A couple of lifetimes ago and another world away, the lives of many Japanese Canadian families changed forever in 1942.
Trying to understand what these times were like, from a Nisei’s perspective, is what initiated The Tashme Project: The Living Archives. The Firehall Arts Centre will present the docudrama play Apr. 2–13.
“We shift from character to character, tracing the oral history of their experiences from childhood to present day in the play. It’s quite a challenge as an actor,” says Matt Miwa, actor and creator of The Tashme
After the bombing of Pearl Harbour, Hawaii on December 7, 1941, Canada’s government reacted. On December 8, under the War Measures Act, Canada required all Japanese nationals and those naturalized after 1922 to register with the Registrar of Enemy Aliens. Soon afterwards, Japanese Canadians were stripped of their freedom, property and other assets. In the meantime, they were housed in the horse stables and grounds at Hastings Park, some up to 6 months, while camps were constructed. Following this, men between the ages of 18–45 were separated from their families and sent to work camps across BC and Canada.
While in March of 1942, women, children and the elderly were sent to internment camps, many in abandoned mining or logging towns in the BC Interior. One of these camps was Tashme. The Tashme Project: The Living Archives traces the history and common experience of the Nisei [second generation Japanese Canadians] through childhood, internment in Canada during the Second World War, and post-war resettlement east of the Rockies.
“I always thought Tashme was a Japanese name like my mom’s name, Tamiko. It’s actually taken from the names of three of the BC Commissions officers who dealt with the internees and their property: Taylor, Shirras and Mead,” explains Julie Tamiko Manning, actor and creator of The Tashme Project.
More than a half century went by before Miwa and Manning met. The two were working on two productions together, The Christmas Carol and Mother Courage. Both being half-Japanese, there was an immediate connection. “When Matt and I met, we found out that each other’s families were in the same internment camp together,” says Manning.
They also shared a mutual curiosity about their family’s past, initiating the inception of the project in 2009. When they discovered they had a history that was seldom discussed, a spark was ignited. “It was a first time to reminisce [about this timeframe] in an intergenerational way for everyone,” says Miwa.
In 2010, the actors decided to orate a scripted version of the interviews and stories during the Powell Street Festival in August. Based on the positive audience response, it became important to them to continue the project. Realizing that they needed to gather other perspectives, they travelled across Canada and interviewed over 60 former Nikkei internees. “The Nisei are of a certain age now. This is the last generation that has this experience. We had to get these stories from our community before they couldn’t talk about it anymore,” says Manning.
From there, the original project blossomed into a play developed at the Playwrights’ Workshop Montréal. In 2015, the premiere production opened in Montreal at the MAI (Montréal, Arts Interculturels). It was a creation based on 20 interwoven interviews with Nisei from Toronto, Hamilton, Kingston, Montreal, and Vancouver. The piece moves from voice to voice and story to story with fluidity and with a purposeful and constructed gracefulness. The actors portray the voices of both men and women interviewees as they seek a deep emotional and spiritual connection with the stories of their elders, breathing new life into these memories.
The biggest motivating factor for Manning and Miwa has been experiencing its effect on the Japanese-Canadian community; their hope is that the project continues to replace shame with pride. “It is our intention to connect younger Japanese Canadians more deeply to their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, as well as ignite a desire to rediscover their Japanese-ness and reinvigorate the dwindling Japanese Canadian community.”
It’s symbolic that the premiere showing in Vancouver is at the Firehall Arts Theatre, which lies within proximity of the historic pre-internment Japantown. “To perform the show in Firehall Arts Theatre and in Vancouver where the story began is very meaningful,” says Manning.
Similarly, the performance dates coincide with the Sakura Festival. While the timing wasn’t necessarily planned, it seems to be part of how this project has unfolded.
From curiosity to a thoughtful and subtle political act, The Tashme Project: The Living Archive is making a point of rebuilding Japanese Canadian identity and pride and redressing the injustices of a bygone era.