The ringing of the bronze temple bell on New Year’s eve is a time of reflection on the past. The sound of the bell slowly fades away until it is only a memory. This fading sound is called yo-in. It is hoped that with each reverberation the bad experiences, wrong deeds, and ill luck of the past will be wiped away.
In honour of the 70th anniversary of the Japanese Canadian internment, the Nikkei National Museum has developed a thought-provoking contemporary art exhibit, YO-IN Reverberation. This exhibit will reflect on the diverse outcomes of the Japanese Canadian internment. Co-curated by Beth Carter and Sherri Kajiwara, YO-IN brings together two groups of contemporary artists of Japanese Canadian ancestry.
The first group are members of the nisei (second) generation. They lived through the internment as children, and their families resettled permanently away from the coast. They were often very young, but the displacement frequently resonates through their art. Artists include Shizuye Takashima (1928-2007), Kazuo Nakamura (1926-2002), Aiko Suzuki (1937-2005), Tak Tanabe, and Nobuo Kubota.
The second group of artists were born in Canada after the war and are descended from those who experienced incarceration firsthand. They include Cindy Mochizuki, Emma Nishimura, Louise Noguchi, and Jon Sasaki.
YO-IN questions the legacy of the Japanese Canadian internment and examines its reverberation in today’s world. Even after 70 years, the social effects are evident through family displacement, the unwillingness of older generations to discuss their history, and the huge intermarriage rate (almost 95%). After the war, many people strived for assimilation within Canadian society by minimizing their links to their Japanese heritage, and remaining silent about their wartime history.
Rather than a historical or literal retelling of the effects of internment, the artists featured in YO-IN address themes of memory, place, and identity. The art reflects negative spaces—the lack of control, the disconnection from home, the struggle to assimilate, and to balance being both proud and ashamed of Japanese ancestry. In addition to their heritage and the quality of their work, the artists have been chosen for their diverse perspectives, their cross-generational and national representation, and the importance of their work in the realm of contemporary art in Canada.
During the internment, community members were forcibly removed from their homes, businesses, schools. They lived in roughly built shacks, with few amenities. The camps were often in remote, forested locations, which formed natural prison-like barriers. Painted in 1963, we are unclear whether the beautiful Spring Forest landscape painted by Kazuo Nakamura is a scene in Ontario or a memory of BC. Known primarily as an abstract painter, Kazuo Nakamura paints the forest as both beautiful and forbidding. Tak Tanabe also creates works of solitude through the misty landscape paintings of the BC coastline. In contrast, Aiko Suzuki’s minimalist painting represents herself as one small speck in the greater universe.
Shizuye Takashima struggled with horrific memories of her childhood. She is best known for writing and illustrating her internment camp memoir, A Child in Prison Camp. In the 1970s, her work was dominated by bound, judgemental figures – looking down on the viewer with a menacing gaze. In her Combination Portraits, Louise Noguchi literally meshes images of herself with mass murderers and victims, to create a portrait that is undefined. Noguchi believes that her family’s inhumane treatment makes it necessary to be empathetic towards all people.
Younger generations have a great deal of curiosity about the internment. However, many grandparents do not choose to discuss their history, and their children and grandchildren do not know what or how to ask. The discovery of a box of miniature patterns created by her grandmother was the catalyst that Emma Nishimura needed to hear the stories and try and understand the experiences. She intricately recreated the patterns and then camouflaged them within photo collages of the mountain terrain in the Slocan, where her family was interned. The small figures literally fade away into the background – but also long for a different reality.
Several of the artists have visited Japan to try and connect with their Japanese heritage. Nobuo Kubota spent one year studying meditation and chanting with a Zen master. In Chant, the sound comes from Kubota’s mouth in the form of maple leafs. In a later work, Kubota is represented in 9 video streams, each chanting an indecipherable refrain. The effect is a polyphonic chorus, meshing the sounds and tonality he heard in Japan, transformed with his Canadian perspective.
Toronto-based artist Jon Sasaki is completely assimilated into Canadian culture and does not identify his ancestry in his art. Instead he becomes an everyman within society. His video work, “Ladderstack” shows him climbing to an unknown destination; precariously balancing ladders on top of each other. The viewer is unsure whether this is a dangerous or a comical situation. While not directly relating to Japanese Canadian heritage, these constant struggles to achieve and have success in life are two significant outcomes of the internment experience.
Finally, in an effort to bring past and present together, Vancouver artist Cindy Mochizuki is creating a multimedia installation combining her own imagery with historic photographs, projected onto a solid shape growing from the centre of the gallery floor. This grounds the photographic images, emphasizing history as a foundation for Japanese Canadian society today.
The exhibit is both a celebration of contemporary art created by Japanese Canadians and a way to promote intergenerational exchange related to Japanese Canadian internment. We hope you will be inspired to reflect on ways the internment has influenced your own life.
YO-IN Reverberation will be on exhibit from May 19 – August 25, 2012 at the Nikkei National Museum, Burnaby, BC. Thank you to our supporters, the Audain Foundation and the Deux Mille Foundation.