Paueru Gai Dialogues – reflections
The Paueru Gai Dialogues – take one
On Saturday, January 30, 2021 the year-long Paueru Gai Dialogues kicked off with Catalyzing Social Equity through Culture & Connection to Place.
Guest host for the session was Izumi Sakamoto, Associate Professor, Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto. Joining Izumi were three panelists – Toronto’s Ayumi Goto and Terry Watada, and Vancouver’s Kathy Shimizu.
Over 90 participants from across the country logged on for the two-hour session, underscoring the national scope of the Dialogues.
Izumi Sakamoto’s opening presentation began with a brief introduction to the Japanese Canadian Arts & Activism Project before moving on to an exploration of the Powell Street Festival and its role as a catalyst for social change and activism. In tracing the history of the Festival, Izumi drew connections to the Asian Canadian Coalition of the early seventies and how its members were influenced by the Asian American movement and the American civil rights movement, among others. Many of its members went on to play key roles in the Festival. She also highlighted Tonari Gumi and its long history of advocacy and outreach, beginning as a home away from home for Japanese Canadian seniors who found themselves adrift in the post-war years. Tonari Gumi’s ties to the Festival go back to the beginning with many overlaps.
Woven throughout Izumi’s presentation were quotes from community members, reinforcing the Festival’s vital role in bringing a sense of home to Japanese Canadians of different generations.
“Beneath the colourful kimonos, the visceral beat of taiko and the tantalizing aroma or teriyaki salmon, is a serious and passionate attempt to affirm our cultural legacy and to lay the groundwork for our future. For many, the [Powell Street] Festival has and will continue to serve as a joyous starting point in the long journey to self-discovery.” – Tamio Wakayama (1992)
Izumi ended her talk emphasizing the fact that the Powell Street Festival is not a Japanese festival, that is in fact very much a Japanese Canadian festival. While ties to Japan and Japanese culture are clear and ever-present, the Festival is rooted in the Japanese Canadian experience, situated in the community’s historic home in the Downtown Eastside.
Presentations by the three panelists underscored the theme of this first session, each sharing their experience connecting to community through their art and their activism.
Terry Watada talked about growing up in Toronto with no awareness of what his family had endured during and after the war, let alone the mass incarceration, dispossession and displacement of the entire community. In recounting the difficulty he had prying information from his parents he echoed the experience of many sansei who came up against a wall of silence regarding the wartime years. Of course, not all families were reluctant to talk about the internment years, just as the experience itself varied from family to family.
In delving into his family’s wartime experience and conducting extensive research, Terry found a rich vein of stories to mine for first songs, then stories, books, and poetry, as well as the monthly columns he has been writing for many years for this and other publications. As he said, “The importance of putting experiences into art is that it validates [the often invisible yet shared experience].”
Kathy Shimizu was up next, another activist who has drawn upon a history of struggle and resistance to fuel her art and her passion for human rights work. Growing up in Winnipeg she relocated to Vancouver where she was drawn like so many others to the Powell Street Festival, discovering a welcoming community in the process. Relocating to Philadelphia for five years before returning to Vancouver, she has devoted much of her life to empowering others and fighting for justice, most recently through her work with WePress. She noted that she doesn’t have a specific art practice but her experiences have fueled her commitment to art-space community building.
Ayumi Goto finished with a virtual tour of her performance art practice. As a diasporic-Japanese, she at times draws upon her cultural heritage and language to creatively reconsider sentiments surrounding national culturalism, migrations, activist strategies, and land-human relations. She gave insight into her art practice and shared images from some of her recent work. To the surprise and delight of many, Ayumi revealed a core question about cultural and intergenerational barriers at the heart of her performance art pieces, “What would make my mother laugh?”
The afternoon concluded with participants being assigned breakout rooms, each with a moderator. Each breakout group was tasked with coming up with a question to share with the whole group. Here is a selection of the questions that arose:
• How might we, as a community of communities, work toward unerasing what has been erased, giving voice to the voiceless, for the sake of the flourishing of all?
• How does the concept of our social equity vary between community and our individual perspective?
• How does Japanese Canadian community make room for diversity in terms race, immigration status, LGBTQ people, etc.?
• How can I integrate social equity into my cultural practices?
• How do we get inclusivity for communities and individual voices to be heard with access to materials and promotion?
• How do we build community around Japaneseness without creating a singular or exclusionary idea of what Japaneseness is?
• What do we inherently hold vs. seek out in our connection to cultural heritage and connection to place?
• In navigating our own identity, how do we bridge the gap between our sense of how we’re perceived, and the way that we want to be perceived in turn?
• How can we deal with our difficulties in a harmonious way?
• How can we invite different generations to weave together their stories for empowering a sense of self and finding our way through these perilous times?
• How can we use racial and cultural differences to find common ground so everyone feels included?
• How do we as a minority group work together to meet our social equity goals?
• How can our racial and cultural differences help us find the common ground to make us all feel included?
• How can the private practice of activism contribute to social change?
• What does it take to commit to the processes of reconciliation?
• How do we move at the pace of trust in our community?
As you can see from the number of participants and the questions that were generated, there is a great hunger for this kind of session, along with an openness to engagement. I enjoyed the safe and inclusive interactive nature of the breakout rooms. In fact, I mentioned to someone afterwards that when I entered my breakout room and saw two familiar faces in Terry and Mayu I had a sudden flashback to sitting at a big round table in a Chinese restaurant with friends following a Japanese Canadian gathering. Who among us has not experienced that? All we needed were some bowls of hot and sour soup, some mushroom fried rice, some gai lan with oyster sauce and some bottles of Tsing Tao to complete the picture. I look forward to the next session, on February 27, which is, fittingly, all about food!