“Three steps forward, two steps back” The Nikkei Museum showcases resilience in the face of racism

Showcasing the tenacity, resolve and responses to the injustice of the Japanese Canadian internment and forced relocations, the Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre hosts the permanent exhibit Taiken: Generations of Resilience. Depicted on the panels on the museum walls and through the programming offered, the exhibit looks to honour and share the history and heritage of Japanese Canadians and culture in Canada.

Kimiko Yoshino, education coordinator for the Nikkei, shares her perspective of the Japanese Canadian experience as a non-traditional half-Black, half-Japanese individual who was raised with an American education on a military base. She says her guided tours of the exhibit look to build community and dialogue around this dark time in the country’s history. In building a safe space, dialogue, education and diversity, equity and inclusion are encouraged and Yoshino comments that she, as the voice of the exhibit, seeks to:

“Open up and make it a dialogue, a Q&A dialogue as a Japanese-American and permanent resident in Canada, to push back on boundaries, assumptions and create a safe space without judgement, to give security and honour the courage and build a sense of belonging,” says Yoshino.

Loyalty and the depiction of Japanese Canadians as ‘the other’

“Japanese Canadians were ‘the other,’” says Yoshino. “As [World War II] started, they were assumed to be spies and taken away from the protected area with no communication with the homeland.”

TAIKEN: Generations of Resilience. | Photo courtesy of Nikkei Museum and Cultural Centre.

She says the challenges of racism that Japanese Canadians have lived through is often expressed by the phrase “Sanpo aruite niho sagaru,” or “Walk three steps forward, two steps back.” She explains that this sentiment of struggle and resilience was pervasive, despite the success of many early Japanese Canadians, the Issei, early immigrants in the late 1800s, who became involved in fishing, mining, logging and farming.

“[They] made Canada part of their identity and [created] second generation Japanese Canadians who were born and raised in Canada, their allegiance to Canada, with their identity as Japanese Canadians who saw themselves as Canadians,” says Yoshino.

Photo courtesy of Nikkei Museum and Cultural Centre. | Photo courtesy of Nikkei Museum and Cultural Centre.

But this racism dramatically increased following Japan’s increased militarism and the threat that the Canadian government felt. In addition, Yoshino explains, fear mongering and the perception that successful early Japanese Canadians were supposedly taking away jobs led to a greater conflict between how the Japanese Canadians felt about Canada and how Canada felt about them.

“[They had a] culture about resilience, integrity, upholding honour and responsibility, to earn enough to send home and building for posterity for assuring success for generations to come,” she says.

But as Yoshino explains, that culture of responsibility, providing for family back home, was twisted through a lens of racism and fear mongering about threatening jobs, leading to unfair questions about Japanese Canadians’ loyalty to Canada.

“Japanese Canadians were always loyal, being Canadian. [Their] loyalty should not
have been questioned,” she explains.

With World War II and the Canadian government’s fears of espionage and disloyalty, the internment of all Japanese Canadians was ordered and the letter to pack up and leave within 24-72 hours with one suitcase, was issued, with their property sold off by the government.

The exhibit shares other themes of the Japanese Canadian experience including the Redress Settlement in 1988 whereby the War Measures Act was repealed and Japanese Canadians were compensated by the federal government for the injustices experienced.

This exhibit, revamped in 2022 by the museum, credits the Japanese Canadian community and all staff and volunteers. Yoshino is also grateful for the photos, objects, quotes and memories of the families and loved ones of the internment live on as their personal experience is shared at the museum for all.

For more information on the exhibit, please see https://centre.nikkeiplace.org/museum-exhibits/current