Terry Watada: Exploring JC History through Manga
Terry Watada is a poet, novelist, playwright, musician, recording artist, historian, activist, and teacher. Long-interested in the history of Japanese Canadians, he has explored the various facets of the community through his art, often tapping into little-known or talked-about stories for inspiration.
Terry was recently in Vancouver to launch his new book, The Sword, the Medal and the Rosary. Published by the Hastings Park Foundation and the National Association of Japanese Canadians and illustrated by Kenji Iwata, the book is the first of three books planned in the Nikkei Manga-gatari series.
The Sword, the Medal and the Rosary looks at the issei experience, focusing on the soldiers that fought for Canada in the trenches of World War One in the hopes of winning the franchise for their community.
I talked to Terry at the opening event of LiterAsian at the UBC learning Exchange on Main Street.
Interview: Terry Watada
Your newest book, The Sword, the Medal and the Rosary, takes another look at Japanese Canadian history, but this time through the medium of manga. Was this an attempt to reach a different demographic, one that may not otherwise pick up a book about our history?
It’s definitely an attempt to reach a younger audience. It is interesting to note I found the story as a fragmented anecdote in a self-published autobiography. It had such a poignant ending I had to use it, expand it and revere the subject. Interesting too that the illustrator has no interest in continuing in this genre. I hope he’s not indicative of his generation.
Like many authors, I suppose, you do research, then base characters on real-life people, like Yasuo Takashima in the book. Do you keep an emotional distance from the characters you are creating or do you have to immerse yourself in them, get deep inside? I guess I’m not talking about manga characters, but the ones in your novels.
It depends on the character. I was always fascinated with Rikimatsu (the yojimbo of Kuroshio), a scary-looking friend of the family. Examining and researching his life led me to Morii Etsuji, his boss, and all the gang activities around the Powell Street area pre WWII. I can’t say I immersed myself in their characters but I did draw on my childhood experiences with the Issei men gathered around the kitchen table whenever they came over to build their personalities on paper.
The protagonist was difficult since she was an Issei woman who did extraordinary things. I had to examine my relationship with my mother (an Issei woman) to even try to approach my protagonist’s character. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get everything. Midge Ayukawa’s thesis on Hiroshima immigrant women was a great help. She allowed me to read her original thesis manuscript. For that I’ll be forever grateful.
There were some scenes I had to try and understand the darkest motivations a person can have. They were extremely difficult. There were times I had to walk away while writing in order to recover from the anguish I felt.
Were you a fan of manga before taking on this project?
I was. My favorites were Astro Boy and Tetsujin Nijiuhachi go (28 iron men).
Are there special challenges that come with working with this style of writing?
Many. Finding a knowledgeable illustrator who knows the history. A lot of teaching took place. On my end, getting used to the genre. Every motion had to be accounted for. I could not run away with a description for example. It was a very different kind of writing. Like theatre or film yet different.
As a writer I’m sure you’re used to the words having precedence over everything – what is it like working in this medium, with the words essentially playing second fiddle to the illustrations?
Challenging. If I were drawing at the same time it might’ve been easier.
What will be the subject matter of books two and three and when can we expect them?
Number two centers on the nisei experience. It’ll be a Romeo and Juliette story involving Tom Shoyama. Number three is a sansei story. A sansei who knows nothing of his past discovers it through an old nisei man living in the neighborhood. Expect them within two years, maybe sooner.
In the few minutes I was standing with you tonight a number of people came up to tell you how much they enjoyed Kuroshio – I felt like I was with a star! Seriously, your novel explores a side of the pre-war community that is generally not talked about too much. What response have you had from the community?
The response to Kuroshio has been very interesting. There is a marked difference between Toronto and Vancouver. The Toronto community have demonstrated a strong interest in the subject matter. Most tell me they had no idea JCs acted that way. For some nisei it liberated them into talking about that period. For sansei and yonsei they want more.
Vancouver nisei hate it (I have heard) and dismiss it with indifference. Many sansei and yonsei are really supportive and see a portrait of a community that is so different from what has come before and since.
Why do you think there is a difference between how readers in Toronto and Vancouver respond to the book?
I once heard that the leaders of the JC community settled in Toronto and everyone else went back to Vancouver when allowed. Of course that’s not entirely true, but it does point to a possible reason. The Toronto Nisei are not as afraid of the truth. Airing “dirty laundry” is not a problem. People like Jesse Nishihata and Wes Fujiwara encouraged me with lots of stories of that period. I generalize of course but I have never encountered the negativity in Toronto that I felt in some circles in Vancouver.
We were talking about this tonight – that the narrative tends to follow a familiar pattern when we’re looking at the Japanese Canadian experience. You look at things from a different perspective in your work, a darker side, maybe?
A darker side perhaps but for me I cannot accept the perception that issei and nisei were all law abiding and passive people. I saw the rough hewn men who visited my father for Canadian Club whiskey, generous food and telling stories. They were human beings who displayed a wide range of emotions and personalities.
As part of LiterAsian you’re giving a workshop called, “Writers Beware: how to avoid scams, vanity press and find happiness as a published author.” You have some pretty strong views on what it means to be an author. What are you talking about in your workshop?
I am talking about the reality of the publishing business in Canada. To take the romanticism out of writing. It is a hard, frustrating pursuit. If they continue to write after what I have to say then they are really writers.
That’s really a lovely tribute you wrote for Midge Ayukawa for this issue. I think she would have been pleased.
Midge Ayukawa was a great friend and a mentor to me. I only hope I did her memory justice. I will miss her.
You’re retired from your job at the university – has that freed you up for things you wanted to do? What is it that you’re up to these days? Can we expect more books from you?
I have more time to pursue various activites. I have a second novel (about the JC resistance movement during WWII) under consideration by a publisher. I have a collection of poetry at another publisher. I just completed my third novel about a sansei bank robber during the redress movement. I am about to remount a play of mine about the police and the mentally ill for a June opening. And a few other writing projects. Mostly I’m enjoying catching up on reading, watching movies and listening to my son playing music.
Sanseis robbing banks? This is fiction, surely? I thought we were the model minority, not bank robbers!
Again, I was trying to get away from the stereotype of the model minority. My central character was a poster boy for that model minority, but took a left turn along the way. It is based on a true story. Unfortunately.
I hear a rumour that you might be releasing Runaway Horses on CD. Your song New Denver was the first songs I ever heard about the internment (not that there are many!). I think it would be lovely to have the album available in digital format.
Thanks. That rumor is getting stronger and there is mounting support for it. We’ll see what happens.
Your son Bunji, does he follow in your footsteps? Is he a writer or a musician?
Bunji is an amazing musician. He plays guitar better than I ever could. He is writing original music. He’s not interested in writing prose or poetry. But at least now he doesn’t ask if there’s any poetry in the house as he did when he was eight.
Do you see any of yourself in him? For better or for worse . . .
Yes I do. He is very much committed to his music as much as I was. Maybe even more. I won’t talk about the bad habits he has that mirror mine. Kind of embarrassing.
What advice, if any, do you give him?
My advice? Don’t lie in your art and life.
Do you have any advice for our readers?
Support this publication. Support your artists like John Greenaway and me. And we’ll all be better for it.
The Sword, the Medal and the Rosary is $10.00 plus $5.00 tax shipping and handling. Available through Hastings Park Press,
6 Wildwood Crescent, Toronto, ON M4L 2K7.
Copies are also available at the Nikkei National Museum gift shop in vancouver.