Collective identity – on NAJC AGM 2017

I have just returned from Ottawa attending National Association of Japanese Canadians (NAJC) AGM and conference as a delegate from Victoria Nikkei Cultural Society(VNCS). NAJC holds the AGM and conference annually in different cities. Victoria was the host city two years ago in 2015 and I was one of the planning committee. Last year was in Calgary, and this year, Ottawa.

NAJC was initially founded in 1947 as National Japanese Canadian Citizen’s Association to represent the welfare of the Japanese community. They changed the name to current National Association of Japanese Canadians in 1980, when the redress movement started. As many of you know, Japanese Canadians were interned during the Second World War, even though most of these people were Canadians – most of them never been to Japan nor spoke the language – yet they were thought to be enemy aliens and forcefully removed from their homes and sent to internment camps. Their properties (houses, fishing boats etc) were sold without the owners’ consent to fund the internment itself. You can learn more about this shameful event at Nikkei National Museum or NAJC website.

In 1988, the Redress Agreement was signed by the NAJC and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Since then, NAJC have been supporting Japanese Canadians as well as advocating for human rights for other visible minorities.

I am not a Japanese Canadian. I immigrated to Canada in 1998 and I am a permanent resident of Canada. My children, on the other hand, are definitely Japanese Canadians.

When I first attended NAJC conference in 2014 in Vancouver, I almost felt like I didn’t belong, because most of people there were Japanese Canadians. To be honest, I felt like an outsider. Us Japanese don’t learn about internment in history class in Japan, and I barely knew anything about the redress movement.

However, I have been active in local Nikkei community last few years, and I have gotten over my own insecurities and came to the terms with being the Japanese in JC community. JC community has always been welcoming, and no one has ever told me “You don’t belong here because you are an immigrant”. It seems I was the only one concerned about not being Japanese Canadian. Now, I think I am part of the Nikkei community as a person who call both Japan and Canada our home.

Annual conferences are always a great chance to meet new people from other parts of Canada and catch up with old friends. I don’t need to remind you how big Canada is, and there are many different Nikkei organizations in Canada. Some are “local chapters” of NAJC, some are simply cultural organization, such as my local group, Victoria Nikkei Cultural Society (VNCS). VNCS is a cultural organization, so we welcome anyone who is interested in Japanese culture as members.

This year’s conference was held in magnificent Canadian Museum of History. This was my first time in Ottawa, but I have throughly enjoyed my stay there (despite the 29-30 degrees heat!). What a beautiful venue.

Two things that was personally significant at this year’s conference for me were Japanese Canadian Artist Directory and discussions on new immigrants.

Japanese Canadian Artist Directory was officially launched at the AGM. I have always been a huge art supporter. I know so many Japanese Canadian artists, actors, writers, filmmakers etc. whom I have tremendous respect for. My son is also an aspiring Japanese Canadian actor, so this is close to my heart. I myself also write, and recently started painting, so hopefully one day I can register myself as an artist. I was so excited when I first heard about JCAD, I had immediately offered to translate the website into Japanese, as I also know many immigrant Japanese artists – musicians, dancers, and visual artists – they deserve to be listed as well. We are still in the planning stage of the translation project, but if you are ever interested in helping, please let me know. Congratulations to Susanne Tabata of NAJC, Emiko Morita from Powell Street Festival Society (PSFS) along with Bryce Kanbara and John Ota of the Art Committee, Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre (JCCC) for the launch.

Another big topic at this year’s conference was Shin Ijusha (new immigrants). This year marked the 75th anniversary of the Japanese Canadian internment (in Victoria, we held a special luncheon to honour the internment survivors- you can see photos by Shari Nakagawa here), and while the generation age, we have more and more post-war new immigrants (Shin Ijusha) to Canada. NAJC is grappling with the idea of offering services to this growing population, and there were several panels on this topic.

One such panel was titled “The Present – Being “Japanese” and “Canadian”; How Both Identities Have Influenced My Life”  This panel wasn’t necessarily about new immigrants, but it had variety of interesting people on the panel – Brigadier General Steven Moritsugu, who is the highest ranked Japanese Canadian in Canadian forces, chef and author Caroline Ishii (she has written about this panel here, and yes, food is a HUGE part of it! ), Lisa Ann Nchii’wat Meawasige-Kertesz who has Japanese/Ojibway/French Canadian background, Interpreter Sumi Nakamura, who has interpreted for Canadian Prime Ministers as well as Japanese Emperor and Empress, and Reverend Yoshimichi Ouchi, minister who has immigrated from Japan.

Identity is such an interesting topic for me and I have always been fascinated with it. How do we decide who we are? I identify myself as Japanese even though I have been living in Canada for close to 20 years, and the time I spent in Canada is getting longer the time I spent in Japan. This panel was so interesting as everyone shared their stories on their identities.

Another session was specifically about new immigrants, and Kenta Asakura, an assistant professor at Carlton University who has many years of experience working with LGBTQ youth, and Mariko Niwano, young immigrant mother shared their stories. Canada is a very accepting country when it comes to LGBTQ rights, but how do Asian Canadian LGBTQ youth feel about coming out to their parents? Also as a young mother, Mariko shared her struggle in finding information for new immigrants and shared her concern about raising her children as Japanese speaker. This was also very interesting panel.

After that, I joined a breakout session with a group of people to discuss what can NAJC offer for Japanese immigrants. As Mariko mentioned, language barrier is huge for new immigrants, so the first thing we all agreed was to have information for Japanese immigrants in Japanese, and to do that we suggested to add Japanese pages on NAJC website. We also talked about the divide between Japanese immigrants and Japanese Canadians. As I mentioned, I am active in JC community, but I know many Japanese immigrant friends who are simply not interested in participating in JC organizations. These immigrants tend to form their own groups (be it mommy’s group or hobby group) and they prefer interacting in Japanese. Some of the people in my breakout session mentioned they want to have immigrants in their local nikkei group – but not many people are interested. Again, I believe the language is a huge barrier. I know for a fact many of my Japanese immigrants friends feel more comfortable talking in Japanese – it’s just so much easier.

Personally, I think, if NAJC or any Nikkei community wants Japanese immigrants to participate in their programs and services, they need to offer some sort of values for them.  I am part of Nikkei community, because I enjoy interacting with nikkei people, but I know I am a minority. For new immigrants, social services such as municipal information offered in Japanese, or Japanese language schools are surely attractive, but there are many organizations already offering such services in the big cities. Vancouver almost has everything – from Tonari gumi(Japanese Community Volunteer Association), Japanese grocery stores, Buddhist temple, church, numerous hobby groups to Nikkei senior centre. Same for Toronto. Toronto has Japanese Social Services that offer services to Japanese people. Also, issues and needs of immigrant change as we age as well. As a person in her 40s and speak fluent English, I don’t need a play group as my children are older now, nor Japanese speaking group, but I envy Vancouver and Toronto for having senior care services, as I want to help the elderly in our community. Of course, as I grow even older myself, it’d be nice to have some sort of services for elders. But these are infrastructure problem.

In my work, I mostly work with Japanese international students, but these days, I find myself working with more and more Japanese immigrants who need help navigating their complex lives in Canada. With the increase of Japanese immigrants,  issues they face are diversifying. I have more immigrant clients going through divorce, or who are single parents. Mental health support is needed. I hear domestic abuse is increasing as well.

Japanese immigrants think Japanese Canadians are different from them. Sure, we are not exactly the same. We come from different background and history.  Yet, as people who have Japanese background and making Canada home, I believe we should “develop a collective identity without erasing the differences between us” – aptly put by Kenta Asakura.

I hope us immigrants and Japanese Canadians can work together and create a better community to support each other.

Finally, my sincere gratitude to Ottawa Japanese Community Association for hosting us. I look forward to continuing the conversation and seeing everyone again soon.