Mapping Memory/Reflecting on History
my palms dreaming
against the hide of a fir,
lines spanning and branching
broken only at sky . . .
Michael Tora Speier
When newly-installed Japanese Canadian National Museum Director-Curator Beth Carter was searching for ideas for a fall exhibit she was mindful of the fact that September is significant for the Canadian Nikkei community as the 22nd of the month marks the Anniversary of the Redress settlement. In addition, this September 25 to 27, the Nikkei Centre will serve as a venue for the conference Honouring Our People: Stories of the Internment, co-hosted by the National Association of Japanese Canadians and the Greater Vancouver Japanese Canadian Citizens’ Association. It seemed fitting, then, to mount an exhibit that addressed the meaning of memory and history, particularly as it pertains to the Internment years.
According to Carter, very little work was required on her part: “I was very lucky that the exhibits came to me! Before I was hired, Michael made a very kind offer to help the museum. Once I had a chance to meet with him, hear about the work, and also learn about the conference, all the pieces seemed to come together in a very short amount of time. I really appreciate Michael’s and Leslie’s flexibility to work on this tight schedule.”
In Speier and Komori, Carter has two artists that eschew the academic in favour of a more community-oriented approach. Both have worked at a community level in various capacities over the years and this shows in their approach. Says Carter, “When people think of oral history, they often think of a serious, formal interview with a tape recorder and a notepad. These two wonderful and whimsical exhibits can be viewed as another way to inspire and gather memories. Leslie invites viewers to imagine themselves on the streets of Lemon Creek, and she is looking for recollections that are personal, and even humorous. Michael is juxtaposing imagery, symbols and words onto sculptural “monuments” that can inspire new ideas. With a family background in California, he also brings a different cross-border perception to the discussion of the internment.”
While the upcoming exhibit will be on display for the next several months, Carter sees it as part of a larger plan to bring the Museum into clearer focus. “The Japanese Canadian National Museum has extremely important collections and can help tell many significant stories for the community—relating to history, life today and on into the future. I hope we can play an essential role in many collaborative community events, and that we can expand to truly represent the national story of Japanese Canadians. I hope to see lots of activity around the museum in the next few years, with more school groups, public programs, researchers and stimulating exhibits. So keep posted!”
In Her Own Words
I’ve been to Lemon Creek, or the site of where it was anyway, and it’s just a big field now. Yet at one time it was the largest internment camp, when you count Bayfarm and Rosebury. How did you come up with the concept of the Lemon Creek Map Project?
I went up to Lemon Creek with my mom and visited that same field. As you saw, there really is nothing much there, nothing to mark four years of thousands of peoples’ lives. There are depressions that mark the former locations of outhouses and metal spigots. But that’s about it. I was hoping that my mom could locate the location of her house but the lack of landmarks disoriented her.
We went to the adjacent lodge and they had this incredible map. And there in black and white was proof that my mom was really there, 14 Holly, Mochizuki, the street address of her shack. The map said that my mom and her family lived there whereas the cow field yielded very little evidence of their lives there. I figured that the map and all those names contained thousands of stories. I thought a map might function as a good vehicle to collect oral histories of the camp.
What is the Lemon Creek Map Project?
The original map was produced by the 1991 Lemon Creek Golden Reunion group. Mary Ohara, a former Lemon Creeker, spearheaded the project. In the 1940’s, a group called Hakko-kai had produced statistics, listing all the different families and corresponding street addresses. Mary’s brother-in-law translated the document from Japanese to English. The map grew from the lists of those names and addresses.
The Map Project attempts to create a small scale layout of the original Lemon Creek Internment camp. People can walk down the streets. Gildead, Fir, Spirea, and find the location of their old house. There are blank “houses” drawn on the map, with only the address. The intent is for survivors of the camp, or their relatives to write information in the house, with stories, with the names of people that lived there. My hope is that in writing one’s name down, in including a story, people can re-possess the memory of that very difficult time and also mark their presence at the camp. Much has been done to obliterate the presence of the survivors at the physical site of Lemon Creek. Possibly in just writing down your name, writing a short story, the survivors get to re-assert their presence at the camp and say, yep, I was there.
You first set up the project at the Powell Street Festival several years ago—what was the response to it then?
I’m not sure actually. I’ve displayed the map at PSF a few years ago. I also took it to Toronto for the Lemon Creek reunion in 2007. People have been participating, not so much writing stories but usually listing all the members of their families in the houses.
How has the Project changed since its Powell Street Festival incarnation, and what are you hoping will come out of this latest one, considering that it will be up at the Museum for a relatively long time?
I have a bunch of my mom’s old pictures from Lemon Creek. I’m not sure how she has pictures because cameras were banned. I’m going to try to hang the pictures relative to street addresses where they were taken. I’m hoping the pictures will inspire some memories. I hope to encourage survivors to write more stories on the map. I would also like to encourage the children, grandchildren, great grandchildren of survivors to write questions on the map. I don’t know how easy it is to write a story about camp. But when prompted by questions, former Lemon Creekers are good at answering questions about camp.
The upcoming conference, Honouring Our People: Stories of the Internment, is intended in part, as I understand it, to elicit memories and stories from the Internment years. There is a perception that those who were interned didn’t want to talk about it afterwards. What is your experience with that, when it comes to your own family?
First, I want to put in a big plug for the conference. I think this important conference gives an opportunity for people who went through the war to share stories but also the relatives of those survivors to hear stories and maybe even ask questions they have always been afraid to ask. The conference happens September 25 – September 27 at the Nikkei Centre.
Talking to my Sansei friends, I think some families talked about the war and some families did not talk about it. My family did not talk about it openly. My parents threw out all these pieces and echoes of the history but did not tell me anything directly when I was a child. My mom would refer to friends she knew in “ghost town.” My parents would send me up to the Cariboo for summer vacations, where my dad’s side went to a self-supporting camp. I never understood why or how the family moved from Vancouver to 70 Mile. Once I went to the PNE with my uncle and he happened to mention that he stayed at the PNE for a few weeks. That information really confused me. I can’t remember if he mentioned the Livestock Building. But in retrospect, I understood why my mother never took us see the Agricultural exhibits.
My grade three teacher, Janet Vesterback, gave me Shizuye Takashima’s Child in a Prison Camp. That book directly taught me about camp for the first time. My teacher said, this is what happened to your family. I thought, no way. We live in a middle class neighbourhood, and live a charmed middle class life. No way this stuff in the book happened to my family. But then I got more evidence. My sister Lucy, a yellow power hippie in the 1970’s was working on a Japanese Canadian history project with the Powell Street Revue. So through osmosis, I was picking up on our family history through her community work.
About eight years ago, I started to ask very direct questions to my mom. At first she was reluctant to talk. She had always preserved the Japanese value of kodomo no tame for the sake of the children, protecting my siblings and me from the reality of her own history. But I persisted with my questions and at some point she started talking. She talked about the forced removal from Haney, her brief stay at Hastings Park, life in Lemon Creek and the adventure being a repat in Japan. I am very grateful to my mother for sharing her history. It’s not my right or privilege in any way. I don’t think it’s easy to talk about this stuff. For me, her sharing of camp stories is a precious gift.
What does Lemon Creek mean to you? Does it have meaning beyond its historical significance, or is it just a field?
I think that physical places hold psychic and spiritual memory. Even though Lemon Creek is just presently a cow field, I can sense the spirits of the people who live and died there. Lack of historical markers at Lemon Creek site and other sites of wartime camps really pisses me off. In the states, the National Park Service has recognized many former incarceration camps as significant historical sites. I have heard that Roy Inouye in Kamloops heads an effort to have the British Columbia government put up historical markers at the different sites. I hope Lemon Creek gets a marker so all Canadians will remember.
I am pessimistic as I feel that our community’s ugly history will repeat and has repeated itself. I think post 9-11 events, like the illegal deportation of Maher Arar, the delayed lack of habeas corpus or an open judicial process for Omar Khadr, the numerous hate crimes against Muslim and South Asian Canadians, have echoes of our community’s history. However, I posit that the education process about the camps through the redress campaign may have tempered a more potent racist backlash after 9-11. I’m not an academic so I’m not really sure. But I figure the marking and remembering of Lemon Creek may help to foster the “never again”.
Not to compare the actual experience, but some children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors identify themselves as “the second generation” as they inherit part of the legacy of the Holocaust. As a Sansei, I identify with the experience of inheriting a history on a different level. The wartime experience is an important part of Canadian history. On a practical level, I need to remember Lemon Creek and to know the nuts and bolts of this history so I can educate future generations of all Canadians. On a more personal level, I feel the need to understand Lemon Creek because that experience indirectly has shaped me and my world view. It’s my belief that I need to know my family’s history so I can understand how I operate in the world and can change it. Pretty humble eh!!!
Leslie Komori is the youngest daughter of Fuzzy Komori and Kay Komori (nee Mochizuki). She is a third generation Vancouverite, literally born and bred in Oakridge. She is a producer of loud sounds and paradoxically a registered audiologist. She began working in the Japanese Canadian community as a teenager with organizations such as Tonari Gumi and the Powell Street Festival. She has also done community organizing in the East Asian queer community in Vancouver. She would like to express her appreciation to Michael Speier for kicking her off her butt and giving her another opportunity to remount the exhibit and to Beth Carter for her practical help and support.