The ROM: Being Japanese Canadian

What was it like to live in an internment camp in the 1940s, or to hear stories from your parents and grandparents? Contemporary artists share personal perspectives on the dispossession and exile of Japanese Canadians during World War II in a major installation at the Royal Ontario Museum. (Above:  Steven Nunoda prepares his Ghostown installation, tarpaper shacks based on internment housing. Image: Tijana Martin, CP)

“Reiko,” Alberta 1945, Lillian Michiko Blakey, Acrylic on canvas, 2009. Photo Credit: NIKKEI NATIONAL MUSEUM, 2013.57.1.6.

(Above) This series of paintings is my personal tribute to the courage and tenacity of my parents and all the Canadian families of Japanese ancestry who endured the indignity and shame of this calamitous experience – Artist Lillian Michiko Blakey, a third-generation Japanese Canadian, from her series, Expulsion 1942 – 1951

During the Second World War, 22,000 people of Japanese descent, most living in British Columbia, were declared a threat to national security, labelled “enemy aliens,” and sent to camps, even though the majority were Canadian citizens by birth.  Not one was ever charged with an act of disloyalty. It was a move for which the Canadian government would issue a formal apology in 1988.

Interior Revisited, Norman Takeuchi, Acrylic on canvas, 48 x 72 in.

Ottawa artist Norman Takeuchi remembers his Japanese Canadian family’s exile during World War II through the eyes of a young boy on an adventure.  “We, along with other Japanese Canadians in B.C. were forced to evacuate our homes on the coast and move inland,” Takeuchi recalls. “My parents had to leave almost everything behind, including dad’s new truck, which I think broke his heart.”

Detail of Tribute, mixed media textile piece, 2017, by Yvonne Wakabayashi, who spent her early childhood in an internment camp with her family in the interior of B.C. Photo: Kenji Nagai. The exhibition curates works from eight Japanese Canadian artists in total:

  • Lillian Michiko Blakey (Newmarket, Ont.) expresses the pain and injustices her family endured with mixed media works Taking The Nancy, British Columbia 1942 and Canadian Born, Alberta 1943, and the painting Reiko, Alberta 1945.
  • Ceramic artist David L. Hayashida (Kings Point, N.L.), confronts racism and its reverberations throughout generations in Low tea in ’43 (BRITISH Columbia) still boils.
  • Emma Nishimura (Toronto, Ont.) investigates memory, loss, and meaning in her etchings and photo-based print sculptures entitled An Archive of RememoryCollected Stories, and Constructed Narratives. She was awarded the international Queen Sonja Print Award for 2018.
  • Steven Nunoda’s (Calgary, Alta.) Ghostown and Ladder to the Moon is a striking memorial to internment sites in British Columbia that pays homage to the struggles and aspirations of Japanese Canadians.
  • Laura Shintani’s (Toronto) project, Emissaries of Mission ‘42, encourages curiosity and engagement with the past, to ensure the history of the 1940s is known and understood by younger generations.
  • In Interior Revisited, painter Norman Takeuchi (Ottawa, Ont.) reflects on the conflicting duality of the reality of life in internment camps and a sense of “Japanese-ness” imposed on him by others.
  • Marjene Matsunaga Turnbull (Onoway, Alta.) explores the anger and hurt of racism, the history of Japanese Canadians and her particular family’s story with her ceramic sculptures Jerry, Army Cadet and Continuum: A Cake History.
  • Yvonne Wakabayashi (Burnaby, B.C.) honours the strength and resilience of her parents in coping with exile, internment and dispossession with her textile piece Tribute.

The ROM exhibition site Being Japanese Canadian: Reflections on a Broken World, here.

One of the finest online resources for understanding the internment is Tashme, a living history site for Canada’s largest camp, which covered 1,200 acres and, at its height, was home to 2,644 people. The camp was opened in 1942 and closed in 1946.

Did You Know?

  • The Canadian government’s $300 million compensation package included $21,000 for each of the 13,000 survivors, $12 million for a Japanese community fund, and $24 million to create a Canadian race relations foundation, to ensure such discrimination never happens again.
  • “We cannot change the past. But we must, as a nation, have the courage to face up to these historical facts.” Prime Minister Brian Mulroney (1988) at the time of the apology. 
  • The federal government confiscated and sold the property of Japanese Canadians. Unlike prisoners of war, who are protected by the Geneva Convention, Japanese Canadians had to pay for their own internment. Their movements were restricted and their mail censored.
  • Men were separated from their families and forced into work crews building roads and railways and laboring on sugar beet farms. The women, children and older people were sent inland to internment camps in northern British Columbia.
  • After the war ended in 1945, Japanese Canadians were offered a choice: to either be deported to Japan, a defeated country unknown to most, or to re-settle in eastern Canada.
  • In 1949, four years after the war was over, Japanese Canadians were finally given back full citizenship rights, including the right to vote and the right to return to the west coast.

Source for Did You Know, The CBC

5 replies »

  1. Re: The ROM: Being Japanese Canadian: It’s great to see this article. However, the image of the painting, “Red Dirt Road”, attached to my name is not the painting in the show although it is indeed one of my works. As indicated correctly in the short blurb about me, the painting in the show is titled “Interior Revisited”. Could you please tell me how the two paintings were confused and where you found “Red Dirt Road” ? Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello Norman Takeuchi – You can also speak to me via the contact link (in the top menu), which is a direct email.

      But in the meantime, I apologize for including Red Dirt Road, which was accurately labelled with the correct title, instead of Interior Revisited.

      In the meantime, I have removed the Red Dirt Road image and the commentary from you (since there is no confirmed and accurate image now).

      I try to be extremely careful on this site, and this was not careful enough.

      I don’t see an available image for Interior Revisited to substitute for this post, so it is probably best to omit an image and leave the blurb about you as is.

      I appreciate your message regarding this and again, I apologize for muddying the situation with a painting that isn’t included in the exhibition.

      J Walters


      • Hello J. Walters,

        Thank you for your reply. Attached is an image of Interior Revisited. I hope you can insert it in the article. Please let me know if it works out.

        With many thanks, Norman

        INTERIOR REVISITED Acrylic on canvas 48 x 72 in.



        • Hello – Thank you. The image did not come through on your comment form, but I had been searching and did find an image of Interior Revisited that was a ROM handout. I have inserted that back into the post, with your original commentary and I’m hoping you can check at your convenience and confirm everything is OK now? I greatly appreciate your help, and your patience. J Walters


          • Good morning. The image looks great and the information for the painting is fine. Many thanks for taking the time to search for the photo and for making the correction. It’s much appreciated. Regards, Norman

            Liked by 1 person

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