Lillian Michiko Blakey, “Reiko, Alberta 1945” (2009), acrylic on canvas (courtesy Nikkei National Museum, 2013.57.1.6)

TORONTO — In a gallery of the Royal Ontario Museum hangs a series of portraits depicting colonial Canadians, decked out in their fineries. They gaze proudly from their ornate frames: women draped in furs and ribbons, men dressed in stiff-collared shirts and military regalia, rosy-cheeked girls in billowy dresses with thick pink sashes. At the center of this wall  — a testament to European influences on Canada — is a strikingly different portrait. Painted onto a large stretch of canvas, a young Japanese woman, her face framed by a powder-blue sky and two strands of barbed wire, holds our view.

This painting by contemporary artist Lillian Michiko Blakey is a recent addition to the gallery, one of several works that make up a new exhibition exploring the forced relocation and internment of some 22,000 Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. The curators of Being Japanese Canadian: reflections on a broken world made the meaningful decision to install the exhibition throughout the museum’s Gallery of Canada, amid the furniture, paintings, and luxurious silverware once owned by the Canadian upper crust. It makes a bold and unavoidable statement. The interment era, one of Canada’s shameful historic chapters, is a vital part of the national narrative.

David L. Hayashida, “Low tea in ’43 (BRITISH Columbia) still boils” (2017) detail, mixed media (image by Brian Boyle, courtesy Royal Ontario Museum)

“Every school group comes through this space to learn about the history of Canada,” says Katherine Yamashita, co-curator of the exhibition and an arts educator at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Center in Toronto. “This historical story belongs in the gallery.”

Like the forced internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, persecution of Japanese Canadians was sparked by Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. The attack fanned anti-Asian sentiments that had been percolating in Canada, particularly in British Columbia, on the west coast, where many people with Japanese heritage had settled. The vitriol directed at this community only grew more heated when, days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces invaded Hong Kong, killing and wounding hundreds of Canadian soldiers who had been stationed there.

Retaliation against Canadians of Japanese descent was swift and devastating. By January of 1942, a 100-mile “protected area” had been established along Canada’s Pacific coast, and people of Japanese heritage were ordered to leave. They were sent as forced laborers to roadwork sites and sugar beet farms, or to isolated ghost towns in the wilderness of British Columbia. Families were separated. Their properties were liquidated and sold by the government; detainees were permitted to access small quantities of their funds to cover the cost of their own confinement. Some 90 percent of Japanese Canadians were interned during the war, most of whom had been born in Canada.

Norman Takeuchi, “Interior Revisited” (2012-2017), acrylic on canvas (image by Brian Boyle, courtesy Royal Ontario Museum)

By focusing on contemporary reactions to this era of injustice, the exhibition highlights the long-standing ramifications of the internment — ramifications that have rippled across generations and complicated notions of what it means to be a Japanese Canadian today. All of the eight featured artists either experienced Canada’s internment policies directly or have relatives who were impacted by them, according to Yamashita. The young woman surrounded by barbed wire in Lillian Michiko Blakey’s portrait, for instance, is the artist’s mother, who was sent to work on a sugar beet field in the province of Alberta. Eighty-one-year-old painter Norman Takeuchi and his family were forced to move from Vancouver to the interior of British Columbia. He contributes a vibrant work that juxtaposes two images: a traditional Japanese woodblock print of two women in luxurious kimonos, and a muted depiction of a man standing between rows of internment camp shacks. Framed by jagged abstract shapes, these two aspects of Takeuchi’s identity — his ancestral heritage and the era when that heritage made him a target of oppression — collide uneasily.

Emma Nishimura, “Collected Stories” (2017 to present), etching and hand-painting on gampi with wax and thread (image by Brian Boyle, courtesy Royal Ontario Museum)

The most overt expression of the painful legacy of the internment can be seen in an installation by David Hayashida, a ceramic artist from the province of Newfoundland. His work, “ Low tea in ‘43 (British Columbia) still boils, consists of china teacups fixed to the points of a lopsided maple leaf. From each cup — a symbol of British authority in Canada — drips a ceramic puddle painted with grotesque caricatures of Asian men and jarring historic quotes pertaining to their internment. “No Japs from the Rockies to the seas,” reads one such quote, uttered by a Member of Parliament in 1944.

“The interesting thing about David is that this is really his first piece about his Japanese Canadian background,” says Bryce Kanbara, exhibition co-curator and the curator and chair of the arts committee at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Center. “So he’s suppressed it for a long time, and it’s come out like this. It’s really visceral.”

Emma Nishimura, “An Archive of Rememory” (2016 to present), photo-etching and photogravure, (image by Brian Boyle, courtesy Royal Ontario Museum)

Unearthing difficult histories is central to the work of Emma Nishimura, an award-winning multi-disciplinary artist and assistant professor at the Ontario College of Art and Design. Nishimura has known since childhood that her paternal grandparents suffered under Canada’s internment policies; her grandfather was put to work building roads, while her grandmother was sent to an internment camp. But she also sensed that there were aspects of their experience that her grandparents wouldn’t — or couldn’t — talk about.

“I think that’s essential to the Japanese Canadian experience: the story of the internment and its present absence in a lot of people’s lives,” Nishimura tells Hyperallergic. “You know it happened, but you don’t necessarily know the details, and you don’t know enough to wrap your arms around it.”

Around ten years ago, she began trying to fill in the gaps. She read history books on the internment, spoke to family members about her grandparents’ experiences, and interviewed other survivors about this historic event that upended their lives. The information Nishimura uncovered inspired three artworks on display at the ROM. The first, “Constructed Narratives,” is a series of maps depicting locations connected to the internment period, including the section of road that Nishimura’s grandfather worked on during the war. The maps’ topographical lines are etchings made up of minuscule texts, drawn from historic and contemporary sources that shaped Nishimura’s understanding of the interment era.

A similar approach drives her second piece, “Collected Stories,” which features etchings in the shape of furoshiki, a type of traditional Japanese packaging used to transport food and gifts. These works are comprised of text, which relate the stories of Nishimura’s family members and other individuals she encountered during her research. Their memories are thus woven into the layers of the furoshiki bundles, as if to hold and protect them. But crucially, the texts are tiny, almost impenetrably so, representing the difficulty of fully reconstructing stories that have been repressed for decades.

Emma Nishimura, detail of “Constructed Narratives” (2013-2018), etching on gampi with wax and thread, (image by Brian Boyle, courtesy Royal Ontario Museum)

Nishimura’s third installation, “An Archive of Rememory,” renders the furoshiki in sculptural form. On five narrow shelves sit dozens of little bundles printed with family photographs from the internment era. Black-and-white photos of faces peer out from the folds of the furoshiki, which, unlike their traditional counterparts, are empty and cannot be opened. “These pieces look heavy … but they actually weigh nothing,” Nishimura says. “And I loved this idea of playing with the notion of the weight of memory.” The legacy of her grandparents’ experiences feels at once ethereal, having been obscured by years of silence, and impossibly heavy, as she carries their painful pasts with her into the present.

Emma Nishimura, Relvelstoke detail, “Constructed Narratives” (2013-2018), etchings printed on gampi paper with wax and thread (image courtesy Emma Nishimura)

Behind Nishimura’s furoshiki bundles, tucked into a dimly lit corner of the gallery, is a chilling sight: 160 little black shacks, arranged in rows across the floor. Titled Ghostown, this installation by Steven Nunoda recreates internment camp housing, based on meticulous research. The artist travelled to former internment sites to study, measure, and document them. Like the shacks that Japanese Canadians were once forced to live in, Nunoda’s models are covered in tarpaper.

Steven Nunoda, “Ghostown” (2013), tar paper (courtesy Brian Boyle, Royal Ontario Museum) and Steven Nunoda, “Ladder to the Moon” (2013), mixed media installation (image by Brian Boyle, courtesy Royal Ontario Museum)

Looming over the shacks is a second installation by Nunoda. A ladder climbs up the gallery wall, crowned by a glowing, moon-like orb that casts a glow over the shacks below. Aptly titled “Ladder to the Moon,” (2013) the work was inspired by a conversation Nunoda had with his daughter, who asked if it would be possible to build a ladder that could reach the celestial body hovering in the night sky. Positioned over the miniature internment camp, as though offering a way out of that dark world, the installation takes on a poignant symbolism as the hope of a displaced generation.

Being Japanese Canadian: reflections on a broken world  is on view at the Royal Ontario Museum (100 Queen’s Park, Toronto, ON, M5S 2C6) through August 5. The exhibition is curated by Arlene Gehmacher, Bryce Kanbara, Heather Read, and Katherine Yamashita.

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Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance reporter based in Toronto. Her work appears most frequently on the website of Smithsonian Magazine, where she covers art, history and museums. She has also written for a number...