Japanese-Canadian artist Emma Nishimura breaks her family's silence about being interned during WWII

By uncovering her family history in internment camps, Japanese-Canadian artist Emma Nishimura wants to shed light on a dark chapter of Canada's history.

'There was such shame around it and such fear that it could ever happen again,' Nishimura says

Emma Nishimura's work focuses on her grandparents' internment camp experiences. 'If that generation just didn’t talk about it, it was easier to move on,' she said. (Anna Gaby-Trotz)

For the past decade, artist Emma Nishimura has been researching her family's past.

The artist's paternal grandparents were among the thousands of Japanese-Canadians forced out of their homes during the Second World War.

Placed in internment camps across Canada, and stripped of their homes, jobs, and possessions, it's a past that the family doesn't like to talk about.

I can't speak Japanese, and the reason I can't speak Japanese is because of the internment.- Emma Nishimura

In uncovering her family's history through her art, she tells host Elaine Chau, she hopes to shed more light on this dark chapter in Canadian history.

Here is part of their conversation.

Your art is very connected to the history of of Japanese-Canadian internment and your own family's history. Can you tell me what you know about that history?

There was a lot of silence around stories of the internment. There was such shame around it and such fear that it could ever happen again.

My dad died when I was 12, so I haven't been able to ask him his stories and his experience around it. And once I really started doing this work, both of my Japanese grandparents had died as well. So I've talked to my aunt a lot about this and have reached out to family friends to piece together different stories.

Emma's grandparents and her father as a young child. All three had died by the time she started her research. (Submitted by Emma Nishimura)

My mom's side of the family is Scottish-Canadian, my dad's side is Japanese-Canadian. Both my grandparents on my father's side were interned during the war. They were both born in Vancouver.

During the war all able-bodied men were sent to work in road crews. So my grandfather was sent to work in a road camp and my grandmother was in Vancouver for a couple of years and during internment was sent to Slocan City with hundreds of other Japanese-Canadians.

In the top photo, Emma's grandmother stands with other women interned at the Slocan camp. Below, her grandfather stands with part of his road crew, who also formed a baseball team. (Submitted by Emma Nishimura)

My aunt, when my grandfather showed her these family albums of him working in road camp, he just said "that's where I worked." There was no reasoning behind why he worked there, or what was really happening or what the situation was to have been uprooted and for his family to have lost all of their possessions. None of that was communicated to my parents growing up.

If that generation just didn't talk about it, it was easier to move on.

At what point did you get curious about your family's story?

I wrote a grant to explore being mixed race. For me, to really start to root my own identity and to figure out where I fit in, is to go back to the history of internment. There really is no Japantown. I didn't grow up with that kind of a community cultural hub.

I am mixed so I look different. People ask me all the time where I come from. They want to know that story.

On a lot of levels it's hard to comprehend that this happened only 70 years ago — and that this was government policy.- Emma Nishimura

I was starting to sell my work as an artist and I always had my name attached to my booth. All of a sudden people were looking at me and looking at my name. People would start speaking Japanese to me or random words that they knew.

It's like, I'm Canadian. I can't speak Japanese, and the reason I can't speak Japanese is because of the internment. And because of forced assimilation and my grandparents not wanting to speak Japanese in the household so that their kids could speak English and fit in and not have to deal with the history that they experienced.

A few after finding a box full of her grandmother's sewing patterns Emma was left wondering what to do with them. 'It was this question of how do you honour her work and her story, but also tell her story and share this work with everyone else?' (Submitted by Emma Nishimura)

It's complicated for me to wrestle with this question of "Who are you?" and "What are you?" When I was raised I really grew up with my mom's side of the family. It wasn't a question growing up in my neighbourhood of where you were from. I was just Emma.

Why did you want to talk about these things through your art?

For me, making art is what I've always done. It's my main way of being able to communicate these stories.

I was at my mom's digging through the basement and I came across this box full of sewing patterns. Inside there was about 200 paper articles of clothes all made out of brown craft paper and [my grandmother] had sewn all of these miniature garments.

Accompanying all the patterns were notes, dating back to 1943, and a list of Japanese names. Emma believes her grandmother was sewing clothes for others interned in the camp. (Submitted by Emma Nishimura)

To correspond to each of these garments were all of these flat patterns. Inside the drafting pattern books there was a handful of notes, dated 1943. It had the list of other Japanese names and measurements. From that I deduced that she was making garments for other people in the camps.

I had to try and figure out what to do with it. That was a struggle for me because they were kind of a work of art in their own right. It was this question of how do you honour her work and her story, but also tell her story and share this work with everyone else?

By uncovering her family history in internment camps, Japanese-Canadian artist Emma Nishimura wants to shed light on a dark chapter of Canada's history. "There was such shame around it and such fear that it could ever happen again." 10:54

Do you ever struggle with the fact that the family that you come from was sent to the camps solely because they were Japanese?

Absolutely. On a lot of levels it's hard to comprehend that this happened only 70 years ago — and that this was government policy.

That has to weigh heavily on you.

Yeah. That becomes more and more the fuel to keep creating this work so that people know about it.

Written by Bria John. This segment was produced by Elaine Chau. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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