Japanese Problem/Chinese Problem by Erica Isomura
What happens when society sees you as a “problem”? This was the case for Japanese Canadians in 1942 and it’s the case for anyone of Chinese descent in Vancouver today.
75 years ago, my grandmother and great-grandmother were detained in the Livestock Building at Hastings Park, also known as the fairgrounds of the Pacific National Exhibition (PNE). They were forced to live in the stalls of this barn with other Japanese Canadian women and children before being sent further east to internment camps in remote BC.
In February of 1942, the Government of Canada passed an order to remove all people of Japanese ancestry from the west coast for reasons attributed to “national security”. In total, over 8,000 people of Japanese descent passed through Hastings Park — the majority of these people were Canadian-born or naturalized citizens.
This past summer, I worked as the curatorial and programming assistant for the Nikkei National Museum’s Hastings Park 1942 exhibit. The exhibit centres around the installation of a performance called “JAPANESE PROBLEM” by Universal Limited theatre company. This site-specific piece of theatre was performed inside of the Livestock Building, re-imagining this dark past, its effects on the present day, and on the future.
The PNE's livestock barn became a women and children's dormitory in 1942. Photo by Leonard Frank. Nikkei National Museum 19126.96.36.199
The title JAPANESE PROBLEM comes from common language used during the Second World War by both the media and public alike — Japanese people were seen as a problem. This was a time of war, fear, and many unknowns.
A shared sentiment of feeling horrified and simultaneously deeply moved by this dramatized history seemed to strongly resonate among the show’s audience, both those who are Japanese Canadian and those who are not. As one person wrote,
“We can live on land that has borne witness to terrible things and never know the stories beneath our feet. We go about our days, oblivious, until someone draws our attention to our history. … A horrific thing, something we should have all learned about in history class, happened a few kilometres from my house in the east of the city — and I had no idea until I went to see the Japanese Problem.”
-Marsha Lederman, Globe and Mail on October 10, 2017
For those of us who carry fragments of this wartime history, watching this performance was a rare opportunity to see one’s family’s memories and hidden truths come alive for a brief 40 minutes.
During JAPANESE PROBLEM one of the actors exclaims, “This ‘hapa’ culture — mixed culture — it’s not a coincidence. How better to blend in than to marry and have babies with white people?”
This is in reference to the present-day Japanese Canadian community and it’s astoundingly high percentage of mixed-race marriages. Beyond historical re-enactment, JAPANESE PROBLEM grapples with the consequences that face internee descendants today, naming intergenerational trauma, community assimilation, and mixed-race identity.
For some, this performance serves as a visceral reminder of the unspoken grief and drawn-out silences stitched into the fabric of our family stories. How do we — descendants — reconcile with the questions about our history that remain unanswered? The reasons we have come to exist — or, as my friend Judy Hanazawa once put it — “the forever altered destiny of our community”?
These kinds of questions have spawned my involvement in the community today — to resolve my own unanswered questions, learn about my family history, and hear stories I didn’t know while growing up. I often think about how this history affects my daily life. I am non-markedly ethnically mixed. I am unable to speak or read or understand the Japanese language. I have a blurred familiarity with Japanese traditions and customs. I was never really sure “where I came from” when asked while growing up and still don’t like being asked that question. These are a few of the ways that I am impacted by this history.
That being said, while growing up Japanese Canadian in the Lower Mainland, my Japanese heritage didn’t actually seem to create a “ problem ” for me in the same way it did for my grandparents and great-grandparents. If anything, being part Japanese seemed to offer me a slight edge of coolness over other kids of Asian descent at my school. With the global influence of Japan and popularity of its fashion, manga, electronics, and food, Japanese culture was highly revered by my classmates. I had multiple instances of classmates and others telling me they wish they were part Japanese too.
While my mixed background was somewhat interesting or curious to others, having Chinese heritage on my mom’s side of the family was apparently less cooler than being part Japanese. In general, I got the impression that being Chinese was more of a problem and less desirable overall. For instance throughout elementary and high school, I noticed kids from immigrant Chinese families being teased more often than other classmates, whether this was related to language, lunch food choices, clothing, or mannerisms. It’s still not really clear to me today if this was on account of issues of class, xenophobia, “foreign”-ness, or what, exactly. On the ladder of Asian-kid coolness, Chinese-ness seemed to fall on a lower rung.
Yet, in this simultaneous socio-economic moment, the gentrification of local Vancouver neighbourhoods like Chinatown and Strathcona are pushing low income Chinese seniors out of their homes and communities. And it’s not just the wealthy Chinese who are buying up these properties and moving into the neighbourhood.
All of our problems are because of “them,” “those people.” I’ve heard sentiments about “the Chinese” even echoed by members of my own Chinese Canadian family, differentiating between our “Chinese-ness” and those of newer arrivals, and feeling upset when we’re all lumped together. Nobody wants to be the targeted enemy in this public conversation.
All of this makes me wonder, if this is how members of my family are reacting as Canadian-born Chinese, how is this impacting others who are more recently immigrated to Canada? In 2009, close to 43% of people residing in Metro Vancouver were of Chinese ancestry. How many of these people will feel like forever foreigners, outsiders to a place they are trying to make their home, too?
I also ask myself, why does history like this continue to repeat? In Canada, we like to look back at the past sometimes — perhaps when a commemorative holiday comes up, when a human rights activist passes away, or when we’re forced to apologize — and talk about about how “we didn’t any better back then” or how we’ve come so far since _________ (name of racist event or policy).
The national focus on reconciliation processes for Indian Residential School survivors provides an example of this. In 1920, government official Duncan Campbell Scott amended the Indian Act to make residential schools mandatory to “get rid of the Indian problem”. Today, Indigenous children continue to be taken from their family homes and overrepresented in the foster care system across Canada. This is an example of long-lasting results from systemic discrimination and intergenerational trauma that we remain accountable to.
Beyond simply remembering, we need to realign ourselves, our understandings of one another’s histories, and our actions. 2017 is the 75th anniversary of the Japanese Canadian internment. 75, or even 150, years in the future, what will we be apologizing for? What will we be remembering?
Through an invitation from JAPANESE PROBLEM at Hastings Park, we are asked to…
shed light on shadowed stories
stretch heart from chest
expand unavoidable feelings
witness families’ unhealed wounds
carry tears never shed
reckon with living history
examine shifting social realities
scrutinize the ‘us’, the ‘them’
carry responsibilities to the other
I don’t have all the answers to why this history continues to repeat, but every day I work towards creating a future anew. I am grateful for the artists and activists who guide me on this journey.