhibit that had travelled to the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles earlier that year.
Grace was the official nominator of the Asahi baseball team for the plaque that was unveiled in Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park. She also served as a consultant for Yuya Ishii’s 2014 film, The Vancouver Asahi, and she co-published the English version of Norio Goto’s book, Story of Vancouver Asahi: A Legend in Baseball (2010). In 2018-2019, Grace was a key consultant for a Historica Canada Canadian Heritage Minute and a Canada Post limited edition stamp commemorating the 100th anniversary of the team’s first pennant win in 1919.
In 2017 she acted as nominator for a Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada plaque dedicated to the courage and resolve exercised by Tomey Homma in challenging the exclusion of Japanese Canadians from voting in Canadian elections. Grace is currently concentrating on the induction of Tomekichi Homma into the National Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
In 2015 Grace acted as narrator in the second iteration of the Vancouver Taiko Society’s Against the Current, a cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary production which was performed at the Heart of the City Festival. Grace worked with Indigenous storyteller Rosemary Georgeson, performing poetic lines in the production, which celebrated the role of salmon in Salish, Japanese Canadian, and founding communities of the Downtown Eastside. She also took part in Chief Dr. Robert Joseph’s Reconciliation Canada in 2017, where she participated in a three-day Circle workshop with members of many other communities to learn the significance of sharing through the Circle towards the goals of reconciliation.
I spoke to Grace by email.
Bulletin Interview: Grace Eiko Thomson
I haven’t talked to you for so long, Grace. What’s it been like for you living in lockdown for all this time? How have you been filling your time and getting by?
It’s not much fun being locked down, now a year in, and we are still told to stay in and to wear masks. Luckily, I am someone who never minded solitude . . . in fact, I enjoy it, as usually I have some kind of project or thought in mind that I am developing, even to a useless end! But at this time, my regret is that since November, I have been dealing with a severe back pain (caused by a spinal fracture, not unusual for anyone my age, who did not exercise but sat in front of the computer for most of my life!) I am grateful that I have my niece, Brenda, and several good friends who taken time to offer me help whenever I need it.
You’ve been talking about writing this book for a long time – and now you’ve finally done it! I imagine that gives you great satisfaction. When did you know that you were actually going to write this book and have it published?
We live in a Canada that we are proud of. It has come a long way to become the current multi-cultural, relatively peaceful country which each of us enjoys. I did not think of writing a ‘book’ per se, but had always wanted, in the back of my mind, to leave some family history for my sons, especially that it relates to Canada’s history of injustice. When I was asked by Mother to translate her journal into English to be given to her grandchildren, I, through this process, realized that although we had lived our lives together, particularly during difficult years, the interpretation of how we got through them differs between generations. In the process of jotting down my own thoughts, I ended up deciding to write and self-publish my own experiences alongside Mother’s, to be offered to family members. I came to the realization, in retrospect, that I had lived a life which was largely focused on who I was (a product of Canada’s history of racism) and had become, never a ‘normal’ Canadian.
I think it’s so important that these kinds of books are written, as they represent so many stories and so many facets of our community. How did you go about finding a publisher?
I asked Barbara Pulling (a noted editor introduced to me by a respected friend), to edit what I had put together, and in reading, she suggested I seek a publisher, offering me a couple of names to choose from. I contacted Caitlin Press, which, surprising for me, instantly offered me a contract. This gave me the confidence and the much-needed encouragement to move forward away from self-publishing. I am glad I took this step as I realize now the enormity of work and knowledge required to move a manuscript to becoming a ‘book.’
I love the way your mother’s words and yours are presented in tandem. How did you come to have her writing in your possession and what made you decide to use your voice and hers in the telling of your family’s story?
What may be considered as ‘unique’ in my approach to the telling of this story is that I had, upon working to translate my mother’s original entries in her journal, decided to add my own experiences of stories of injustice. That is, the journey taken by an immigrant mother, and a born-in-Canada daughter…together, but apart, revealing generational differences in the interpretation of events.
Mother had, in the space of a few years, during the 1980s, experienced the losses of her older son, her husband, and her oldest daughter, and was into the ‘90s expressing emotional anger and frustration over the life she had led, which did not allow her and Father to remain in Vancouver where they had, with great hopes and dreams, began their married life. They were uprooted from their home, and dreams of high expectations, to spend the rest of their married life struggling, moving from place to place, wherever father could find work, to raise their five children. It was then that she began writing her own memoir, which she handed to me to translate and to offer to family members. Of her five children, only my younger sister, Keiko, and I, were the only ones surviving, at the time of her death in 2002.
Tell me a bit about your mother and father, what were their hopes and dreams?
My mother was a strong woman, who until she married was studying, even being sent to the City of Wakayama (from the village of Mio, now a city called Mihama) to further her education, albeit toward becoming a good wife. Father had immigrated at age 19 after finishing his education in Japan, hoping with excitement to join his two older brothers who were for a few years by then, fishing along the West Coast. He was told not to join them, but to choose another path, that is, to study the English language, and culture, if he planned to remain in Canada as an immigrant. So at the time he was called back home by his parents at age 27 to an arranged marriage he had been living in Winnipeg, working at a CPR hotel. Mother was strict, always focused on education, but Father was a kind and generous man, always giving us children a big smile, even as he had no choice but to work away from wherever we were living, usually at sawmills, returning to us every other weekend. His life had totally changed. As had Mother’s. They were married in 1930, interned in 1942, so their dreams were completely shattered.
Your family was in Minto, one of the small self-supporting camps, and I know it had a big impact on you. What was it like, in comparison to living in one of the larger camps that had many hundreds of families?
Minto was a self-supporting site so people there were living as though they had just moved temporarily to another home and town. They lived in relative comfort, in middle class homes, large and small, in the town of Minto Mines, vacated by miner families when the mines closed down. It was for the wealthy, who brought all their home furnishings, etc., even a piano by some families. It was a comfortable place.
Living in Minto was like living in a Nihonmachi (Japantown), with the Japanese language normally spoken. Although some young people and their Nisei parents spoke English, someone like me, with immigrant parents, spoke Japanese at home. In fact, Mother made sure I retained the language by offering me a daily language class after returning from public school. I felt angry about it, as not one of my friends were doing this, but I realize now how lucky I am that I have retained the language because of these classes. Otherwise, my memories of Minto include a few close friends, but also the beginning of a lifetime of moving from here to there, never feeling settled anywhere, friendships always short and put behind. My parents being young, went along with my father’s older brother, an established fisherman with family in Japan, who chose Minto with his established friends. I enjoyed Minto but likely it was not a good experience, as upon leaving we had to adjust to a white society that we children, my siblings and I, had hardly known to date. We moved into the larger society, which was not ‘Japanese’ but Canadian (European), culturally, and we (particularly elementary students) had to learn to interact with ‘others’ who largely were racist, though a few kind people did offer friendship.
You’ve talked in the past about the trauma of the second uprooting – tell me about what it was like leaving the camp and being forced east of the Rockies?
Since I was only eight when we moved to Minto, when we moved out three years later into the larger society, most of us children not old enough to remember, or to have experienced life (racism/discrimination) in the larger society, it was a major step. We, as children found we were ‘not good enough’, didn’t belong, in the larger society. It was different from Vancouver’s Strathcona elementary school, which I had experienced into Grade 2, with its mixed Chinese, Japanese, Italian, etc. students.
My parents chose Manitoba. I’m sure this was due to my father having already experienced and worked in the City of Winnipeg before his marriage. The first home we were given was a barn. A year later, we moved to the town of Whitemouth, where for the first time I experienced generous and kind people, and lived fully within this community, joining the church choir, skating, square dancing, curling, etc. There were at least five other Japanese Canadian families lived here and we were all treated equally, which allowed me to have hope as we continued to move, now with the restrictions finally lifted, into the City of Winnipeg, where several families were already residing.
The rest of my childhood, into my teens, was about adjusting. This was the norm for everyone, but memories of this past left an indelible mark on my inner being, dictating who I was to become. Perhaps the need to make notes, poetry, or to tell, whatever, began as a way to overcome periods of frustrations, such as held by my own mother, who left behind numerous pages of calligraphy, poetry, etc. Mother had also been dealing with such issues, as related particularly to her and Father’s shattered lives, written in the journal she offered me, but also within various scribblers and papers, which I have kept through the years.
I was in Grade 10 when we moved to Winnipeg, my first time experiencing a city high school. The one I registered at was located in the north end of the City which was attended largely by Eastern European (non-British), Scandinavian, and Jewish students. In those days we were very conscious of ethnicities, since being white did not constitute acceptance. Eastern Europeans (i.e., Ukrainians) and Jews were treated with discrimination.
Like my own mother, you married a non-Japanese, which was unusual in those days.
Yes, your mother and I were likely unusual in those days in that we intermarried. While I was one of the earliest to intermarry (with parental approval on both sides), in Winnipeg we were much more in mixed community relationships than we had been in Vancouver. My friends were not centred in the JC community. Father had lived in Winnipeg before 1942, when few Japanese/Asians lived there, working in the CPR hotel. I think he lived in a mixed society even in those days, the 1920s, with one of his older friends (Bill Sasaki, I think) already married to a white woman. When I married in Winnipeg, there were stories of parents disapproving of (or disowning) children who dated cross-culturally and did not allow them to intermarry. My parents had no problem…interestingly.
continued next month . . .
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