On the nature of memory and remembering
The 20th Anniversary Redress Celebrations, held last weekend in Vancouver and Burnaby, are now over. The months of planning and preparations paid off handsomely in a well-run, well-attended event that managed to pay tribute to a historic occasion while acknowledging the present and looking forward to the future. Congratulations to all those who worked so hard to make the event a success.
The Anniversary brought back many memories for those in the Nikkei community. It also provided a chance to put things in perspective. As someone remarked at one of the youth forums, we were the young ones in those days, now we are the seniors, the veterans. Indeed, looking through the photographs from those days, it is striking how young we all looked.
With the Anniversary event itself now receding into memory, I find myself meditating on the nature of memory—both personal and collective.
Sometimes it feels, working in the Canadian Nikkei community, that we are consumed by the past—summoning up old ghosts at every turn. Perhaps it is because the past is still so fresh. After all, it is only 131 years since Manzo Nagano stepped onto the dock at New Westminster, only 66 years since the order was made to remove Japanese Canadians from the coast, and only 59 years since the last of the restriction placed on Japanese Canadians were lifted, marking the start of a new chapter in our community’s history. Here at The Bulletin of course, we are marking our fiftieth Anniversary.
Last year, Asian organizations in the lower mainland collaborated on the Anniversaries of Change, with 2007 marking a number of significant anniversaries, including the anti-Asian riots of 1907 and the winning of the franchise in 1947. Clearly, the past is still very much with us.
It is one thing to go back over one’s own memories—events that shaped us, for better or for worse. But what is it that drives us to go back over events that we were not part of, that happened, in many cases, before we were even born? What is it that moves us to ruminate on the past? I suppose you could quote George Santayana, who famously said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” While there is a lot of truth in that statement, one could just as well argue that many old hatreds and grudges are kept alive by dwelling on past injustices, real or perceived. Clearly, memory is a double-edged sword that is subjective in nature. So while it doesn’t do to dwell on what can’t be changed, it is healthy to examine the past for hard lessons, in order that we can move forward without making the same mistakes over and over again.
Perhaps the need to remember goes deeper than any conscious desire to recall the past. Perhaps it is hard-wired into our genes. What is so terrifying about Alzheimer’s disease is the idea of losing our past, of losing that connection with what we have experienced. After all, human relationships are built around shared experiences, and by extension, our shared memories of those experiences. Once we lose those memories, the connection itself is broken.
So yes, let us cherish our most precious memories, learn from past mistakes, and above all, not let our memories keep us from forging a new, and hopefully brighter, future.