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)
(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.
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.”
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 Rememory, Collected 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