British Columbia

Young Japanese Canadians revisit wartime past, hoping to preserve it

Young artists featured at this year's Powell Street Festival hope they can can help preserve important history and keep Japanese culture alive 75 years after internment.

The Powell Street Festival features a number of interactive art installations and performance pieces

Matt Miwa and Yoshie Bancroft will be part of the Powell Street Festival, which takes place in and around Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver over the weekend. (Margaret Gallagher)

Come for the barbecued salmon and takoyaki (fried balls filled with chopped octopus), stay on for the artistic attempts to preserve the legacy of Japanese internment.

This is the paradox of the Powell Street Festival, a beautiful, delicious and joyous event that serves as both a celebration of Japanese culture and the marking of a dark chapter in Canadian history.

"We are no longer that strong community that we used to be because so many ties separate us now," said Matt Miwa, an Ottawa-based visual and performance artist.

Miwa's grandfather was interned for six months during the Second World War at a camp erected at the Pacific National Exhibition (PNE) grounds in east Vancouver.

The grounds were used to temporarily house Japanese Canadians before they were sent to more permanent camps in the B.C. Interior.

Miwa began interviewing his grandfather a few years ago, drawing out stories from the months spent in Hastings Park and later the Tashme internment camp that was near Hope.

"He's such a good storyteller," Miwa told Margaret Gallagher, guest host of CBC's North by Northwest.

Interviews grandfather

Miwa is the co-creator of the Tashme Project and Dandelion, two performance pieces that are part of the cultural festival.

Miwa's said he wants Japanese Canadians to stay in touch with their heritage, even though he sees the use of language and understanding of shared history fading from the community.

His way of making that happen is through art. This weekend, he will once again interview his grandfather about his experiences.

"He will talk about injustice, but just barely. You can see the anger kind of simmer up and then he puts it away again," said Miwa.

"There's a lot of unresolved issues I'm sure but he doesn't want to go into them and I'm not really going to push him to do that."

Another performance piece will take place in a replica of the livestock stalls where some women and children slept while in the camp.

Warning to next generation

Japanese Problem is a short version of a performance piece by artist Yoshie Bancroft, which is set to debut in Vancouver in September.

Bancroft based the piece on interviews of survivors and their family members, and said she was motivated when she realized many people didn't know Hastings Park was used as an internment camp.

"We took great care and were very mindful in including artists that have a personal family connection to the Japanese Canadian internment," she said.

One theme in the piece was a warning to the younger generation that racism isn't dead, and that turning a blind eye to discrimination can have devastating results.

"A lot of the survivors we interviewed never failed to mention that this could happen again," said Bancroft.