Warning: shameless generalizing ahead.
As a mixed-race sansei who grew up pretty far removed from the Japanese Canadian community, I’ve never had much insight into the mind of nisei. Apart from my own mother who was, well, my mom, and family friend Roy Kiyooka who was, well, very much himself, I met very few Japanese Canadians at all until I was in my late teens. Even then, when I got involved in the community through my music, most of the friends I made were also sansei. They didn’t seem a whole lot different than me, except they were older, more experienced, and had cooler names.
It was a revelation to discover that this new community I was suddenly part of was in fact made up of three distinct generations: the issei, my grandparent’s generation, whom I couldn’t understand; the sansei, as described above; and the nisei, who fit neither description. There are parallels, I’m sure, to the experience of other immigrant groups, yet the circumstances conspired to create what I see as a unique situation.
The majority of second generation Japanese Canadians (the children of the pre-war immigrants) grew up straddling two worlds, inhabiting both their parents’ reality and that of the broader Canadian community. To make things even more confusing, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, most were interned with their families for the duration of the war, sent to internment camps in the Kootenays or sugar beet farms in the prairies. Stripped of their rights by their own government and branded as enemy aliens, they spent many of their formative years in what was, for all intents and purposes, an enclosed, artificial environment.
The issei, who bore the brunt of the trauma—losing their homes, their businesses, their fishing boats—shielded their children from as much of the hardship as they could. So the nisei, who were mostly in their teens (or younger) experienced the situation in a very different way. Removed from the racism that was rampant on the west coast, life became in some ways simpler. Schooling was hit and miss at best, and the demands on their time were not overwhelming. According to Victoria’s Midge Ayukawa (Dr. Ayukawa no less), they even developed their own polyglot language in the camps, a loose mixture of English and Japanese words. It was, she remembers, much more traumatizing leaving the camps then entering them, not knowing what was going to come out when she opened her mouth.
There is perhaps a temptation to lump the nisei together in one homogeneous grouping, and it is not uncommon to do so. But despite a commonality of experience, the response to the war years differed from person to person and there as many differences as similarities between individuals. The older nisei, people like Tom Shoyama, Frank Moritsugu and Muriel Kitagawa, had a different perspective altogether. Old enough to grasp the nuances of what was going on, some became active in community affairs and initiatives like publishing the New Canadian.
Much of this month’s issue is given over a nisei who contributed much to how we see ourselves as a community. Roy Ito’s two primary books—We Went to War and Stories of My People—are told from a uniquely nisei perspective. The tales he weaves are at once objective and deeply personal, painting a picture of the early years of the Japanese Canadian experience with humour and a keen eye for detail.
This issue of The Bulletin is published in conjunction with the new Japanese Canadian National Museum exhibition and website. March to December, in both its online form and its “real world” iteration was instigated by an award from Ito’s widow Mitsy, who donated her husband’s archives to the Museum. The stated aim of the one-time award was to carry on the spirit of Roy Ito by supporting research and publication about the Japanese Canadian experience.
Local artist Cindy Mochizuki was chosen as the recipient of the award and she spent the past year working with three other Nikkei artists to create March to December. This issue contains several excerpts of Roy Ito’s writing, along with a description of the project by Cindy Mochizuki, an interview with Ito’s daughter Carole, a piece by his granddaughter Alex Ross, and written pieces by two of the artists. I hope that in reading the next few pages, you will gain a deeper insight into Roy Ito and his work.
Baco Ohama, a Canadian artist living in Washington and one of the participants in March to December, attended President Barack Obama’s inauguration on January 20 and sent along the two poems that are printed on the masthead page.
Condolences go out to Bulletin volunteer Clara Norris on the passing of her husband and fellow volunteer Mac. Born down the road from New Denver in Silverton, BC, Mac worked in the logging and railroad industries for many years, gaining a great deal of respect over a long and distinguished career.