Susanne Tabata: a Canadian Nikkei in Tokyo
Filmmaker Susanne Tabata was born in Nanaimo and spent her early school years in Tokyo, where her nisei father was studying. A self-described documentarian, digital media producer, instructional designer and researcher, Tabata recently designed, wrote, produced and directed the 10 part ethnography series for the Japanese Canadian National Museum called Ohanashi: Stories of Our Elders—a detailed examination of the experiences of Japanese Canadians who were interned during World War II—a story familiar to her father whose experiences are shared in the series.
We heard from Tabata in late August. She had just landed in Tokyo for month-long trip to promote her film Bloodied by Unbowed —a title that could well sum up the spirit of the people in Tohoku.
Shortly after returning home she talked to The Bulletin about her experiences in post-disaster Japan and the impact it had on her. She has agreed to work on several stories for The Bulletin over the next few issues, looking at different aspects of life in Japan after the quake.
In her Own Words – Susanne Tabata
Susanne, you’ve lived most of your life in Canada but spent time in Japan as a young girl. Do you remember much about growing up there?
Post-occupation era Tokyo was home. Japan wasn’t the international tourist destination it is today. Our family had a unique experience because we were a Canadian mixed race family. My father was a Nikkei and Tokyo University post-graduate student, my mother a Caucasian, and we had no money. Certainly I remember the food, the customs, the school, the festivals, and the trains.
Do you remember being treated differently at school?
Japan is a more homogenous culture so I was an oddball. Outside of school I benefited from the little kid kawaii factor in terms of my relationship with adults. But school was difficult and I was definitely the black sheep.
You returned to Japan in the seventies . . . tell me a little about that experience . . .
It was a high school cultural exchange with students from BC and Alberta. A very comprehensive one. But we were teenagers and we were doing things like going out at night beyond the curfew and running into Shinjuku Kabuki-cho to play pachinko.
You returned to Japan this summer with your latest film, Bloodied But Unbowed. This is a film you wrote, produced & directed about the Vancouver punk music scene of the early late seventies/early eighties. That’s a pretty obscure subject for a Canadian audience, let alone a Japanese one. What was that all about?
Bloodied But Unbowed is about the rise and fall of the first wave of punk in Vancouver, a period in music history which laid the foundation of indie music in Vancouver. As the title implies, Bloodied But Unbowed means you don’t give in under the harshest of circumstances. I think the Japanese have that ‘stamina.’ The audience seemed to respond to the construction of the story in addition to the basic history revealed in the documentary.
In Japan there are music historians and journalists who are aware of this story. They took the screenings very seriously. In Tokyo month-long screenings were co-sponsored by Base Records (www.recordshopbase.com) and a theatre in Shibuya which is owned by NIPPAN, or Nippon Shuppan Hanbai Inc. (Nippan is Japan’s largest publication distributor engaged in the distribution of books and magazines.) Since its foundation in 1949, NIPPAN has constantly introduced state-of-the-art techniques as an innovator in books publication and distribution.
To that end we had a business meeting to determine how the film would be screened. It was very formal. The question period was thorough and the audience was the most polite one we have encountered.
We also were invited to Gifu prefecture through our friends at Skull Skates Japan to screen the film at a club with five Japanese bands. Two of these bands were from Kyoto and three were from the Gifu area.
I talked to you by e-mail just after you arrived in Japan. You were jet-lagged and trying to get used to the heat of Tokyo. And then you spent a whole month there—in post-tsunami, post nuclear meltdown Japan.
What were your impressions of the country and the people?
3-11 has changed the psyche of the Japanese people. The whole time I was there the Senkaku Islands story was on the news. There is a complex situation in Okinawa. Nationalism is on the rise. The economy is hurting. There are other issues.
You’ve spent time on the margins of society (depending on your vantage point of course!)—covering the punk rock scene, the skateboard scene, surfing—and Japan is a country that thrives on uniformity. Do you instinctively seek out the non-conformists there? And what is their relationship with mainstream society?
New ideas often come from the margins of society. People who have the courage to think independently or address important issues of our time ARE of interest to me and are usually creative thinkers, regardless of their occupation OR country of origin. I didn’t seek out non-conformists per se. While in Japan I was on a pathway filled with creative minds. In Japan, there are many people who have regular jobs, are law-abiding and socially responsible, but they have unique entertainment interests or hobbies. That is no different than here. I met a lot of the people who have hobbies and some who service hobbies for the average Japanese person—writers, manga–ka, painters, musicians, filmmakers, skate shop owners etc. The Japanese are obsessive about their interests in all-things-niche. And Vancouver punk is a niche.
Bloodied by Unbowed screened at Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival a few days ago. DOA’s Joe Keithley played a solo set afterwards. How was the film received?
That was a great event hosted by Teresa Vandertuin and Terry Hunter at the Carnegie. The audience was a no-nonsense crowd. We did a great Q&A afterward for about 35 minutes then Joe did a solo electric set. It was quite different than Japan but there weren’t the hecklers I usually get with Canadian audiences.
Joe is seeking the NDP nomination in Coquitlam-Burke Mountain, hoping to run for the riding in the next. His motto is Talk – minus action = 0, which is unusually striaghtforward for a politician. What do you think of his dive into provincial politics?
He is a natural politician. Joe has always been involved with social issues and I know that he is an organized and very hard working professional. I have 100% faith that he will serve his constituency and work hard.
You’ve agreed to write a series of pieces for The Bulletin on some of the issues that you came across during your trip—can you give us a taste of what you’ll be writing about?
Post 3-11 Japan enriched with accounts from folks who are born after WWII but who are ordinary people as they grapple with the issues of our time: energy, economy, international relations, the environment, and the quality of life in a global village.