Tashme Project restores fading memories of Japanese-Canadian Internment

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      There are only two stories that theatre artist Julie Tamiko Manning remembers hearing about her mother and grandparents’ experiences during the Japanese-Canadian Internment of the 1940s.

      One was about Hastings Park, where Japanese-Canadian families were held in the horse stables before they could be shipped further east. “All the children would sleep on the top bunk beds, and from the top you would see this field of bunk beds,” the Montreal artist recounts over the phone, “and you could see all these little black heads popping up in the morning.”

      The other story was about the hard winters spent in camps in B.C.’s remote Interior. “It was so cold in the shack that they were living in that there would be icicles on the ceiling and walls,” Manning says.

      Other than that, no one in Manning’s family would ever speak about this dark chapter in history. And when she met fellow theatre artist Matt Miwa, she found out he had a similar experience of silence around the subject on the Japanese side of his family.

      Together, they were determined to create a work to break the silence and collect the stories of Nisei (second-generation Japanese Canadians), who are now in their 70s and 80s, before they were lost forever.

      The result is The Tashme Project: The Living Archives, a verbatim play named for the camp where, it turns out, both Manning’s and Miwa’s relatives had been held. Housing more than 2,000 people in primitive conditions, the Sunshine Valley site was the largest of the work camps to which the government forcibly shipped everyone of Japanese descent from the coast in 1942. After that, many of the families were forced to settle east of the Rockies.

      The duo started by doing interviews with their own family members and then moved on to those people’s friends, and others, gathering memories from more than 100 residents of Toronto, Hamilton, Kingston, Montreal, and Vancouver.

      First, they had to build enough trust to overcome their subjects’ reticence. “There’s a term, shikata ga nai, that means ‘It can’t be helped,’ ” Manning says, “and Japanese people use that in the face of terrible things, whether natural disasters or being interned or being at war. But when you get to the second generation, the Nisei, they still have that philosophy, but they’re also Canadian because they were born here. They were in all aspects Canadian except for their race. So I think there’s also some of that shame of ‘This happened to us when we were children and our parents got through it and we should as well.’ I have to say I’ve inherited that as well.…I find it very shameful to complain about something my grandparents bore stoically.”

      “I went into it not so much for the history itself, but I wanted to know what it was for them, because it was such a subjective thing,” says Miwa, “and as we found out, there was also a lot of joy in that age group. The kids formed friendships. There was a sense of pride, too, at their ingenuity about creating a sense of community. There were judo clubs, baseball, Boy Scouts, publications, dances. They were really proud that they could create a vibrant community.”

      Julie Tamiko Manning and Matt Miwa in The Tashme Project: The Living Archives.

      Armed with so many stories, Manning and Miwa decided to arrange their verbatim script in chronological order, drafting and redrafting as they tried to work their contemporary selves into the play. In the resulting production, Manning and Miwa shift between characters and stories, occasionally coming back to their own relationship to the subject matter. Miwa says they worked tirelessly on perfecting the subtle cadences of the Japanese-Canadian accent. They have also integrated some of the precious objects, like a tea set, handed down in Manning’s family, and black-and-white projections of images from the era.

      Building the work has brought into clear focus how the fallout from the internment still reverberates today, Manning observes. “By the time you get to my and Matt’s generation, we don’t speak the language, we don’t look Japanese, and we don’t have the pride,” she says. “So you have, like, this wall between you and your identity. So as the generations go on, you go, ‘Well, yeah, they did kind of take the Japanese out of everybody.’ ”

      Miwa says he understands now where some of his own father’s and relatives’ anger would come from in later years. “Even to this day my father will say, ‘I’m Canadian, I’m not Japanese Canadian,’ and I think that’s because they weren’t encouraged to go out and be proud of it. They encouraged their kids to hide it,” he laments.

      “Because my generation is the last one to know the first generation, I feel a huge responsibility to preserve their knowledge and pass it along to the next generation,” he adds, pointing out he’s thrilled to be able to perform at the Firehall Arts Centre, right by the old Japantown that thrived before his grandparents’ family was interned. “It’s reconnecting to a place that was not known to my family.”

      The Tashme Project: The Living Archives is at the Firehall Arts Centre from next Wednesday (April 3) to April 13.