As a Yonsei (4th Generation) Japanese Canadian, whose grandparents were ushered into internment camps at the height of their youth, I’ve heard the story of the Japanese Canadian Internment during World War II a thousand times over. While I feel for my grandparents, and the injustices they experienced during this time, I find myself increasingly detached from the story, as my brain overflows with dates, names, and numbers.
Yayoi Theatre Movement‘s latest production, Identity – Ancestral Memory, was a refreshing departure from the stories I’ve heard. Yayoi Hirano, Artistic Director for Yayoi Theatre Movement, presented an exploration of the Japanese Canadian identity through dance, theatre, video, slideshows, and recordings of recited poetry, while focusing on the life of celebrated Japanese Canadian artist, Roy Kiyooka. And while the Internment inevitably plays a key role in the production’s storyline, this time it is not told through unemotional data, but rather through an exploration of the emotional turmoil and self-questioning Japanese Canadians experienced during this time. I found this take on the story refreshing, and felt it had a much more profound effect on myself, which stayed with me long after I left the Revue Stage.
Reading the program guide before the show got underway, I prepared myself for a serious, somber performance, with scenes titled “Hatred”, “Questioning”, and “Pain”. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Hirano found ways to appropriately tuck in moments of humour, bringing lightness and positivity to a production that could very well have become dark and heavy.
My favourite part of the performance, aside from the sheer talent of the dancers, was the opening and closing video segments, where people on the street were asked “What is your identity?” The opening video presented answers from people on the streets of Tokyo. Almost all the answers were clear and decisive: “Japanese”. Their clear idea of their identity seemed to juxtapose the questioning that Japanese Canadians experienced during the Internment. However, the Tokyoites are then asked to answer the question “What nationality would you like to be?” and it is with these answers that we realize the Japanese may not be so clear about their identity, as most wished to be something other than Japanese, from Swedish to French to American.
The concluding video posed the identity question to people on the streets of Vancouver, and the answers sharply contrasted those of the people of Tokyo. From Persian to German to Chinese to mixtures of everything in between, I found it interesting that many people did not answer with a simple “Canadian” but rather, they wanted to distinguish their unique cultural background.
By concluding with this video, I left the theatre with a positive feeling, knowing that now we recognize that Canadians come from a variety of backgrounds, and it is okay to be proud of where you are from. While during the war, Japanese Canadians may have tried to downplay their Japanese background, they can now feel free to share it with the world, loudly and proudly.