The Tashme Project – The Living Archives
Julie Tamiko Manning and Matt Miwa first met in 2009 as members of the English Theatre acting company at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre. The two actors share an identity as mixed-race Japanese Canadians and began to compare notes, discovering in the process that there is a common thread running through their respective families’ historys – both families were interned in Tashme, the western-most Internment camp, during World War Two. One thing led to another and the two found themselves embarking on what would be a five-year project they call The Tashme Project: The Living Archives. The self-described verbatim/documentary-theatre play has been pieced together from over 70 hours of intervies with 30 nisei (second generation Japanese Canadians) from Vancouver, Toronto, Hamilton, Kingston, Ottawa and Montreal. The two-person show features Manning and Miwa, who portray the voices of the over 30 elders, sharing their memories of childhood, internment and post-WW2 resettlement east of the Rockies.
A series of staged readings across the country helped Manning and Miwa test out and polish the material, resulting in the finished piece that will have its world premiere May 7 to 17 at MAI (Montréal, arts interculturels) in Montreal. Directed by accomplished sansei actor/writer/director Mieko Ouchi, The Tashme Project strives to impact how people understand and appreciate the integration process of minority groups and emphasizes how the traumas of cultural integration and negotiation of heritage are processes that span into the fourth and fifth generations, and do not become less intense or traumatic with each generation. www.thetashmeproject.com
Matt Miwa • Julie Tamiko Manning • Mieko Ouchi
THE BULLETIN INTERVIEW
Julie and Matt, your families were both interned in Tashme – did they know each other? Did you hear stories about their experiences as you were growing up?
Julie They didn’t know each other. But when Matt’s grandpa pulled out a group shot of the Tashme Judo club, I recognized the same photo from my uncle’s photo album. We eventually figured out that they were standing one person apart in that photo, but they still couldn’t figure out who each other was. I kept asking Matt’s grandpa: “Did you know a guy named Takeda?” And he would always respond with, “You mean Taxi Takeda? I know a guy named Taxi Takeda.” And I would say, “No, he’s the guy who’s standing almost next to you in this photo.” “Nope. I don’t know that guy.”
What was the impetus for collaborating on this project?
Julie We met when we were both in the 2009 English Theatre Acting Company at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. It is a rare thing to come across a Japanese Canadian Hapa theatre artist, so when we met, we pretty instantly gravitated toward each other to talk about the challenges of the identity crisis/questions we shared. The internment experience had always been something that we wanted to delve into separately as theatre creators, but we found that we spoke a similar language around it, so going forward together was much more personally and creatively fulfilling than going it alone.
The issei were notoriously reluctant to talk about the internment and the war years. In The Tashme Project you’ve recorded the memories of the nisei, who were for the most part just kids at the time. Was it difficult to get them to open up?
Matt After the initial contact and reluctance, saying, “I don’t remember much,” or, “we were just kids at the time,” the nisei were surprisingly candid about their experiences growing up through internment. I think it had to do with the formality of our request; when we conducted our interviews, it was not in the casual atmosphere of family get-togethers, but a pre-arranged meeting time and place to discuss the internment. There was always food and tea waiting for us, from senbei to whole meals in some cases. What helped greatly was organizing our interviews around the larger historical events of childhood in BC – evacuation, Hastings Park, internment, post-war dispersal/repatriation and finally resettlement – so that the nisei had a frameworks around which to share their memories because, as my great-aunt pointed out, “you have to ask me questions or else I won’t know what to say.” And it’s true, as we don’t have a narrative tradition in JC culture for passing down stories from that time, everyone involved in our process was helped by the formality of our proceedings.
After a while though, almost every single one of our interviews relaxed into the storytelling and all formality fell away. It became a great pleasure to revisit the past, even the painful memories. to share and to and hear, and what was promised to be only 30 minute interviews almost always extended into the hour, two hour and three hour mark!
Was there anything that surprised you in the course of interviewing the nisei?
Matt Most delightful for me was the lifeforce and liveliness that came out of telling these stories. Many nisei became quite animated when they shared their memories, many concentrating on the sights, sounds, and texture of their recollections. “it smelled like this, it looked like that, it felt like this,” and so on. I was very grateful to get such a tactile sense of pre-war BC and the camps.
Of course, and our play is a testament to this, the depth of emotion that was shared was a great and surprising gift. Many nisei spoke quite candidly, albeit modestly about various traumatic events and memories. What surprised us here was the relationship we could develop in just one interview session and the intimacy with which we were able to ask about these strangers’ lives.
You have been holding staged readings over the past few years – what has the reaction been, and how have they shaped the final production?
Matt I can say with a lot of pride that we have developed not a small fan base in the Japanese community through our staged readings over the past five years. To date we have read our piece once in Vancouver, twice in Toronto, twice in Ottawa and once in Montreal! The amount of community support generated through these readings has been very touching and so appreciated. Our intention from the get-go was to develop a play about a community speaking to itself so it is great to see so many Japanese Canadians of all generations responding so positively.
From the nisei, we have heard from many people who identify with the particular stories in the piece and sometimes the more traumatic ones. We feel very validated to have been able to share the more candid testimonies of our interviewees in order to help articulate the depth of trauma that still resonates in the community from the internment experience. These instances of identification has certainly shaped the final script, where we wanted to make sure to plunge deeply into all aspects of the internment experience from the initial curfew right up to internment. It’s important for us to tell the whole story, not just the fun stories – although the fun stories are so valuable for their own particular JC spirit!
You are third and fourth generation hapa – pretty removed from those days – has this project given you new insight into who you are and where you came from?
Matt One thing that has become clear to me is just how open I am as a person and how delightfully I slip into the role of grandkid or (in more adult terms) descendent when I am in the company of my elders. Something happens in my mind and in my body language, and I become very observant of, attendant to and ears opened in the company of any and all nisei. I just want to learn from them and know who they are, because I am trying to connect to my Japanese-ness through them.
Julie Even though we are sansei and yonsei, we still feel the effects of internment. It is a quiet and deep pain that has been passed down as each generation tries harder to repress or deal with whatever feelings they have about internment. Just like the body has a muscle memory of movement, I believe it is the same over time and generations. We are delving into the community memory and that has been incredibly clarifying to us as Japanese Canadians who have lived with questions around identity for a long time. It’s as simple as this: when you know where you’ve come from, you know who you are. We have uncovered a pride in our identity where it might have been more challenging to do so before.
Was there a common thread that ran through the interviews and the memories?
Julie Food, tea, senbei, photo albums, sitting around the kitchen table were present in almost every interview, of course! There was always a lot of joy and fond memories of childhood and then invariably at some point in the interview there was always a ghost of sadness and regret around their parents (issei) and how hard it must have been for them. Many nisei showed concern around the loss of the community as younger JCs become less involved. That is something we are hoping to revitalize by making the stories in this play accessible to the younger generations.
Do you feel a sense of urgency in collecting these stories from the nisei as they are aging and starting to pass away?
Julie Yes. The death of my Uncle Kenji, the first nisei in my family to pass away, was one of the launching pads for me. Not only do we want to hear these stories from the nisei, but we want them to be able to hear their lives reflected back to them. The most rewarding thing is when we have nisei in the audience seeing and hearing their experiences validated. We also feel incredibly responsible as carriers of theses stories.
Mieko, you have delved into your heritage and your family through various mediums. I imagine this project had its unique challenges and rewards – maybe you can talk a bit about your experience directing this production.
Mieko I feel very privileged to have been asked to work on The Tashme Project by Julie and Matt. From the very beginning, I was very moved by the sincere and authentic desire of Julie and Matt to carefully gather, document and share the stories of their families and the unique community of Japanese-Canadians who had shared the experience of living through internment at Tashme and who ended up in Eastern Canada after the war. The story of the families that came to Ontario and Quebec was mostly unknown to me, having grown up in the West.
I was also intrigued by their verbatim, or documentary theatre style approach, which sees them performing literal text from the interviews they conducted. This approach emerged organically from their sense of responsibility to truthfully represent the stories they had gathered but also allowed them to share their own personal journey of discovery with the audience. The nervousness and even fear they had as they embarked on this process. What it felt like to ask these delicate questions. What this newfound information means to them as third and fourth generation JCs.
For me as director, though, it has posed some interesting challenges. While I am used to dealing with verbatim text in the context of my own documentary films, I have never worked on a verbatim play for the theatre, let alone the premiere of a new work. The restrictions that using literal text put on us as storytellers was fascinating.
Rewrites, which are the backbone of any new play process, are different in this context. They are about re-arrangement of the literal pieces of interview to help create a clearer through-line for us as the audience, or asking Matt and Julie to share more, or different, parts of their own personal discovery of the legacy of Internment that has been passed down to them to help contextualize the interviews. Sometimes these are memories of things that happened during interviews, or in other cases, personal stories from their own lives as they have grappled with their JC identity.
Working on the play has also made me realize that despite the physical distance between Matt and Julie’s families out East and my own who ended up in Vernon, BC after the war, we are all a part of a wider JC family. Looking at their family photos, the faces looking out at me could be the faces of my own father, my aunts and uncles, my grandparents and great grandparents. I see my family in them. Hearing their stories, I hear my heritage in them. They are our communal elders. We must work to preserve as many of their stories and memories as we can.
I hope the result of our work together on The Tashme Project is a piece of theatre that will speak to the JC community of all generations, but also to a wider non-Japanese Canadian audience, who will be given a powerful glimpse into the Internment experience, and what happened to those families and individuals after.