To get to the Nikkei National Museum, I took the skytrain and then city paths that led me around the back of the concrete building to its sun-filled atrium. Always a little late, I’d catch my breath after walking up the stairs to the Fuji room, where summer interns Nathan Yeo, Joe Liao, and I spent hours sorting through archival donations, housing them carefully and entering their descriptions into the museum database. We sat at the centre of a slightly disconcerting accumulation of boxes and joked that we worked in the “Fuji Room Vault”, a second, unofficial archival storage area where collections manager Lisa Uyeda stacked new donations as they came in.

Lisa, my direct supervisor for the summer, appeared to be caught in an infinite game of Tetris. She explained that as people were becoming more familiar with the institution and Japanese Canadians aged, donations to the museum were becoming steady and generous. While I worked at the table, she would wheel donations—old orange crates, dozens of pillbox hats, stacks of letters, and framed family photographs—to and from the actual archival vault downstairs.

One day when Lisa was out speaking with a donor, Nathan and I helped (with some incredulity) stack an elaborate, heavy contraption of wood, wool, and cast iron into the room. It turned out to be a homebrew sake set-up, preserved from the prewar Steveston community.

Later, while Lisa was vacuuming the spider webs from this donation, I was struck by a wave of nostalgia. “The smell of rust reminds me of my grandparents’ place,” I laughed. Lisa agreed, and we speculated on the correlation between growing up with your grandparents—surrounded by faded photographs, slightly moldy books, and stories—and becoming an archivist.

I had always intended to do a summer co-op as part of my Master’s. It was a chance to gain work experience while pursuing further studies in a field with a shrinking job market. The opportunity at the Nikkei National Museum effectively wove together aspects of my research, my employment with Landscapes of Injustice, and an interest in archival studies and museum curation. My time at the Museum also offered me a chance to place the focus of my study (the dispossession of Japanese Canadians) into the broader context of Japanese-Canadian history and the many ways it has been told.

Getting into the archives

When I started my co-op in May, I began working with the Tonomura family collection. The single box held the story of an entire family and their settlement—and re-settlement—in Canada over the course of the 20th century. It was preserved in glimpses through certificates, agreements, guestbooks, and photographs.

Senjiro Tonomura immigrated to Canada at the turn of the 20th century and soon he and his wife, Kuni, had a small family: two sons and two daughters, two born in Japan and two born in Canada. With the forced uprooting, internment, dispossession, and deportations of the 1940s, the Tonomura’s lives would retrace the bridging of their children’s births over the Pacific Ocean.

After years of determined labor, sacrifice, and some reward, federal orders uprooted the Tonomuras from their homes in 1942 and then deported the family from Canada in 1946. After a decade of exile, the Tonomuras slowly returned to North America and rebuilt their lives in British Columbia. As I processed their records, their story became more and more vivid: an urgent letter from Moichiro, the oldest son, when he was imprisoned in Angler after refusing to leave his property; desperate appeals for refugee status in Japan when they were deported; congenial Christmas cards to John, Senjiro’s grandson, when he returned to Vancouver after graduating high school in 1956. To fill in the gaps between documents, I had Marlene Tonomura’s biography of the family, a profile lovingly compiled by John’s wife, who wrote with an understandable admiration for this remarkable family.

Marlene had married John later in life and, amazed by the family’s remarkable resilience, completed the research and compiled the family collection. John passed in 2015 and Marlene donated the materials to the museum, believing their story was worth remembering and sharing. Her plastic-ring-bound family history records the story as it was told to her—with wry humour and an eye to the serendipitous in life. Processed and digitized, the collection will be accessible through both online databases of the NNM and Landscapes of Injustice.

Understanding the stuff on the shelves

Often, I had no idea of what was going on. At least half of the Tonomura Family Collection, for instance, is in Japanese. Yoriko Gillard, an artist and translator, sat patiently with Nathan and I to provide cursory summaries of the material that we could provisionally enter into the database, until she could return later to read them more closely.

The collection also required lessons about Japanese culture. “These are shoes,” I said one day, holding what I thought were shoes and ready to enter them into the database. “No!” Yoriko said, explaining that they were more likely a decoration used in the hospitality industry, where miniature shoes (in my defense) were hung in an entranceway for good luck.

Like the shoes, the holdings at the Nikkei National Museum can have unexpected meanings. The most mundane item will have a surprising story, depending on who made it, who used it, where it started, and where it ended up. These journeys draw paths through the broad history of Japanese-Canadian life. Inevitably, it seems, they are understood in relation to the forced uprooting, incarceration, and dispossession of Japanese Canadians in the 1940s. It is hard to avoid the disjuncture: this is an item from before, that was carried to, or that was used right after. 

“Everyone kept their RCMP horse blanket,” Lisa explained to me, referring to the blankets that the British Columbia Security Commission distributed to Japanese Canadians when they arrived off the trains in the interior of BC. I imagined the blankets being kept in a basement cupboard, perhaps less for the moment they symbolized (that first frigid winter of internment) than for their more mundane, practical use of keeping warm.

Given my research interests, I was struck at the idea of working in an archives amidst belongings, possessions, and records of people who had been dispossessed. It cast the most mundane belongings in a different light; they become remnants, testaments, and witnesses of lives that were so suddenly disrupted.

Lives disrupted and re-assembled

Over the course of the summer at the Nikkei National Museum, however, I realized that I was also learning about re-assembly. The re-assembly of life after the war, of research projects, family histories, and new communities.

Near the end of my term in August I helped copy-edit the now-published manuscript of Jack Kagetsu’s biography of his father, Eikichi Kagetsu, The Tree Trunk Can Be My PillowIt’s a detailed profile of Jack’s illustrious father, one of the most successful Japanese Canadian businessmen before the war who may have lost the most money of all Japanese Canadians in the forced sale of his property by the Canadian state.

In the biography, Jack interwove his own memories with the archival records he meticulously assembled in the final decade of his life. The personal touches are arresting: glimpses of the small history of the everyday (of New Years’ celebrations, of fishing trips, of recitals and graduations) amidst the big history of political decisions and persistent racism that derailed the Kagetsu family’s lives.

At the end of the manuscript, Jack included a complete version of the 1942 Canadian Security Commission report on his father.

Jack described the report in the manuscript, appalled at Security Commission’s misrepresentation of his father. By including the erroneous report in the final pages of the biography, Jack seems to have placed it in juxtaposition to his account of his father. Jack says that his father was so much more than what the Security Commission reported: a businessman, an adventurer, a careful gardener, and a loving parent. Unsatisfied with the account he found in the state archives, Jack wrote an authoritative account of his father. The 300-page biography stands in conversation with—and in defiance of—the state record of Eikichi Kagetsu that, in certain ways, justified his dispossession.

Being astounded at cultural productions

During my weekly shift in the gift shop, I sat amongst Japanese Canadian poetry, history books, novels, recipe guides, paintings, CDs, and cards. As I curated my Christmas wish list, I learned about the art of Cindy Mochizuki, Takao Tanabe, and the projects of the Powell Street Festival. Over the summer, I attended the plays“Spatial Poetics XVI: KIYO 生き残り (Honouring the living memory of invisible lives)” and Universal Limited’s Japanese Problem, where the beauty, complexity, and terror of the past, and its relation to the present, were centred.

Walking up the rear stairs of the Vancouver Buddhist Temple, a decades-old interview with Kiyoko Tanaka-Goto (an infamous Powell Street Madam) played, her raspy Japanese ebbing in and out of the performance space, interweaving with the sounds of dripping water, a single cello, and the footsteps of the actors. Goto’s story, most present in the oral history, became a medium to explore the stories of those whose lives are invisible and our place on unceded Musqueam, Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh, territories.

Japanese Problem addressed history directly—recreating, in a sense, a short moment at Hastings Park in 1942. The play performed, originally, in actual horse-stalls in Hastings Park. Framed as a historical reenactment, the actors shifted through layers of histories and relations to the past. Sherri Kajiwara brought the performance to the Nikkei Museum, placing it at the center of the HASTINGS PARK 1942 exhibit. I had the opportunity to participate in telling this history, supporting museum intern Erica Isomura developing design elements of the exhibit.

These plays were in conversation with the past, whether as a reckoning, a reflection, or interjection. The creators of each performance had consulted the NNM archives, putting value in that connection. I wondered how many ways the history that I was studying had already been told and the importance of it being retold, and made anew, for new audiences.

Things that my thesis will not be

The idea that Japanese Canadian history was told outside academic publications was not foreign to me, but I had little hands-on experience of knowing how. Knowing that there is “art” on a certain topic is something quite different from experiencing it. Now, I had an idea of how it lived in a dynamic way in daily life.

As I went back to writing my MA thesis, I had a clearer idea of what it would not be. It would not be a family research project like that of Marlene Tonomura or Jack Kagetsu. It would not be a creative production like the Spatial Poetics performances, Japanese Problem, or Sherri Kajiwara’s exhibitions.

If anything, it made me understand my thesis as one kind of these many projects. It was different in that I was working within academia, a fraught realm that privileges certain knowledge over others, and different because I am not of Japanese Canadian descent. It was similar, however, in that it was an instance of someone relating to the past, inevitably in their own way. It’s a humbling thought, but also exciting: rather than purposing to make a final claim about a history, I am instead joining a longer conversation.

If that was my glimpse of the life of the archives, my life in the archives gave me concrete skills and an introduction to the field. I learned archival standards, handling protocols, ethics processes, and database entry. I gained experience in exhibit design and how to be creative on a budget. Harder to quantify is the insight into what makes a small institution tick—the team ethic that makes a small staff seem like unconquerable personnel (a chocolate bar passed around at each meeting is only the tip of the iceberg).

Working in the archives, it was clear that it is a job that involves constant patience, learning, and listening. An archivist not only appraises, stores, preserves, and catalogues materials, but they also facilitate their connection to new audiences. It is not simply a matter of preserving the past but rather allowing new stories to be told.

And that’s just the start of it! Another essay could be written about a day in the life at the Museum and the people who cycle through its doors—the folks who volunteer, who drop off donations, or who Lisa runs out to visit.

Thank you to the staff at the NNM for the wonderful opportunity! And thanks to Lisa Uyeda, Carolyn Nakagawa, and Nicole Yakashiro for reviewing my drafts and offering helpful comments.