Lived experiences of interned Japanese Canadians

Photo by Simon Yee

This past summer, Universal Limited theatre members Yoshié Bancroft, Joanna Garfinkel and their team have been performing a historical re-enactment of the 1942 Japanese-Canadian internment at Hastings Park in Vancouver to remember the stories of those interned there, preserve that history and draw attention to similar events happening now.

Their next live performance will be on Nov. 16 at the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre in Burnaby, followed by a meet and greet with the cast, crew and community members. A recorded version of the performance is played hourly at the museum until January 14, 2018. Bancroft hopes these performances will illuminate a history usually downplayed today.

“It is a firmly held Canadian fiction that such events happened safely in the past, or more frequently in America,” Bancroft says. “We want to destroy those fictions and replace them with truth and conversation. We have seen our piece be a healing agent in families and communities, and we want to expand this.”

From Canadian to enemy alien

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in the United States in 1941 and the subsequent Canadian declaration of war on the Empire of Japan, the Government of Canada initiated a program the following year to remove and detain Canadians of Japanese descent. Subsequently, over 8,000 Japanese-Canadians were incarcerated at Hastings Park before being sent to internment sites or work camps across the country.

Many of those detained were sent to Vancouver’s Hastings Park, the grounds where the Pacific National Exhibition is held. During the war, the exhibition was suspended and its facilities – the PNE barns, stables and Livestock Building – were used to intern and process Japanese-Canadians for their eventual relocation. The conditions at the park were extremely rudimentary and unsanitary, and those who remember recalled the horrible smell, noises and food.

“Families were separated. Cars, cameras, and radios were confiscated, and uncertainty was rampant,” says Nikkei Museum curator Sherri Kajiwara. “What happened was the result of fear, uncertainty, threat of an enemy and war.”

Recovering and re-enacting hidden history

It was this history that inspired Bancroft and Garfinkel to produce their historical play entitled Japanese Problem, which provides a look into living conditions at Hastings Park in 1942. They interviewed survivors, visited former internment sites and examined primary source materials for their performance.

Recreation of bed stalls used in Hastings Park, currently at Nikkei. | Photo by Simon Yee

While researching, one of the things they noted was the divergent accounts between the official version of the internment, such as those provided by the B.C. Security Commission, and the accounts of those living there. One such picture that caught their attention was an interior shot of the Livestock Building by Leonard Frank, featuring women and children in and around stalls.

“[The scene shown in the picture] is very clean and serene on the surface. Though there are a thousand people (or more!) living there at the time, everything looks clean and ordered, and absent of people,” says Garfinkel.

“But if you look very closely, you can see children playing and hiding, which is a reflection of the larger story we are telling. You can see the troughs that acted as open sewers in the photo, even if they are swept clean to uphold the BCSC’s image of the site as an appropriate place to hold ‘evacuees,’” she says.

Their first live re-enactment was performed site-specifically at Hastings Park this past September. Praised for the play’s multi-layered storytelling, the play has its actors not only recreate and re-enact scenes that would have happened back in 1942, but also has the actors break character to comment and reflect on the situation and how it appears to present-day audiences. Their goal is not only to inform audiences about the past, but also use the play to ask questions about anti-migrant racism and the widespread Islamophobia of the present.

“Seventy-five years later there is still lasting pain from the experience,” says Kajiwara. “Hopefully now, through dialogue and this exhibit, we can find some healing and learn from the past so as to never repeat the mistakes made.”

To learn more about the exhibit, please check out www.hastingspark1942.ca.

For more information about the play, please visit www.japaneseproblem.ca.

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