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The Tashme Project: A powerful look at the internment of Japanese Canadians during WWII

By Brian Carroll on February 15, 2014

60 minutes (no intermission) | Storytelling | G

“Our neighbour was German.  How come we have to leave and he doesn’t?”

What more is there to say about the internment of Japanese Canadians that we haven’t already read in Joy Kogawa’s novel Obasan, published in 1981?  It turns out that there’s plenty.

Obasan and The Tashme Project share many issues: memory, forgetting, prejudice, identity, injustice, internment, persecution.

What is most striking in The Tashme Project are the voices.

It’s a verbatim theatre piece based on interviews with over 60 Nikkei about the experience of Nisei (2nd generation Japanese Canadians) through childhood, WWII internment and post-war resettlement.  Actors Julie Tamiko Manning and Matt Miwa present a subset of the stories they collected, using the tone, mannerisms, pace and expressions of the people they interviewed.

Powerful as Kogawa’s novel is, when I read the text of her novel my imagination fails to produce the complexity of the voices that Tamiko Manning and Miwa bring to the stage.

Voices that tug at the heartstrings.

Stories of children who experience injustice.  In their native land.  From which their parents cannot shield them, try though they might.

“All our toys had to be burnt.”

Children who experience bullying.  And not just from whites.  “They were black-heads like me!”

Children who are just children.  “I got in trouble once.”  “I came home after midnight and everyone was searching for me with flashlights.  My parents thought I’d drowned because I’d gone fishing.”

Children who had to grow up quickly.  “That was the year that my mother died.”  “We had to tell my sister when she came home from the hospital because her four children were living with us.  She died soon after.”

Children who act out in the face of injustice, like the teenage boy who steals passes to see his mother at the internment camp, and then sells some of them to his buddies in the men’s sections.  “I’d never have done anything like that at home.”

The injustices are many: communities fenced in with boards and/or barbed wire, houses confiscated, household goods sold for a pittance, families torn apart by RCMP taking the men away, families moved to the BC interior to live in tarpaper shacks where it’s so cold that water freezes in the bucket overnight.  Then resettlement after the war, either to Japan or to the rest of Canada from Alberta to Quebec.  To start over with nothing.

But always with the viewpoint of children who have tried to assimilate into Canadian culture only to be rejected as unworthy.

Obasan focuses on one family.  The Tashme Project gives us the experience of many families.  Yes there is loss, internment, dispersal, pressure and shame.  But there is also care, perseverance and pride.

In the 1988 redress announced by the federal government, the government promised never to treat Canadian citizens as the interned Japanese Canadians were treated.  “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  (Santayana) It can happen again.

Powerful stories, told well.  Opening night was well attended.  Get your tickets early.  Bring your teenagers.  Schedule time after the show to talk with them.

The Tashme Project: The Living Archives by Tashme Productions is playing at the Undercurrents Festival at the Great Canadian Theatre Company February 15th at 3 pm, 18th at 9 pm, 19th at 7 pm, and 20th at 9 pm. Single tickets are $15 + HST. A three show pass is $40 + HST. A six show pass is $60 + HST.