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Cover of issue #220

Current Issue: #220 Tracking CanLit (Spring 2014)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 220 (Spring 2014) is now available. The issue features a wide range of articles and book reviews as well as a selection of new Canadian poetry.

Traveler's Tales

  • Kathleen Chisato Merken (Translator) and Tomoko Makabe (Author)
    Picture Brides: Japanese Women in Canada. University of Washington Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • David Suzuki (Author) and Keibo Oiwa (Author)
    The Japan We Never Knew: A Journey of Discovery. Stoddart Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Reviewed by Marilyn Iwama

Recent challenges to the hardy (and economically useful) myth of a homogeneous Japan have attempted to expose the ideologies of self-interest that have directed the construction of the myth. The challenge contained in the two volumes under review, The Japan We Never Knew: A Journey of Discovery and Picture Brides: Japanese Women in Canada, is a more modest one. The writers of these texts simply introduce individuals whose lives contradict the idea of a homogeneous Japan. Scholarly and popular discourses have generally overlooked the experiences of these Japanese: the first women emigrants to Canada, and minority groups resident within Japan. The Japan We Never Knew is the more ambitious of these texts. For two years, Canadian scientist and broadcaster David Suzuki and Japanese anthropologist Keibo Oiwa traveled the length of Japan, conducting a broad range of interviews which they then gathered into three subject areas: peace, civil liberties, and the environment. Within these categories, Suzuki and Oiwa arrange historical summary, scientific analysis, personal reflection, and excerpts from the interviews. In the introduction, Suzuki relates his personal interest in finding the "hidden" Japan beneath the "mono lithic, homogeneous, and conformist" nation he has come to know. The notion of genetic "family" does not sit well with one who appears Japanese yet feels "completely Canadian." In the epilogue, Oiwa shares his reasons for daring Suzuki to explore this other Japan: fuelling Oiwa’s interest in minority cultures generally was his discovery, at age thirty, that his "Japanese" father was actually a native Korean. The Japan We Never Knew is the diary of the writers’ journey to find themselves in Japan’s others.

Perhaps because it is a chronicle of assumptions altered and stereotypes corrected, the book is a humble one. Most familiar generalizations resuscitated by the authors are countered, not by the life of one "rare individual" but by individuals who represent a host of others. We read of Kiichiro Tomino who entered a mayoralty race to prevent a forest sanctuary being razed for the construction of American military housing. However, we also learn how an entire system of local government was transformed by Tomino’s activism. We meet Okinawan grocer, Shoichi Chibana, who burned the Japanese flag in protest of Japan’s historical disregard for Okinawan nationhood, and its sacrifice of Okinawan people during the Battle of the Pacific; then we meet a host of others who sympathize with and actively support Chibana’s position. Enclosed as they are between the revelatory introduction and epilogue, these textual encounters transform ideas of Japan as they seem to have transformed the writers.

One of the major contributions of this text is that it attempts to alter perceptions of an exclusivist Japan by introducing a broad range of diversity. Rather than offer a deeper case study of, for instance the "untouchable" class of burakumin (individuals once regarded as defiled because they worked with the by-products of dead animals), Oiwa and Suzuki consider burakumin as one member of a community of cultural minorities. This tactic and the writers’ attention to the growing popularity of coalitions among Japan’s minorities resist the tendency to reinforce ideas of national homogeneity by focusing on what appears to be a singular rarity.

At times The Japan We Never Knew is dogged by ideological monoliths of its own, especially its lapses into a stereotypical treatment of gender. Suzuki and Oiwa describe mayor Tomino’s frequent consultations with his wife Nanako during his interview as evidence that their partnership is political as well as marital, yet they eliminate all of her comments from this lengthy section. In their description of a dance performed by weaver Akiko Ishigaki, the writers betray their conviction that sensuality is the provenance of youth. They express surprise that Toshi Maruki, an artist famous for her graphic depictions of wartime suffering, is "the picture of softness and grace," rather than "intense" or "tough." They write of "exotic" beauties. Yet, given the scope of this text, and the writers’ obvious attempts at self-reflection throughout, these observations are intended simply as cautionary notes.

Of greater concern in a text eager to expose the manipulations of a powerful centre is the manner in which the text reproduces other stereotypes, most often by teasing out one ideological strand and allowing it to define or explain a complex reality. For instance, in their description of daily life in postwar Koza (currently Okinawa City), Okinawa, the writers depend on one individual’s perception of the chasm between "rich, violent Americans" and "poor, pacifist Okinawans." This anachronistic and simplistic view of the past homogenizes the highly ambivalent nature of postwar international relations that existed among Okinawa, the United States, and Japan. It also secures Okinawans once more in the position of mute victimhood which has never enjoyed much support in that place.

Suzuki and Oiwa identify "rootedness," or a connection to place, as the common ground in each life they introduce. Generous attention to place, as their subjects define it, might have yielded a more careful examination of Japan’s social realities. Instead, the writers choose a quirky blend of travel diary and mid-life Bildungsroman, without allowing this self-indulgence to block their discovery of such truths as are so often stumbled upon in the course of a life.

Tomoko Makabe writes of such haphaz-ardness in Picture Brides: Japanese Women in Canada. This book is also a collection of interviews, conducted by Makabe and first published in Japanese as Shashinkon no Tsumatachi in 1983. Unlike the range of minorities represented in The Japan We Never Knew, this oral history is concerned with only one group, those women who journeyed to Canada in the 1910s and 20s to join husbands they had met in photographs, women who became known in written records and popular discourse as "picture brides." Yet Makabe is as interested as Oiwa and Suzuki in dismantling the myth of a homogeneous Japan, in this case by reporting the unique and remarkable achievements of women who have generally been characterized as silent, fertile partners in the pioneering Japanese-Canadian community.

Makabe introduces this translation by Kathleen Merken with an overview of the recorded lives and reflections on her own status as Japanese immigrant. She also includes a brief summary of Japanese-Canadian history, as well as individual summaries of historical particulars relevant to each interview. The summaries are helpful adjuncts to appreciating each woman’s situation, as is the historical background of the larger Japanese Canadian community, although its brevity precludes precision. A few more pages would have allowed Makabe to explore more deeply, for instance, the ambiguity that surrounds ethnicity for many Sansei, or third-generation Japanese Canadians, as related by Suzuki in the above volume. Such an examina lion may have spared Makabe the conclusion that, for the Sansei, racism and the uprooting of the community during the Second World War are "historical facts belonging to a distant past."

The strength of Picture Brides lies in its recording of the life stories which compelled Makabe to undertake this project. As Makabe explains, the five women we meet in this book are all "Meiji women." This epithet describes women raised during the Meiji era (1868-1912) to be quietly submissive and obedient to men. Until recently, historical records have remained faithful to the idea that the lives of "picture brides" realized only the ideals of "good wife, wise mother" through silent submission to heterosexual domesticity and the regular production of healthy sons and daughters. The stories collected by Makabe tell of women willing to gamble on marriage as a ticket to adventure in a foreign land. Once in Canada, they often participated equally with their husbands in a pioneer enterprise where "everyone worked," and usually in a variety of occupations that demanded heavy manual labour.

From the accounts of each of these women we also glimpse the detailed manner in which they remember accommodating their lives structurally to the expectations of those around them, while modifying that standard privately. Yasu Ishikawa could not endure the strain of such accommodation, of submitting herself to life with a husband who, in her words, "didn’t have any brains at all [and] absolutely no spirit." She left the marriage and established herself as a midwife. When Hana Mur ata found that submission to her husband included sharing him with his first wife, she exchanged life with them for a successful career in dressmaking.

At various points in their texts, and for various apparent reasons, each of these writers yields to the attractions of the simi lar. In Picture Brides, Makabe’s apparent reliance on notions of an unmediated relationship between thought and utterance, and between the life lived and the one remembered invites an emphasis on similarity. The text also produces similarities by presenting a translation which "smooth[s] out the peculiar language and expressions used by the women [...]." Although Oiwa does not explain his translations, the similarities in diction that he reproduces, despite marked regional and class differences in Japanese dialects, suggest a similar smoothing of differences. Given the aims of these texts, it would have been fitting for the writers to entrust their audience with the diversity of language and experience they encountered. Regardless, both The Japan We Never Knew, and Picture Brides are provocative challenges to tired myths of homogeneity in Japan, and the myth of proper heterogeneity in multicultural Canada.

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MLA: Iwama, Marilyn. Traveler's Tales. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 26 Oct. 2014.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #163 (Winter 1999), Asian Canadian Writing. (pg. 193 - 195)

***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.

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