Remembering Michiko “Midge” Ayukawa
by Karen M. Kobayashi
How do you begin to sum up the life of one of the most esteemed scholars on Japanese Canadian history? You do as Midge would have done, you assume the role of good researcher, and you reach out to connect with people whose lives intersected with hers. You seek out their stories, their memories, their recollections of an extraordinary life. Quite a tall order, I realized quickly, as there are just so many who were touched by her strong and gracious presence. And so, this reflection on Midge’s “other life” – her life as a scholar and teacher – is really a brief summary, a snapshot of sorts, of the innumerable contributions that she made to the introduction and advancement of scholarship on Japanese Canadian history as an academic, a writer, an instructor, a mentor, and above all, a friend.
A trip to Japan in 1983 is credited as the impetus for Midge’s “third age” (post-retirement, although some would say that she never really retired from anything) academic career in Japanese language, literature, and the histories of both Japan and Canada at the University of Victoria. She completed a BA and an MA in the Department of History and was awarded a PhD in 1997 at the “ripe young age” of 67 under the supervision of Dr. Patricia Tsurumi. In 1999, Dr. Patricia Roy and Midge worked together on the history of Japanese Canadians for the Encyclopedia of Canada’s Peoples. It was out of this collaboration that Pat encouraged Midge to publish her PhD work. Almost a decade to the date of her doctoral defense in 2007, Midge realized the success of her labours when her dissertation, “Creating and Recreating Village: Hiroshima and Canada 1891-1941” was adapted for publication by UBC Press. It met with very positive reviews. To add to the reach of her work, the book was recently translated into Japanese by Masami Izumi, Midge’s longtime colleague and friend from Doshisha University.
Midge published many articles on the history of Japanese immigrants, especially women, and the experiences of Japanese Canadians during World War II. She co-edited several books and papers that touched on topics as varied as memory, identity, and redress, but her real passion was giving voice to the stories of Japanese Canadian women. Dr. John Price, a long-time colleague and friend from the Department of History at UVic, remarked that her 1995 article in BC Studies, “Good Wives and Wise Mothers: Japanese Picture Brides in Early Twentieth Century British Columbia,” was, with Tomoko Makabe’s book, Picture Brides: Japanese Women in Canada, a turning point in bringing women and gender into the discussion of Japanese Canadian history. Indeed, its importance is duly noted, as it has been audio archived as one of the 40 most popular articles in the journal.
Midge continued writing into her later years. Her review for BC Studies of Sakura in the Land of the Maple Leaf in 2008 reflects her preoccupation with attention to detail and her generosity in recognizing contributions by non-specialists in the field. Around this time, she joined with a group of BC scholars in forming the Asian Canadian Working Group, and actively participated in discussions to promote Asian Canadian Studies. She continued to speak regularly, as a guest lecturer in university and college classrooms, as an invited speaker for the Japanese American National Museum in 2010 and at numerous other Japanese American events, and, most recently, at the symposium on the 70th anniversary of the uprooting organized by the Asian Canadian Working Group in February 2012. On one of her last trips to the UVic campus, she participated in the meeting of the JC Education and Research Network with Joy Kogawa. It was such a thrill for me to see two of the most influential female Nisei scholars in the same room discussing future directions for education and research in our community.
On a personal note, I had the good fortune of serving as a director on the Board of the Japanese Canadian National Museum and Archives Society (JCNMAS) alongside Midge from 1997 to 1999, one of her many volunteer efforts in the community. During that time, a formative period for the museum, she would make the bi-monthly trips over on the ferry in her car and stay with me overnight in Vancouver. I vividly remember our post-meeting tea and Japanese sweets, during which I would endlessly “pick her brain” and ask for feedback on multiple drafts of my own PhD dissertation which focused on intergenerational relationships in aging Japanese Canadian families, a topic on which she said, as the older mother of five adult children, she had much experience and wisdom to offer. When I was nearing the end of the final draft in the summer of 1999, she looked at me one night over our third cup of tea and said, “It’s good. You should be very proud of the work you’ve done.” I have to say that at that moment, this validation from Midge meant just about as much to me as my supervisor’s declaration later that month that my dissertation was ready to go to defense. You see, through the years, I had come to so deeply value and respect the incredible knowledge bank and intellectual capacity of “Dr. Midge,” as I came to lovingly refer to her as, that I craved her approval of my work in a way that was reminiscent of a graduate student-supervisor relationship.
Maya Angelou once said, “What I hope I have and what I pray for is humility. Humility says there were people before me who found the path.” Women like Midge paved the way for women like me, and countless others like me, and for that, I will be eternally grateful. I am honoured and privileged to have had my life intersect with hers, a sentiment that, I am sure, is echoed by all who are in attendance today. Your inimitable spirit will be greatly missed Midge.