Written by Aya Fujiwara
Edmonton, Alberta, where Prince Takamado Japan Centre is located, has been home to Japanese immigrants and their descendants since the early-twentieth century. Their history, however, has remained somewhat underexplored until very recently due to this group’s small size compared with its counterparts in metropolitan centres such as Vancouver and Toronto. Yet recent efforts to compile Japanese-Canadian history in Edmonton made by the Edmonton Japanese Community Association shed some light on the significance of Alberta’s multicultural history, focusing on the Japanese community in Edmonton. The EJCA’s history project is a unique attempt, which distinguishes itself from other community history books in its focus more on “shared” community experience than individual stories.
In Fall 2014, Ms. Sanae Ohki, Vice-President of the Edmonton Japanese Community Association, an editor of the history project report, and a long-term community leader, kindly offered me an opportunity to talk about the significance of this project. The idea of the historic project, in her opinion, emerged in the community because of the concerns that this history might be lost due to accelerating generation changes. Such feelings point to the weight that Japanese Canadian people place on their roots and sense of belonging to the community. Ms. Ohki identified the strengths of this project. First, it sets the common themes for the interviewees so that their stories can be compared with each other rather than told in isolation. Second, it highlights ordinary people’s lives – jobs, education, and family – through individual interviews. Third, it situates the Edmonton Japanese-Canadian history in a broader Canadian and Albertan context. For these purposes, the report has interesting tables – an “Edmonton Japanese-Canadian resident chart 1912-1970,” which contains people’s backgrounds (p.44-61) and an “event chart – world/Canada/Edmonton/Edmonton Japanese Canadians (p.62-77). Appendices B1 and B2 are quite striking, categorizing the stories the editors collected through interviews chronologically and thematically. Clearly, these parts require intellectual engagement, which goes beyond efforts to compile the gathered materials. I was quite impressed with the great deal of attention that the History Project Committee members paid to methodologies for interviews, given the fact that in oral history, “how” interviewers conduct research is as significant as “what” they obtain through it.
No history project can be completed with ease, however. Ms. Ohki pointed out some problems that she encountered in the process. As social history is deeply related to people’s private lives, the committee needs to be well aware of sensitivity and privacy. Some people, quite reasonably, are not ready to share their own stories. At the same time, after completing all interviews, the members felt they wanted to hear more. Finally, locating all people of Japanese-Canadian descent in Edmonton is not an easy task. Such frustration, however, is commonplace for all historians for whom curiosity has no limits.
The project reveals that the Japanese-Canadian community went through several different stages, experiencing both the rise and decline of Japanese associations and clubs. “Japanenseness” or ethnicity, by nature, is flexible and dynamic. Generational changes and intermarriages often redraw the boundaries of Japanese-Canadian communities. In recent years, its members have not been exclusively Japanese in origin. The presence of influential community leaders or ethnic elites thus is particularly significant in the retention of “Japaneseness” in Edmonton.
Ms. Ohki’s role in the community can be described as a grassroot diplomat who promotes international dialogue and mutual understandings. She has been serving as a prominent leader for many years and championed the promotion of Japanese language education among children. Her contribution made her a recipient of the 2013 Foreign Affairs Minister of Japan’s Commendation. Undoubtedly, language is one of the core elements in people’s identity and a vehicle of cross-cultural and international exchange. She was one of the founders of the Metro Edmonton Japanese Community School in 1977 and was its longest-serving principal (between 1978-1981, 1985-1990, and 1996-2006). This school, which is open to anyone interested in learning Japanese, is attended by many non-Japanese students. Her enthusiasm in education also translated into programs, which introduce Japanese culture to Canadian high school students. The number of attendees in the program now exceeds 300 annual. Yet such projects always require extraordinary dedication. As a mother of two sons and a senior Information Technology program manager at the Alberta Health Services, she never had too much time on her hands. What motivates her to contribute to the community for such a long time? It is, she explains, her appreciation of Canada. “Canada gave me great opportunities and memories,” she said. “Thus, my work in the community is a way to give back to it.” Certainly, it does return many values to the Edmonton community, promoting its multiethnic profile.
In recent years, we often hear about the negative legacy of multiculturalism. The core of the argument is that it encourages ethnic groups to create closed societies in which extremist ideas grow. A day after the shooting on Parliament Hill, Farid Rohani wrote, “What started as a policy to accommodate bilingualism while acknowledging other ethnic groups’ contribution to the makeup of Canada is not tested to deal with global or foreign organization that are using the multiculturalism framework to advance their own agendas” (Rohani: Extremists Abusing Canada’s Multiculturalism, Ottawa Citizen, 23 November, http://ottawacitizen.com/news/national/rohani-extremists-abusing-canadas-multiculturalism ). Clearly, he is not the only one who links ethnicity with extremism. In February 2011, British Prime Minister David Cameron also said that “state multiculturalism” encouraged some people to become radicals (State Multiculturalism has Failed, Says David Cameron, BBC News, 5 February 2011, http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-12371994).
True, some tragedies and undemocratic practices can be attributed to ethnic traditions and beliefs. Yet people’s ethnic backgrounds are not responsible for all negative behaviour, which conflicts with liberal democracy. In the majority of ethnic communities, multiculturalism still signifies their cultural, historic, and linguistic contributions to Canada. Ms. Ohki and the EJCA’s historic project testifies that multiculturalism can still serve as a means to produce global citizens who are proud of their background and go beyond cultural barriers.
The report can be found on the Edmonton Japanese Community Association homepage at http://www.ejca.org/#, and collected archives in its library.