Paueru Gai Dialogues #3 – reflections
The Paueru Gai Dialogues – take three
The third session of the online Paueru Gai Dialogues was held on Saturday, March 27, 2021.
I was honoured to serve as guest host for On Memory, Mythmaking, and Community Resilience. The theme of the session emerged out of recent work I have been doing and conversations I have been having. The challenge was coming up with a presentation that powerfully but succinctly addressed such a broad theme in a short amount of time. An early decision to examine the Japanese Canadian experience over the past 150 years came out of the fact that 2021 marks 150 years since British Columbia joined the Canadian federation, an agreement that was negotiated by what was at the time a white minority. Given that Japanese Canadians began arriving around this same time – immigrant settlers in an “unsettled” landscape – the framing device seemed effective, but daunting. How do 150 years of history fit into a fifteen minute presentation? How did we make the shift from Yellow Peril, to Enemy Alien, to Model Minority, and back again? And not only that, how do I fit my own experience as a mixed-race third generation Japanese Canadian into the narrative?
In the end, the answer was less text, not more, using images to push the narrative with the text as punctuation. In recent years I have been harnessing the power of our community’s collected images in an attempt to powerfully tell our story in a way that words can only hint at. I carried this approach into this presentation, which I call From Mio to Mississauga.
The mythology that we signed onto when we arrived on these shores and set up our homes and communities – the British concept of fair play – was belied by the racism faced by Indigenous peoples and settlers of colour from the beginning and the myth was exploded for good with the wartime expulsion, incarceration, and dispossession of our entire community, acts made legal through a series of orders-in-council.
Calling on a reserve of strength that had been nurtured in the mines, mills, and fish cleaning plants, in fishing camps up and down the coast, and in a sense of community that had been maintained through language schools and community organizations, the issei and nisei endured through an initial uprooting followed by a second, in some ways more wrenching, one. Those who were unable to comes to terms with the scope of the betrayal signed up for deportation to Japan, to leave behind a country that never returned the loyalty that they themselves had cultivated.
In the end, after 1949, when all rights of citizenship were finally granted, the Japanese Canadian community found itself split in two, with some returning to rebuild their lives on the west coast and the bulk of the rest remaining in the east, where they had started over from scratch.
This split, and the arrival of the sansei, the third generation, born after the war, forms the heart of my presentation. What came before is essentially myth to me and those of my generation. These myths are manifest in the photographs, stories, and objects that we carefully catalogue and nurture, and they are powerful, tying us to a past that continues to define us in myriad ways.
Putting together this presentation was a slow and wrenching process, of building up, then stripping away, of writing, then deleting. It was a process that brought me closer to myself, to my parents, and to a community that has nurtured me since I sat in Rick Shiomi’s kitchen over forty years ago and first learned of the internment and of the many layers of meaning that come with calling myself Japanese Canadian.
Digging through these layers of memory and meaning, sorting through the photos and gathered recollections, is to begin to understand who we are, as individuals and as a people. The sansei, those who took me in when I first entered this community through music, found themselves untethered to a past that they could hold onto as they navigated their way through a fraught cultural landscape. In digging deep into what it meant to be Japanese Canadian they, along with unexpected allies in the shin-ijusha community, helped give rise to the community we have today, through Tonari Gumi, the Japanese Canadian Centennial Project, A Dream of Riches, the 1977 Centennal celebrations and the Powell Street Festival, the host of the Paueru Gai Dialogues.
In my art practice I continue to draw on my inherited history. I find myself pulling on the threads, teasing out strands here and there, weaving them into my own story. I am grateful for all that I have inherited.
I ended my presentation with a quote from Bryce Kanbara, from the March 2021 Bulletin. It reads, “I think mythologies are fundamental and vital to the story of a people. They’re like a river with countervailing currents of cohesion, division, hope, despair … on which we all travel together. And they’re hard to come by.”
Which is a prefect segue into our first guest panelist, Bryce himself. As I said in my introduction to him, Bryce has been been toiling in the cultural mines of southern Ontario for over fifty years. He is a practicing artist, a curator, and the proprietor of the you me gallery in Hamilton. Bryce is notably one of eight very deserving recipients of this year’s Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts.
Given only six minutes to work with, Bryce shared something of what it meant to be a sansei in 1970s-era southern Ontario. As someone who was on the ground at the time, he provides an important perspective. There has been a lot of talk lately about the myth of the Model Minority and Bryce put it into perspective masterfully, I thought: “If criticism is heaved our way about the manner in which JCs collectively adapted, dealt with, shaped their place in society – our Model Minority-ness – it comes with the territory.”
It was a powerful, poignant presentation and is reprinted in the following pages.
Our second and final guest panelist was Sherri Kajiwara, director | curator of the Nikkei National Museum in Burnaby, an organization that arose out of the community’s rebirth following the 1977 Centennial and Redress movement of the eighties. As a gallerist, director, writer, editor, publisher, and curator, Sherri has had an important role in helping shape our view of JC culture and has had a hand in nurturing a new generation of artists and engaged community members.
Sherri’s presentation focused on ways the Nikkei National Museum has pivoted to survive the current pandemic, harnessing the power of her committed staff and volunteers to ensure that the Museum continues to serve history and community through difficult times.
The ensuing question and answer period explored questions of resilience and the legacy that previous generations have left for us to not only make use of, but to pass on. Some question arose from the fact that Bryce’s father and uncle initiated the Nisei Mass Evacuation Group that protested men being separated from their families and sent to road camps. Both men were sent to the Angler POW camp in Northern Ontario before being released at the end of the war and their story is interwoven into the history of our community. Following the Q&A, participants were divided into breakout rooms to delve into questions around community storytelling. I was happy to be placed into a group with old friend Rick Shiomi, who now lives and works in Minneapolis, Minnesota, but who played an important role in the creation of the first Powell Street Festival. It was a reminder that while the pandemic has kept us apart, it has in some ways opened up new avenues for communication and connection.
View the entire Memory, Mythmaking, and Community Resilience presentations and questions.
The following is a selection of the many powerful questions that arose from the breakout rooms.
• How can we pass along stories to the yonsei/gosei future generations to address injustice(s)?
• How can we do so in a way that does not segregate or alienate us from other community groups?
• How can we build bridges with community members?
• How can you use stories not your own to fuel social justice and equity?
• How do we use our own stories to connect to other communities?
• How do we as Nikkei/JC go forward given that we are of different generations and have different connections to history?
• What conversation occurred in your family about your history?
• Do you use your community history in a way to address injustices going forward?
• Who decides what stories are told about the community?
• What are the reasons for sharing the stories you do?
• How did you family talk about internment/history?
• How do we develop compassion and connections through our own stories?
• How do we take our stories, knowledge of other communities’ stories and experiences to find connections to make a better world?
• How can mythology facilitate connection across cultural and inter-generational lines?
• What stories do we have in common?
• What stories have we lost?
• In what setting do we tell the stories?
• How do we create more spaces for these stories to be told?
• In what ways can stories or myths be harmful?
• How do we deal with this harm?
• How can we separate fact from fiction?
• Who decides what’s fact and what’s fiction?
• How can we encourage younger voices to speak up?
• How can we encourage older voices to speak up?
• How do we include both younger and older generations in the conversation?
• The idea of myth/mythology, how is it used in this conversation?
• Are there aspects of the JC Community that people feel more included? Where could the community improve?
• What are some ways/opportunities where we can engage in more inter-generational dialogues within the JC community?
• How do you see the work of (younger generation of) visual artists effectively dealing with these histories we are talking about today? How was it shifted generationally, between older and younger generation?
• Why do you think, after the redress settlement, community organizations were worried about the future of the community because the redress was what pulled them together?
• Whether young artists know/connect with one another about the histories?
• How does the chain of not talking about the history impact the future generations?
• How to empower next generation Japanese Canadians with our history?
• How can JC community use our history to connect and support other marginalized communities?
• How can we keep a sense of social justice so that our children can then use it to deepen their learning about history?
• How to amplify and clear that noise, energetic and financial investment?
• How to encourage your children to be interested in JC histories in your family?
• How can we keep passing our history and learning to next JC generations and other marginalized community groups?
• How will the Japanese Canadian identity evolve as we become more mixed?
• How can learn from the experience of other racialized groups in defining what our identity is?
• What will our future look like as we embrace and expand our community?
• In what ways can we facilitate opportunities for intercultural connection?
• What do we pass down to future generations – and what do we owe those who supported us?