Japanese women of change

Women of Change, an exhibition hosted by the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre (JCCC) and the Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre (NNMCC), aims to highlight the vibrant narratives of six Japanese-Canadian women, to hear the voices of those in underrepresented communities and to draw attention to past injustices.

Lisa Uyeda, collections manager at the NNMCC, and Su Yen Chong, heritage manager at the JCCC, provide insight on the stories of these six remarkable women and the message they are determined to share.

“In all of their stories, they faced unique challenges, some directly and others indirectly connected to them being women. We can all learn from these stories of dedication, bravery and perseverance,” the two reflect.

The exhibit, which is running until 2024, is intended for audiences above the age of 10, as it is accompanied with an activity book developed by Kara Isozaki, and is suited for those interested in learning more about the contributions women have made to today’s society.

The women featured in Women of Change were deeply affected by racist Canadian policies | Photos courtesy of Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre

Past history

The women featured in Women of Change were deeply affected by the racist policies passed by the Canadian government towards those of Japanese descent during the Second World War; they and their families were forcibly relocated from their homes in coastal B.C., persecuted for their identity.

Through this exhibition, their voices are heard loud and clear.

The women featured in Women of Change were deeply affected by racist Canadian policies | Photos courtesy of Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre

Entrepreneur Sono Nakazawa established a store in Vancouver alongside her late husband. Her store played a crucial role in welcoming Japanese immigrants, not only because it was a warm and friendly environment but also because it provided attire suitable to the new country to many newly-arrived immigrants who frequented her store. She was able to migrate her children to Canada and live a fulfilled life.

Judge Maryka Omatsu worked as a legal counsel for the National Association of Japanese Canadians in the 1980s and greatly contributed to the organization’s efforts that achieved the redress settlement with the federal government. The journey can be found in the award-winning novel Bittersweet Passage: Redress and the Japanese Canadian Experience. Additionally, in 1993, Omatsu became the first woman of East Asian descent to be appointed a judge in Canada and is still continuing to be a great inspiration to all.

Tomiko Nishimura was born in 1915 in Shiga-ken, Japan, who came to settle with her family in Toronto, Ontario in 1948. During her time there, she worked in a fur factory and was also an influential figure in the United Church and the JCCC.

Miyoshi Tanaka was born in 1927 in Mission, BC, but was forcibly uprooted from her home. She came to settle in Vancouver after studying in Alberta and Quebec, her accomplishments in her science career abundant. She has received awards for her great contributions to the UBC Faculty of Medicine and was the recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2013. Outside of the lab, Tanaka was a renowned singer, teacher, editor and member of various clubs, committees and boards.

The women featured in Women of Change were deeply affected by racist Canadian policies | Photos courtesy of Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre

Michiko Ayukawa grew up in Vancouver, BC. While her father was taken away to a labour camp, Ayukawa and her family were incarcerated in Lemon Creek. Fortunately, no harm befell Akuyawa, and she moved to obtain her degree in Honours Chemistry, then her PhD soon after. Ayukawa was a keen writer and researcher and aimed to shine a light on the underrepresented Japanese-
Canadian community.

Kinori Shinohara Oka was born in 1904 in Fukuoka Prefecture, Japan. Her sister, who was married and living in Canada, proposed a marriage between Oka and her neighbour which was accepted shortly after. Oka was able to relocate to Canada where she mothered three children. In 1942, the family was forcibly moved to Hastings Park, where the unsanitary conditions and lack of medical care resulted in serious health problems for her youngest child. The family was then sent to the Lemon Creek Internment Camp, where Oka contracted tuberculosis and was hospitalized. During her time in the hospital, she began to write poetry, which marked the beginning of a lifelong passion and was a great source of inspiration for this project. Oka and her family came to settle in Vancouver where they opened a grocery store and where she was able to retire peacefully.

Into the future

NNMCC and JCCC guarantee that Women of Change is certainly not their last digitization project and will continue their work in uplifting the Japanese-Canadian community.

“We will continue to seek ways of belonging for individuals and communities and are driven to preserve and make accessible the history and heritage of Japanese Canadians,” they say.

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