The Suitcase Project immerses portrait subjects in contemporary Japanese Canadian internment predicament

    1 of 5 2 of 5

      What would the Japanese Canadian internment experience be like if something similar took place today?

      While many may think it would be impossible for that to occur, it was only in 2016 when concerns were raised that a proposed U.S. surveillance program for Arabs and Muslims could lead to history repeating itself. 

      Photographer Kayla Isomura, who is a fourth-generation Japanese Canadian, sought to explore what that would be like for yonsei (fourth-generation) and gosei (fifth-generation) Japanese Canadians and Americans if they underwent the experience of relocation and internment in the present day.

      After Japan's 1941 attack on Pearl Harbour, approximately 23,000 Japanese Canadians and over 100,000 Japanese Americans were removed from their homes along the North American West Coast and relocated to internment camps or farms.

      For Isomura's multimedia exhibit The Suitcase Project, over 80 individuals in the Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island, and Washington State, ranging from infants to 51-year-olds, participated.

      All participants were forced to face the same predicament as Japanese Canadians did in 1942: they were given only 24- to 48-hour notice to choose which items they would take with them within weight restrictions.

      During the internment in Canada, any remaining Japanese Canadian homes and possessions, including homes, businesses, properties, boats, personal items, and more, were seized by the Canadian government. 

      “In the Canadian context, Japanese Canadians were not allowed to return home and their possessions were sold by the government or looted,” Isomura stated in a news release. “The original idea wasn’t just about what or how people would pack, but also what they are forced to leave behind.”

      Actor Jennifer Spence

      The Suitcase Project launches tomorrow (June 16) and continues until September 2 at the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre (6688 Southoaks Crescent, Burnaby).

      The exhibit opening will be held from 2 to 5 p.m. tomorrow, featuring "Question 27, Question 28", a play reading by actors Laura Fukumoto, Jennifer Spence, and Genevieve Fleming.

      Directed by Japanese American actor Tamlyn Tomita (Come See the Paradise, Joy Luck Club), the play is based on transcripts and oral histories from the U.S. government's loyalty questionnaire.

      In addition, Isomura will discuss the 63 portraits and 19 short documentaries made for the exhibit with videographer Mark Yuen at 2 p.m. on August 11 at the centre.


      Meanwhile, for those who are interested in visiting a former internment site in B.C., the museum is organization a day trip to Tashme, B.C., which is located 22 kilometres (14 miles) southeast of Hope.

      As one of the largest Japanese Canadian internment camps, it was built on a ranch and opened in 1942 and closed in 1946. The name Tashme came from the first two letters of three B.C. Security Commission officers' last names. It consisted of 347 tar-paper shacks that housed over 500 families with a peak population of 2,644 people.

      The trip, to be held on July 27 will include a tour of original buildings, a visit to the Tashme Museum, and a visit to commemorative signage that was launched in 2017. A bus will leave the Nikkei Centre at 10 a.m. and return by 5 p.m.

      The $125 fee includes return transportation, Tashme Museum admission, walking tour, lunch, tax, and tip. Space is limited to a maximum of 23 people. Tickets can be purchased online or by phone (604-777-7000, ext. 109) and the deadline is July 13.

      You can follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at @cinecraig or on Facebook.