Japanese-Canadian shines spotlight on picture-bride

Kiyo helps us understand how we judge vulnerable people. | Photo courtesy of Emiko Morita

Situated on the edge of the Japanese-Canadian community, Kiyoko Tanaka-Goto was not only a picture-bride. She was a survivor, among other things, to Emiko Morita, co-curator of Kiyo, the Spatial Poetics presented July 8 – a prelude to the Powell Street Festival.

I value her spirit and determination to survive,” says Morita.

She heard when Tanaka-Goto, as a former madam, walked into a room, some people would shift and sit up straight while others paid tribute to her.

“Since I was a young adult learning about my history, I was aware of her being a member of the community. There’s a living memory of her. So it wasn’t ‘we want to explore the role of the picture-bride’. It was ‘the community has this collective awareness, let’s explore that’,” says Morita.

A woman’s revolt

Picture-brides, namely brides selected by using pictures, refer to women who married immigrant workers in North America in the early 20th century. A large number of the women were from Japan.

“The history of picture-brides is very complex, but in some cases, it’s human trafficking,” says Morita.

Lisa Cooke Ravensbergen is one of the artists designing Kiyo. Familiar as she is with the history, she has spent a year delving into Tanaka-Goto’s life. What strikes her is how the picture-bride defied the patriarchal society.

“It’s a very male-driven impulse that women thought they needed to do as told. I feel like Kiyoko really just defied [that],” says Cooke Ravensbergen.

Four years after the marriage, in 1920, Tanaka-Goto quit the endless farm work and left her husband for Vancouver, where she later owned a brothel and became a madam. This very persona sparked controversy for her.

“Some people respected her while others judged her,” says Morita.

The madam somehow pulled through the adversity and her revolt paid off. In 1946, Tanaka-Goto, among the 22,000 Japanese-Canadians interned during the Second World War, returned to Vancouver three years before the Japanese were allowed in B.C..

“There’s a complex story and different lenses that people use,” says Morita, who sees the picture-bride as a microcosm of her community. “On a higher level, I’m fascinated by the history of Japanese-Canadians. Whereas on the surface the representation of the community might be an upstanding, clean-cut, hardworking group of people who were victimized and discriminated against, but there’s more to the story.”

Invisible landscape

Vancouver-born Morita is impressed with survivors in the Downtown Eastside who inject a contemporary dialogue into Kiyo.

“Having a chat about their connection to Oppenheimer Park has been really rewarding. With all that interaction, the bridge is built and when you have interaction with local people there, what is impressive is the surviving spirit that’s really palpable,” says Morita who believes Kiyo helps people understand how vulnerable individuals are judged.

However, with gentrification, Cooke Ravensbergen feels the community becomes invisible and that Japantown may be the most vivid example.

“Japantown has become even more invisibilized [sic] inside that container of Downtown Eastside. It’s just a few buildings here and there. You don’t really see that community,” says Cooke Ravensbergen.

She sees more human interaction when Tanaka-Goto lived there. That serves her motivation to invite audience to Kiyo.

“The performance space is the series of rooms that audiences will go through with the performer. It will be a journey for them through each room based on the memory of the story,” says Cooke Ravensbergen. “We use Kiyo’s life as a mirror for us to see what’s happening around us and behind us that we don’t always look at.”

For more information, visit www.powellstreetfestival.com.