Resituating Displaced/Replaced Subjects in and of Japanese Canadian History

I am a historian by training, and have written in both English and Japanese on Japanese Canadian uprooting and incarceration from legal and historical perspectives. As I got to know the community activists and artists personally through my historical research, I learned that their political awakenings came hand in hand with their cultural and artistic explorations of identity, and that both elements were essential in the postwar reconstruction of the Japanese Canadian ethnic community. Cultural analysis based on ethnography became an important part of my research methodology in addition to archival work. I also have been trying to integrate findings in Japanese emigration studies conducted in Japan with those in North American ethnic studies, as there is a disparity in knowledge production between these two fields. Bringing information from the other shore of the Pacific about Japanese Canadian history, I have contemplated how adding “Canadian elements” to Asian American Studies or bringing “Asian perspectives” to Asian North American Studies can induce paradigmatic changes in the ways Asian American Studies have considered issues and notions such as race, ethnicity and citizenship. Instead of treating migration as a legacy, if we place “migration” in the center of analysis, Asian North Americanists can elucidate how migrants strategize their moves in multiple directions and how they are not simply subjects of state restrictions and/or controls of migration but active agents in choosing, exploring and even creating alternative living spaces far away from the one that they were born into.

Migration patterns and Japanese migrants’ experiences were affected by the complex relationships among three empires, Japanese, British, and American, and transpacific historical studies elucidate how Japanese migrants have strived to maximize their skills, productivity, and income by choosing to live at the borderlands between those empires. Studying the emigration patterns at the micro level of home villages, we are finding that geographic locations and economic/class backgrounds affect Japanese emigrants’ destinations as well as occupations they choose in the destinations. Canada, for example, became a destination for better-off emigrants from Shiga, who had advantages over others in terms of cultural as well as economic capital in their homeland. This explains their relative ease in achieving success on Powell Street, the major Japanese ethnic enclave in prewar Canada, and their higher rate of return migration. The confiscation of property during World War II was all the more devastating for Japanese Canadians because many of them had achieved stable lives before Pearl Harbor.

In the past couple of years, various people contacted me regarding Japanese Canadian history and returnees/deportees to Japan from Canada. A couple of them were returnees/deportees themselves, several were families and descendants of such people, and others were academics, including those involved in the Landscape of Injustice, a Canada-based multidisciplinary research project on the confiscation and property losses of Japanese Canadians during World War II. The sudden rise in interest in Japanese Canadian history in Japan is partly due to the publication of a novel, a comic, and a spin-off fictional film, The Vancouver Asahi (2014), based on the story of a prewar Japanese Canadian star baseball team. Even though the film did not achieve a box office success, the production connected people related to Asahi through blood ties and academic interests, who never knew each other before.

There are two things I would like to do in my research on Japanese Canadians in the next couple of years. One is an urgent endeavour of collecting oral history and preserving historical materials such as documents, letters, and photos stored in the houses of the returnees/deportees. Their experiences, unless interviewed now, will be lost as the migrant generation passes. Many of the descendants of returnees have not heard their parents’ experiences of relocations, and the old photographs, letters and artifacts will disappear before long. As the returnees were re-integrated into the Japanese society, they did not form organizations comparable to ethnic organizations in North America. This makes it difficult for researchers to locate Japanese Canadian returnees, and thus, incidents such as the Vancouver Asahi connection offer precious opportunities for discovering returnee families scattered all over Japan.

The second endeavour is to place the experiences of Japanese Canadians in the history of overall structural transitions in British Columbia regarding the land, resources, and production. In the field of Canadian literature, connections have been made between Asian, Asian Canadian, and Indigenous experiences at textual levels by authors such as Joy Kogawa and Ruth Ozeki. While sympathetic relationalities can be more easily drawn in literary texts, analyses in empirical academic fields such as history and ethnic studies might reveal conflicting interest among minorities and Indigenous communities, as exemplified in the heated debates concerning similar issues in Hawaii. However, in the February 2016 special issue of Amerasia Journal entitled “Carceral States,” Karen J. Leong and Myla Vicenti Carpio proposed to construct relational histories involving Asian Americans and Native Americans via the concept of the “carceral state.” Such kinds of critical analyses need to be conducted on British Columbian history as well, because, as Leong and Carpio pointed out, relational history can be an effective tool for us to deconstruct settler colonialism and illuminate white supremacy working along with expansionist capitalism, in which different racial groups have been pitted against each other. Such illuminations are important, for not just our academic endeavours but our pursuit for social justice and peace at the face of expanding militarism and intolerance in today’s world.

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