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Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

An internment camp ‘comedy’ opens in Victoria next week

Kunji Ikeda’s show, Sansei, explores his family’s connection to the Japanese internment camps

By Tim Ford
April 27, 2022
History
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

An internment camp ‘comedy’ opens in Victoria next week

Kunji Ikeda’s show, Sansei, explores his family’s connection to the Japanese internment camps

By Tim Ford
Apr 27, 2022
Kunji Ikeda in Sansei (courtesy Cloudsway Dance Theatre)
Kunji Ikeda in Sansei (courtesy Cloudsway Dance Theatre)
History
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

An internment camp ‘comedy’ opens in Victoria next week

Kunji Ikeda’s show, Sansei, explores his family’s connection to the Japanese internment camps

By Tim Ford
April 27, 2022
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An internment camp ‘comedy’ opens in Victoria next week
Kunji Ikeda in Sansei (courtesy Cloudsway Dance Theatre)

In 1942, George Ikeda and his family were uprooted from their lives in Steveston.

Their property, listed in documentation from the government as over a dozen lots along Chatham Street, was confiscated, along with most of their belongings, including, according to receipts, an electric refrigerator, fine china and dishes, a heater, several pieces of furniture, a Westinghouse radio and a Singer sewing machine, which was vital for George Ikeda’s wife’s work as a dressmaker. 

The Ikedas were one of the many families affected by the Canadian government’s policy, whereby Japanese-Canadians had their lives uprooted, their property and personal belongings confiscated, as they were sent to internment camps beginning in 1942.

In the 80 years since, both the federal government and the province of BC have officially apologized for their treatment of Japanese-Canadians, and descendants of those impacted are coming to grips with a legacy of dispossession. 

One such descendant is Kunji Ikeda, the grandson of George Ikeda. Kunji Ikeda is a theatre artist whose show Sansei examines his personal connection to the internment, and is set to premiere in Victoria at Intrepid Theatre's UNO Fest from May 5-7, 2022.

While the subjects at the heart of Ikeda's piece are tough to reckon with, the show itself is founded on a sense of humour.

“One of my biggest challenges is convincing folks that it's a comedy, or that it is as entertaining as it is educational,” Ikeda says.

Ikeda first learned about his connection to internment from his father. Following internment, laws prohibiting theIkeda family’s return to their BC home made them settle in Picture Butte, Alberta. It was there that Kunji Ikeda's father was conceived.

“I remember [my father] being like, ‘If that didn't happen, I wouldn't be alive. Ha! And neither would you,’” Ikeda says. “The fact that he had that humour aspect about it definitely stuck in my mind.”

***

A dramatic shift in communities was a common story for those uprooted, according to one historian who recently worked on a massive research project on internment.

“One of the things that has struck me, as I got to know the history better, was how well settled the community was,” says Jordan Stanger-Ross, a professor at UVic who served as project director of the "Landscapes of Injustice" research project

“Most Japanese-Canadians had arrived before 1907 or were the children or grandchildren of immigrants who had arrived before then by the 1940s. This was a multi-generational Canadian, British Columbian community,” he says.

Seized Fishboats Of Japanese-Canadians near Robson Island, New Westminster, 1942 (BC Archives C-05267)

Of the over 21,000 Japanese-Canadians forcibly removed from their homes, three quarters were Canadian citizens. Approximately half were born in Canada. Despite this, the Canadian government claimed they were a threat to national security during World War 2, and in some cases, even deported people to Japan, a country many had never even visited. But anti-Asian racism was well-rooted in Canada even before this, according to Stanger-Ross.

“British Columbia had passed hundreds of laws actually restricting political participation—not just the vote, but running for office, even for local improvement boards—and even more laws restricting labour force participation.”

Those laws included bans on jobs funded by public money, and even restrictions on accessing business loans, restricting Japanese and other Asian-Canadians from growing their livelihoods.

After the war was over, many were not allowed to return to their homes. A massive “protection area” was set up, encompassing a 100-mile-wide swathe of the West Coast of BC as well as the entirety of Vancouver Island, where Japanese-Canadians were refused entry. The area was not removed until 1949.

***

In some cases, Japanese-Canadians found new homes in the "unprotected" parts of BC. Naomi Yamamoto, whose father was interned, is among them. Yamamoto, the first—and to date, only—Japanese-Canadian elected to BC's legislative assembly, says like Ikeda's father, her father strived for positivity in the situation.

“Perseverance was his main character,” Yamamoto says. “He didn't give up and he was able to reinvent himself with every obstacle and barrier. He always told us the injustice of it all, but you can't carry bitterness with you, because it'll destroy you.”

As an MLA, Yamamoto was part of the Christy Clark government, which issued an official apology to Japanese-Canadians in 2012. Her father was present in the gallery when the apology was passed. He died last October.

Japanese-Canadian internment camp, showing school and housing, at Lemon Creek, south of Slocan City ca. 1944 (BC Archives I-60959)

For Yamamoto, his passing is significant not just for her family but for the broader picture of history. She worries that the more distant we are from the period, the more likely we are to forget—and possibly to even repeat it.

“My dad was 94 when he passed away,” she says. “Most of the people that were interned...are dead. And the ones that are still alive, frankly, they were babies, so the sense of loss probably isn't as marked as it has been for the older people.”

That is why she feels that shows like Kunji Ikeda's Sansei are so important. Yamamoto's father also had his story told on stage, through a play by Canadian writer Tetsuro Shigematsu called 1 Hour Photo. The experience led to the unveiling of even more of Yamamoto's history.

“Tetsuro interviewed my dad for like a month every Monday,” Yamamoto says. “And my dad told him things that we never knew.”

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According to Kunji Ikeda, that's exactly the point. He believes that political apologies can be impersonal, whereas art can be about connection. Ikeda will be returning to Victoria for an arts symposium in September 2022, which will foster more connections for Japanese-Canadian creators. For Sansei, though, he hopes to offer an intimate perspective that audiences wouldn't otherwise get. 

“It's a fun show for me to connect with the audience, for the audience to connect with this content, and with this ability to process this kind of intergenerational trauma,” Ikeda says.

“It's that beautiful idea that when it snows it's not my fault, but it's my responsibility to go and shovel the walk. And so it's no one's 'fault' to come to the show, but it's a great way to be called in and recognize what access points we have to help one another.”

For Yamamoto, Ikeda, and so many other Japanese-Canadians and 80 years of history, an 80-minute theatre show seems a worthwhile start.

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