‘BC Studies’ launches special issue on Nikkei history
By Cara Seccafien, Layout Manager
Remember high school History class? Yeah, neither do I. At the age of 17, the last thing I cared about was some white guy who stripped away the human rights of anyone who produced an obstacle to world domination. And then I grew up and realized it has continued. While Canada recommends celebrating 150 years of colonialism, a few pockets of our local community remember that it has been 75 years since Japanese Canadians were forcibly interned.
Last Sunday, this fact was recognized by Sherri Kajiwara, Curator-Director of the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre, at the launch of BC Studies’ special edition: Nikkei History. The history of internment, in addition to what came before and after, is addressed in this publication on Japanese Canadian history. At the launch, I was privileged to hear two of the contributors speak on a panel: Robert Muckle and Janice Matsumura, introduced by Guest Editor Andrea Geiger. Spoiler: this is way more interesting than high school History class.
Geiger is a professor of History at Simon Fraser University. She has devoted her academic career to the study of Japanese Canadian history. Geiger grew up in Asia and also across the US. Some of her earliest research was done at the Nikkei Museum, when it was just a small institution on Broadway.
Geiger spoke of silences. She said that topics that are typically avoided, also known as taboos, are often “rooted in the past” and have little to do with current concerns. That is why the study of silences “enriches our understanding of history.” Through diverse perspectives, scholarly disciplines, and genres, Geiger has curated a complex overview of Nikkei history that publicly breaks silences.
Archeologist Robert Muckle, who teaches at Capilano University, presented a photo essay on a “secret” community from the early 20th century. Muckle has spent the better part of 17 years excavating Nikkei camps that predate internment, including a camp in Seymour Valley. This logging camp housed about 50 Japanese Canadians through the year, but was largely undocumented. Through the excavation of everyday objects, Muckle plays pseudo historian, envisioning the lifestyle of an isolated community in the woods and the reasons for the camp’s end. Despite the lack of documentation, somehow the Canadian government knew enough to forcibly intern the camp in WWII. Muckle ominously tells of valuables buried in the woods that were never retrieved.
Geiger and Muckle knew each other from when she taught at Capilano College. Geiger would take her Japanese History class on an hour-long walk into the woods to see the site that Muckle’s group was excavating. Geiger said, “It was amazing to see that work. I think one of the things his work shows is how much scholars of other disciplines can contribute to understanding different aspects of history […] This is a community that would be all but erased from the historical record if we relied on archival sources alone.”
Janice Matsumura is an associate professor of History at Simon Fraser University, though she is not a specialist in Japanese Canadian history. She instead focuses mainly on the history of Japanese psychiatry from the 1930s to ’50s. Despite this, under the encouragement of Geiger, Matsumura contributed to the special edition with a paper on Japanese intelligence testing in Japan and North America. The subject is fitting, since Matsumura studies how “political ideology can influence people’s notions of what is medically fit.” She elaborated further, “One group of people might think you’re medically sound because it’s convenient […] [to be] deemed that way. […] There are subjective and incidental reasons of how disease is diagnosed.”
Likewise, in her article she addresses how reports on intelligence testing were exploited for propaganda that furthered racial hierarchies in North America and classist hierarchies in the Japanese Empire. During a question and answer period after the panel, Matsumura confirmed that she doesn’t believe in intelligence testing, and implied that the methods used for testing intelligence, both now and in the early 20th century, are not very scientific. This perspective is largely accepted by the psychiatric community, and social justice advocates will point out that intelligence testing contributes to racist and genocidal practices, such as eugenics.
Interestingly, Matsumura studies unique exploitations of this “science” from around the ’20s, which specifically pushed that Japanese nationals were superior to Japanese emigrants and North Americans alike. While in North America we are familiar with intelligence testing supporting racist agendas, Matsumura explains how similar tests supported classist agendas integral to the Japanese empire. She also suggests that these views still hold fast today, with Japanese emigrants being viewed as “less Japanese” the longer they remain away from the home land, as emigrants were historically of a lower class.
Matsumura also commented on the practice of testing, and how it might be linked to an early belief in Japanese psychiatry that “treated mental illness simply as a physical condition that could be excised out the body,” almost as if the body is a mechanical object. While North Americans understood that socialization had a factor in mental wellbeing, Japanese psychiatry historically treated mental illness as “though there’s something flawed in you, and therefore we have to cut and remake you.” Personally, I was surprized by this notion, because I believed that Cartesian theories of the body as a machine that can be fixed were one of the major flaws of western medicine and psychiatry, and it seems that most modern practices continue to revolve about these understandings. However, Matsumura pointed out to me that while Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder began to be recognized in North American soldiers, the PTSD of Japanese soldiers had been historically unrecognized or not addressed on a societal level. She explained, “Japan had a horrendous war in the 1930s. Its army didn’t want to recognize Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. One must think that you had a lot of soldiers who came back with disorders. How did these people cope with that?”
Muckle’s and Matsumura’s profound perspectives are incredibly valuable to Canadian society. As Geiger describes, “This history […] can tell us […] how race and citizenship and nationhood have been constructed over time in Canada.” It couldn’t be more timely given the current politics south of the border, our own impending federal and provincial elections, and our nation’s 150th anniversary in 2017.
This special edition of BC Studies—Nikkei History—is available at the Nikkei Museum and Cultural Centre bookstore and through BC Studies.