It could happen today. These photos imagine Japanese internment in 2018

'This history happened more than 75 years ago, but it's still happening.' See photos and stories from Kayla Isomura's The Suitcase Project.

'This history happened more than 75 years ago, but it's still happening.' See photos from The Suitcase Project

Brendan Takata, 34. Vancouver. Photo from Kayla Isomura's The Suitcase Project. (Kayla Isomura, The Suitcase Project)

What if you had 48 hours to clear out of your home? What would you bring? What would you leave? What if you could never return again?

Or, to put a finer point on it, what would happen if Japanese internment happened in 2018?

Vancouver photographer and freelance journalist Kayla Isomura is a fourth generation Japanese Canadian, and she's run that scenario dozens of times with other fourth and fifth generation folks living both in Canada and the States.

This history has, overall, shaped all of us.- Kayla Isomura, photographer

Last winter, she began a photo series called The Suitcase Project. After tracking down more than 80 subjects, recruited through word of mouth and social media, Isomura began travelling to homes around B.C. and Washington. Without warning, volunteers would get an email 24-48 hours before her arrival — the same eviction notices sent to Japanese Canadians and Americans in 1942. There were instructions on what they could bring with them (Canadian adults were permitted up to 150 pounds of luggage, for example; kids were allowed half that).

Once there, Isomura would take their portraits, shots staged at home among the bags of necessities and irreplaceable treasures they'd packed. The eldest participant is 51. The youngest, 4 months old. And the finished photos capture a moment of tension and transition — a freeze frame of a life before it's stolen. 

The project, which includes 62 photographs plus interviews (including a series of video docs shot by Mark Yuen), is now showing at the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre in Burnaby, B.C. to Sept. 2. Isomura says she plans to launch an online component, too, later this summer.

"This history has, overall, shaped all of us," she says — and yet, the 24-year-old artist says she never learned a thing about Japanese internment growing up, never mind the details of her own family's story.

On her father's side, Isomura's grandparents and great grandparents were interned. They died before she was born, and if they ever spoke about their experience, that story was never passed down to her. "I just knew they had lived somewhere in the interior of B.C., but I never really knew much about the history," she says.

If you walked away from your house with just what you had in your bag, what would that look like?- Kayla Isomura, photographer

In the early '40s, more than 22,000 Canadians like them — ordinary citizens and residents of Japanese descent — were taken from their homes on the West Coast and held in camps for the duration of the Second World War.

"I wondered what my grandparents and great grandparents would have packed with them during the internment," she says, reflecting on the origins of the Suitcase Project, and at first, she thought the project would have that narrow focus: "If you walked away from your house with just what you had in your bag, what would that look like?"

"I was just curious to see how people would interpret that question," she says. "We live in a really different age now, compared to 1942."

It's a different age, sure, but as she kept developing the project, Isomura says she realized just how much the events of 75 years ago are still affecting Japanese Canadians and Americans today — herself included.

She talks about the consequences of post-war displacement. While families in the States were permitted to return to the West Coast, Japanese Canadians were barred from going back. On top of that, their homes had been sold by the government while they were detained. With people forced to move elsewhere, the community scattered.

Learning that history was illuminating, she says, especially when she thought about her own experience growing up in New Westminster, B.C. — rarely, if ever, meeting other fourth generation kids, and not really talking about the Japanese side of her heritage at home. "I think a lot of things just made sense. Like thinking about why my family doesn't speak Japanese, or why we're not involved in the community," she says. "It does stem from the internment."

It's not happening the exact same way as back then, but I think there are other groups being targeted.- Kayla Isomura, photographer

And then there are the modern-day parallels — and the fact that The Suitcase Project's premise is anything but hypothetical for countless displaced people right now. It's hard not to be reminded of families seeking asylum at the U.S. border, forcibly separated and detained, and current events regularly came up in her interviews, Isomura says. The Muslim ban — upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court this week — was a frequent talking point, especially with American volunteers. 

"This history happened more than 75 years ago, but it's still happening now in different ways," she says. "And that's not even necessarily to say it's just happening in the States — thinking in general about refugees and migration and other forms of displacement. Here in Vancouver, we have gentrification forcing people out [of their homes]."

"It's not happening the exact same way as back then, but I think there are other groups being targeted."

Some of The Suitcase Project's volunteers have shared similar thoughts on social media.

Gabrielle Kazuko was photographed with her baby daughter. She wrote this on Instagram: "Being a participant in this exhibit right now, during a new, but suspiciously similar chapter in American history, is profound. While looking at my own family's experience, I am also picturing myself in another pair of shoes. There is a woman, a mom like me, right now who will not be able to nurse her daughter in the morning."

Danielle Higa, another American featured in the Suitcase Project, Instagrammed this comment: "The thought of this happening again is horrific, but today, this doesn't feel so far off."

Says Isomura: "This history, even though it happened 75 years ago, it basically still prevails — not only in the political world, but in the lives of these descendants."

More photos and stories from The Suitcase Project.

Gabrielle Kazuko Nomura Gainor (30), Kiyomi Gainor (4 months). Seattle. "It was very jarring to read the notice that was given to all Japanese Americans in the Seattle area. [...] You know that incarceration happened, and you know how bad it was and you know it was a denial of people's civil rights. [...] Actually reading that sign and having to put your things together and it just, it allows you to realize maybe how your grandparents or great grandparents were feeling and that was just very, it just kind of took my breath away." (Kayla Isomura, The Suitcase Project)
Toshiko Hasegawa, 30. Seattle. "Just because we think we’ve come so far does not mean we are immune to somebody trying us again in the future. It is the same script, but a different cast and that is why we have to be vigilant because they’re trying us again, and they are targeting people not for what they’ve done, but for who they are." (Kayla Isomura, The Suitcase Project)
Aaron Nabata, 33. Vancouver. “I put my passport in there. I thought that was interesting, this idea of Canadian-ness. What does that mean if you're Canadian but also being treated in this way? So I put that in there to think about what that means, what does Canadian citizenship represent." (Kayla Isomura, The Suitcase Project)
Left-right: Erin Shigaki (48), Alison Shigaki (51), Kai Randolph (2). Seattle. "I think the topic of the Japanese incarceration is incredibly important because we continue to persecute immigrants, people of other faiths, black people, basically anyone different. It just rolls out wave after wave, including with you know, threats of racially based incarceration, and it’s just an outrage, and I feel that our community is uniquely positioned to stand up and be a voice, and tell people these things that happened.”—Erin Shigaki (Kayla Isomura, The Suitcase Project)
Judy Nakamura, 48. Seattle. "I think it’s really important to keep documentation alive of the internment because of the Muslim ban that’s going in the U.S. I’ve always been aware of what happened and it happened to our family, and it happened to so many other families, but thinking about it in terms of that was history and there were reparations and there was things signed and apologies, but when the whole proposed Muslim ban came around, I realized, crap this could happen again." (Kayla Isomura, The Suitcase Project)
Christina Shimizu, 32. Seattle. "My family’s generationally, I guess, sort of mixed because my dad didn’t move here until he was 13 and that was his experience. His experience was very much like first generation immigrant to the United States and very different from his brothers and sisters who grew up in the camps, and then went back to Japan and felt out of place there, and then out of place here, you know. So we all have these different histories and stories and identities tied up to this story. I think that it’s shaped us and it’s also made it harder for us to connect in certain ways, being that we all have different identities and experiences." (Kayla Isomura, The Suitcase Project)
Naomi Harrington, 29. Seattle. "I think there's such a rich history and a rich culture there that I'm still just learning the tips of." (Kayla Isomura, The Suitcase Project)
Left-Right: Mariko Sparks (35), Jonas Sparks (3), Kiku Hughes (27). Lake Tapps and Kenmore, WA. “As I started having to go through and do the physical packing, it was something very different, especially since I am five, four months pregnant now. Having to think about not only packing for myself, my husband and my son who’s three years old, but also for this baby that I haven’t even met yet.” —Mariko Sparks (Kayla Isomura, The Suitcase Project)
Andrew Hamada, 34. Seattle. "it’s not something that happened to other people, it’s something that happened to people like me, and that’s become more relevant now in with what’s going in the U.S. and modern politics, and the way that we’re starting to look at our own citizens. It’s forced me to consider to what degree do I feel like I understand what it means to be singled out, and how can I use the history of who I am to help keep things like that from happening again." (Kayla Isomura, The Suitcase Project)
Matt Cooper, 34. Mission, B.C. "It's kind of shocking because that’s literally all your earthly possessions that you’re allowed to bring with you over the next three to four years. [...] It kind of hits home when you read that letter." (Kayla Isomura, The Suitcase Project)
Erica Isomura, 26. Vancouver. "I think for me today, this history is really important to know because it just makes so many things make sense in my life. For instance, when I was growing up as a kid, people always assumed that because of my name, or because of my ethnicity, that I could speak Japanese or Chinese, Cantonese. But when they were like, ‘Why don't you speak it? You should know your language.’ And people still do this to me today, but back when I was a kid, I didn't understand." (Kayla Isomura, The Suitcase Project)
Sandra Hirota, 47. Nanaimo, B.C. "I always wanted to be different and wanted to fit in more because there wasn't a lot of Japanese in Windsor, Ont. It may have been different if I grew up here on the coast but now I think I'm really proud, and I always thought if I married, I always wanted to keep my last name, Hirota, because that's a huge identity in who I am." (Kayla Isomura, The Suitcase Project)
Laura Fukumoto, 28. Vancouver. "I didn't grow up learning about [the history of Japanese Canadians]. The only reason I learned about it in my history class is because I told my teacher, ‘Hey, can we learn about this? Because there's three sentences written in the textbook and I know that you're going to skip it so can we please take a moment.’" (Kayla Isomura, The Suitcase Project)

Kayla Isomura. The Suitcase Project. To Sept. 2 at Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre, Burnaby, B.C.


Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.


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