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By Carolyn Nakagawa, Education Program Developer, Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre

What is Nikkei? This is usually the first thing I ask students who visit the Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre on a field trip. While the students were often excited to be at the centre, and familiar with various aspects of Japanese culture, such as anime and martial arts, very few of them knew about the Japanese word that we use as our name. 

Nikkei means “Japanese ancestry.” It is a word that encompasses people all around the world who have Japanese heritage, but do not live in Japan. Many Nikkei, including myself, were born in other countries and have never been citizens of Japan, so to call us “Japanese” feels inaccurate. As the great-granddaughter of Japanese immigrants to Canada, I notice many cultural differences between myself and my Japanese-born friends and relatives. I carry a Canadian passport, and Canada is where I feel most at home. So, I identify as Japanese Canadian (where “Japanese” is an adjective adding detail to the national identity of “Canadian”), and as Nikkei—a cultural description that connects me with my Japanese ancestry.

Before we closed our facility for the safety of our community in March 2020, our museum exhibit on display was called Nikkei. It was a very tall order to represent the diversity of our community in a single gallery space. Nikkei in Canada, or Japanese Canadians, have a history dating back to the late 19th century, when the first immigrants from Japan arrived in Canada and began to build lives and raise families here. Relationships to Japanese culture and heritage evolve with every subsequent generation to be born in Canada: many in our community will identify themselves with terms like Nisei (second-generation), Sansei (third-generation), or Yonsei (fourth-generation) to indicate their distance from the most recent ancestor to emigrate from Japan (the Issei, or first generation). 

In the Nikkei exhibit, it was very important to us to cover the long history of anti-Asian racism in Canada, including various types of legal discrimination that shaped our community’s experiences before World War ll. This discrimination culminated in the forced internment of 22,000 Japanese Canadians, most of them Canadian-born or naturalized Canadians, from 1942–1949. 

We also wanted to highlight and celebrate the many ways connections to our Japanese culture have flourished in Canada. This includes the dedicated work of Japanese language teachers beginning in 1906 in Vancouver with the establishment of the Vancouver Japanese Language School. Long-time principal Tsutae Sato, his wife Hanako, and their many fellow teachers worked to teach Canadian-born children the language and culture of their parents. The Satos hoped that these Nisei would serve as a “bridge” between the people of Japan and Canada and foster intercultural understanding. 

Internment created deep shame for many Japanese Canadians around anything related to Japanese heritage. However, the community experienced a cultural renaissance in the 1970s. At this time, many third-generation Japanese Canadians, who had grown up after internment, had been encouraged by their families to distance themselves from their Nikkei identity. These Sansei partnered with Japanese immigrants to learn about their roots and lead various cultural and community initiatives. The most well-known result of this movement is Vancouver’s annual Powell Street Festival, which brings Japanese cultural performances, displays, and food back to the Powell Street neighbourhood where many of our ancestors lived before the war. It also eventually led to the Redress movement of the 1980s, when Japanese Canadians lobbied the Canadian government to acknowledge the injustice of Japanese Canadians’ internment. The Japanese Canadian Redress Agreement, announced in 1988, set a precedent for later apologies such as those for the Chinese Canadian head tax and Indian Residential Schools, and is a major source of pride in our community for how it affirmed our rights as Canadian citizens regardless of race.

The Nikkei exhibit’s run in our physical gallery space closed in July 2020. This core exhibit centres Japanese Canadian internment in the broader context of our community’s culture and experiences in Canada. Since it is such an important exhibit to our mission, to honour, preserve, and share Japanese culture and Japanese Canadian history and heritage for a better Canada, we plan to bring it back periodically using the same overall story arc, but adding new stories of Japanese Canadians that fit each of our broad themes. We also continue to use a film of the original exhibit installation as part of our new digital field trip offerings. 

To give a digital tour of the Nikkei exhibit, I share my screen with the students and play the video that walks through each section, pausing on various items to give more context and to ask and answer questions about their connections to Japanese Canadian history and community. Tours are about 30 minutes long, and can be combined with one or two additional “modules” on the same day or multiple days: one is a facilitated screening and discussion of a video interview with one of our elders talking about her family’s internment experience, the other a tour of the exhibit that is currently in our physical gallery space, Broken Promises. This exhibit is an in-depth look at how the Canadian government dispossessed Japanese Canadians in the 1940s and its impact on the Japanese Canadian community.

While nothing can replicate the experience of visiting these exhibits in person, I’m enjoying being able to share our museum with students and teachers again. Even as we are allowed to welcome school groups back to the museum in-person, we will continue to offer digital field trips of the Nikkei exhibit, the Broken Promises exhibit, and other future exhibits. It is my hope that these digital field trips can help us share Nikkei and other exhibits with students outside the Lower Mainland, and across Canada, as well as local students who might find it challenging to visit us in-person. Our exhibits allow us to share Nikkei history and culture with students and have discussions about what defines culture and the ways in which culture evolves through generations. I hope all who visit the Nikkei exhibit, digitally or in-person, are inspired to think about their heritage and culture, and take steps to preserve it for future generations.

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