Susanne Tabata – Tracing History – Facing The Future
Susanne Tabata sits on the back deck of her South Vancouver home looking at the ten DVDs stacked in front of her on the table. As she flips through them, she sighs as if suddenly remembering the process that brought them into being. The DVDs form a set titled Ohanashi – The Story of Our Elders. Filmed by Tabata over a three-week period and produced by the Japanese Canadian National Museum, Ohanashi collects the memories of ten Nikkei elders, all spanning the pre-war, internment and post-war years.
A long-time film maker specializing in documentaries, Tabata stresses the Ohanashi DVDs are not documentary films. Instead, they are nearly full-length interviews, between 30 and 50 minutes each. While there are some photographs and other graphics interspersed throughout, the bulk of each disc consists of the subject recounting their experiences in Canada and, sometimes, Japan. Subjects were given a chance to remove sections they felt were too personal or sensitive, but overall there was minimal editing for content.
It was, Tabata says, a challenging project, given a tight timeline and budget, not to mention the well-documented reticence of many Nikkei seniors to talk openly of the past. Still, she is satisfied with the end result and feels projects like this are not only important, but pressing: “We are at crossroads in our country where our elders—regardless of their ethnicity—are leaving us. With them goes the entire tapestry of Canadian history. That is why ‘oral history’ is so important.”
In Her Own Words
Like me, you’re the product of a mixed-marriage, growing up in the early sixties when it was relatively rare. How did the two families handle the news that they were getting married?
My parents married in 1959, a time when inter-racial marriages were unusual and generally unacceptable. As my father has disclosed, his mother would have preferred he marry a Nisei. His father did not care one way or another. On the other hand, my mother was raised by a social democrat who was also a single mother. She approved of my father because he was a hard worker and they shared the same political views. I do think that the cultural differences between my parents created tension in the house at times. But it also created a platform for creative and critical thinking.
How did your parents meet?
My parents met in Nanaimo at a nurses dance. My father was working at the Biological Station in Nanaimo after he got his masters in Oceanography and my mother was working as a nurse at the ‘Indian Hospital’.
You spent some time in Japan as a young child.
My first life memories stem back to life in Tokyo, where we lived for two and a half years. My family lived in a duplex close to the University of Tokyo, where my father was studying. I was raised in the strictest Japanese fashion by both of my parents. I remember studying dance and learning calligraphy at the age of four. There were a lot of little earthquakes there. There were street venders who sold soba and imo (sweet potato snacks). I recall being adored by adults because I was able to speak Japanese and look ‘cute’. Things were a little different in school. I was physically larger than my classmates. I certainly did not look Japanese and I felt quite different.
In 1965 we moved back to Canada. My father had finished his PhD in Oceanography from the University of Tokyo and returned to the Biological Station in Nanaimo to continue his research. I remember I had to repeat Kindergarten even though I had a formal education in Japan. I was an outcast in Nanaimo more than in Tokyo.
I was going to ask you about that, how being bi-racial affected you, or affects you. How does your identity relate to your work? Some people have talked about bi-racial identity providing a window into both worlds . . .
Being biracial means that you come into this world somewhat cautious of stereotyping or prejudging people. Hopefully it gives you the edge to understand humanity. I have never been asked that question before but I do believe it helps me to be able to ‘put myself in the shoes’ of the person I am interviewing. Isn’t that just common sense?
A lot of your work has been based in and around the North American music scene, along with surfing and female skateboarding culture—worlds that skirt the edge of mainstream culture. I’m guessing that this is a world you feel comfortable in. Would it be presumptuous and simplistic to connect that to your childhood?
That’s a great question. Since I can remember I have never really ‘fit in’ so perhaps it is my lack of pedigree which makes me fascinated with ‘worlds that skirt the edge of mainstream culture’. I value originality as long as it comes with integrity.
You’ve produced a number of documentary films, yet this is the first time you’ve documented the Nikkei community. Do you feel you have insights into the workings of the Japanese Canadian psyche and if so, did it inform how you approached the project?
First of all this is not a documentary film. It’s a series of interviews which have been condensed around key events in history and in people’s individual lives. It would be too general of me to say there is a specific psyche but I can tell you from my own family experience that my parents’ generation did not talk candidly about their experiences. I learned of the events of WWII when I was in Grade 12 because my high school teacher told me. So I approached the project on a more personal level. Who are you? Where are you from? Describe what happened to you? It was up to the individual to take it from there.
Were there any special challenges interviewing Japanese Canadians?
I believe that everyone has a story to tell. And each person is no less important than the other. So I somewhat dismiss the idea that you must be a ‘professional’ to have credence in this community. Ohanashi was challenging because there was so little time to do the project. We tried to get participants whose life experiences were all varied so that viewers could get glimpses of the same historic events from different perspectives.
The issei are almost gone and many of the nisei are now in their later years (although that doesn’t seem to be slowing them down). It seems to me that projects like Ohanashi recognize the importance of documenting the experiences of the elders before it’s too late. What would you suggest for people that are interested in documenting the memories of their parents and grandparents?
Just do it. Be bold. Be respectful. Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Especially if there is a family member who is elderly.
You interviewed your own father for this series. What was that like? Did you get insights into his life that you were unaware of? Was it easier or harder interviewing a relative?
Someone asked me if I chose to interview my father. Actually he was on a list given to me by the museum and when one of our potential interviewees cancelled, I was desperate to find another male. He agreed on two day’s notice. Interviewing my father was not difficult for me. I think it was difficult for him. He has spent a lifetime moving away from painful memories so for anyone to ask him to recount those memories would naturally give him cause to reflect. I did get an insight into his life.
Did you have a particular agenda going into this project?
I was never given a design criteria for this series of interviews. But with the knowledge that they would be put into archives and used for research purposes I tried to keep the interviews as complete as possible. These are biographical testimonials. For Ohanashi to become a TV program, it would have to be re-edited using a few of the subjects AND I would approach it much differently.
As a documentary filmmaker, has the project changed the way you see the world or approach your craft?
In terms of the way I see the world, the Ohanashi project has absolutely ignited my interest in recording oral histories and working with elders. Isn’t it fascinating to hear so many different sides to a series of historical events? It has made me appreciate the perseverance my parents and grandparents AND it has made me understand ‘where a part of me comes from’. I want to do more work in this area.
I conduct a fair number of interviews for my job, and I always find it difficult. Is there a mindset that you get yourself into to prepare for an interview? Is there a lot of research involved or is it more intuitive?
A curious person will always ask good questions. In terms of conducting an interview, each one is different. Try to imagine yourself in your subject’s shoes, ‘literally’, and start from there. A good interview is intuitive.
In order to condense a lifetime of experience into an interview, you have to be able to make deliberate decisions about a person’s character and assess their willingness to share their stories. This is intuitive. A good interviewer has to find an internal balance between confidence and humility. And walk it to the end.
Did any particular interview provide a special challenge?
The most challenging interview was with Tom and Shig Kuwabara, the two brothers who spent the entire war in a real ‘internment camp’ at Petawawa after protesting what was happening to Japanese Canadian citizens during their detainment at Hastings Park. They had less than 24hrs notice. Tom lives in Edmonton and was visiting Shig. I had been introduced to them in the museum through Liz (Nunoda) and the next morning Richard Kobayashi—who was my shooting partner—and I were on for an interview. When we showed up to do the interview, Shig withdrew citing heart problems. Knowing this would be the only time we could get the two of them together I persisted. We set up the camera and microphone in the lobby of the apartment building. If we were to get the two of them together, it had to be now or never. Through all the noise and commotion of elevators dinging and doorbuzzers going off, we did the interview. Like true professionals, they would stop talking when there were noise distractions and pick up the sentences as soon as the noises stopped. Shig became very ill towards the end and we wrapped things up. His wife had every right to be displeased with me. I arrived a few weeks later with the ‘rough cut’ and a sincere apology. I think the family was pleased with the final result.
I would like to thank all the participants who responded to our requests for interviews. The project belongs to them. I just assisted it.
Ohanashi – The Story of Our Elders
A new 10 part series of Nikkei life stories. On DVD 30 to 47 minutes each. Interviewed by film maker Susanne Tabata.
Subjects: Tak Miyazaki, Kazue Oye, Shirley Omatsu, Tom Sando Kuwabara & Shig Kuwabara, Susumu Tabata, Alfie Kamitakahara, Marie Katsuno, Midge Ayukawa, May Komiyama, Irene Tsuyuki
Home use DVDs are available at the Museum shop. $20 each or $150 for set of 10. Public viewing copies are available from Moving Images www.movingimages.ca
The Museum gratefully acknowledges the financial support of 2010 Legacies ArtsNow, British Columbia Direct Access, Burnaby Arts Council, Hamber Foundation, National Association of Japanese Canadians, and other donors for this project.