Theatre artist and educator Kunji Ikeda has heard two themes from people of Japanese ancestry in Canada. Some have told him that because they don’t speak Japanese, they don’t feel they are “Japanese enough”. Therefore, they aren’t comfortable engaging with the Japanese community.
Conversely, others have told Ikeda that they don’t feel they are sufficiently Canadian to engage with the Japanese Canadian community.
“I sit on the arts, culture and education committee with the NAJC—the National Association of Japanese Canadians,” the cheerful Ikeda tells Pancouver over Zoom. “And I’m really trying to put out that storyline that part of the Japanese Canadian experience is to feel not Japanese Canadian enough.”
In that spirit, Ikeda invites anyone—including those who don’t feel Japanese Canadian enough—to take in his one-person solo show. Sansei: the Storyteller will be at the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts from April 27 to 29. The producer, Cloudsway Dance Theatre, has billed it as “the most fun you’ll ever have learning about the Japanese internment”.
In this show, Ikeda relies on dance, spoken-word poetry, historical audio, family interviews, and comedy. And he recognizes that it might sound odd to juxtapose “comedy” with the internment of 22,000 Japanese Canadians. That’s to say nothing of the government seizing all their possessions following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
“I couldn’t have gotten through this content if I focused on how hard it was, how bad it was, how mad it made everybody,” Ikeda says. “So that’s really at the heart of this piece—trying to acknowledge hardships, trying to acknowledge oppression, trying to acknowledge systemic racism without being bogged down by it.”
Ikeda performed in internment memorial garden
Moreover, Ikeda feels that this enabled Sansei: the Storyteller to keep attracting audiences for several years.
At the outset, the playwright and performer built Sansei: the Storyteller as a “suitcase show”. It premiered at the Calgary International Fringe Festival in 2014, earning the Best of Fest Award.
Ikeda then brought it to Vancouver’s Powell Street Festival in 2015. Four years later, it attracted two Betty Mitchell Awards nominations from Calgary Theatre. His most recent Sansei the Storyteller performance came last year at UBC, where Ikeda teaches some courses.
One of his most memorable shows took place at the Kohan Reflection Garden in New Denver in B.C.’s Slocan Valley. The garden is just down the street from the Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre. This historic site commemorates those who were interned with interpretive displays and original buildings showing how they lived.
Leading up to this performance, Ikeda felt incredibly excited. However, five minutes before the show, he realized its significance.
“It just kind of washed over me and I was hit with the monumental feeling of what this was,” Ikeda recalls. “It really resonated with that saying of trying to be your ancestors’ wildest dreams. I felt this weight of what it meant.
“So, we had this huge turnout in the community,” he continues. “It was outside, so there were no lights, just the sound. It was really beautiful.”
Youngest Sansei in Canada?
Meanwhile, Ikeda came up with the title, Sansei: the Storyteller, to reflect his identity. In fact, he says that were it not for the internment, he wouldn’t have been born.
Sansei is a term to describe the grandchildren of the early Japanese immigrants to Canada, who were known as Issei. According to Ikeda, to be considered an Issei, one must have immigrated from Japan before the First World War.
His grandfather was born in 1899. He moved with his family to the Steveston area of Richmond in the early 1900s, where they prospered in the fishing industry. Furthermore, Ikeda says, they owned a house and property. Sadly, the government seized this real estate and other assets decades later during the Second World War.
A couple of his family members moved to the Lethbridge area before the internment, when Japanese Canadians living on the West Coast were rounded up.
“My grandfather was in the work camps outside Tashme [internment camp],” Ikeda says. “He built the Number 3 Highway and he earned pennies to the dollar—and sent as much as he could back to my grandma.”
They reunited after the Second War, settling in the Lethbridge area where they were assisted by family members.
Nisei is the term applied to Canadian-born children of the Issei. Ikeda’s grandfather was 50 years old when Ikeda’s father was born.
As a result, Ikeda’s father became one of the youngest Niseis. Ikeda, a Sansei, wasn’t born until his father was in his late 30s. It’s why Ikeda, 36, believes that he’s Canada’s youngest Sansei.
“Historically, Issei doesn’t mean you immigrated in 1950,” Ikeda emphasizes. “It means you immigrated in the 1910s [or earlier].”
Nearly 4,000 Canadians were deported to Japan after the Second World War.
Ikeda grew up in Burnaby. Like many of his generation, he was taught to fit into mainstream society. But that didn’t always pan out because he felt that he would never be as cool as the suave, tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed archetypes.
“This was summed up by the Japanese American novelist, David Mura, in beautiful, beautiful ways,” Ikeda says. “I was taught that I can fit. I was taught that I can be part of the community. Then, I’m running up against these systemic racism barriers and feeling like it’s my fault.”
He came to understand that the trauma of the internment has often been passed along to succeeding generations through silence. That, in turn, has contributed to some not knowing or even caring about what might have occurred in the past.
Ikeda has thought deeply about how to reclaim why he and other Sansei are different and might not always fit in. According to Ikeda, that self-understanding—coupled with presenting this to the community—allows for an expanded view of what it means to live together in society.
Beyond being a theatre artist and university instructor, he recognizes that he has a multiplicity of identities
“I’m a climber,” Ikeda says. “I’m a Dungeons and Dragons player; I’m a video game player; I’m a runner.”
To that, he can also add, “I’m a Japanese Canadian.”
Cloudsway Dance Theatre presents Sansei: the Storyteller at the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts in Burnaby from April 27 to April 29. For tickets and more information, visit the Shadbolt Centre website. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.