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Canadian Nikkei Series

Junji Nishihata: Following Jesse’s Path - Part 2

Read Part 1 >>

Quebecers seem to have a special relationship and interest with Japanese culture. Is this something that you recognize too?

Quebec is the one province in Canada that consumes the most Japanese goods. In terms of dollar value, the bulk of this is cars and electronics, but anime and manga were available here that were not shown in the rest of Canada. And historically, Quebecers were the first Canadians to visit Japan after its opening by Admiral Perry in 1853.

Can you put your finger on a reason for this?

I would account part of this to the continual and enduring activities of the Catholic Church and its various monastic orders (i.e., the Jesuits), but I think more broadly, the sense of other that was part of the francophone life for decades meant they were more open to a non-English speaking world view. There have also been some key figures who nurtured this relationship – former Mayor Pierre Bourque is one. But in truth, I find that although there is some appreciation and interest in Japanese culture, the knowledge is mostly superficial. For example, I have yet to find a decent Japanese restaurant here, as they must cater to simple tastes. It is nothing like the quality of food you could get on almost any street corner in Tokyo. Toronto, on the other hand, has a larger Asian population overall who understand and expect more. And Vancouver is also, of course, a step above, at least as far as Japanese restaurants go.

What kind of Nikkei community exists there? What kinds of issues are you involved with?

As I alluded to earlier, the Nikkei community is unwinding. People move away, very typically, grandparents move to follow their children, who have found jobs in Ontario. I have heard this many times since I got here. And on the other hand, for the newcomers, there is no community centre that unites them – which is what I am trying to do with the cultural centre. My goal is to renovate the centre and turn it into a more appealing performance space with a focus on Japanese culture, new and old, pre-war and post-war. I want to make the membership inclusive, and encourage all people to join. Basically I just want the place to survive, because it cannot continue the way it is now.

What kind of issues are impacting on the community there?

One of the challenges is that the Nikkei community that is here is highly fractured and distributed. People live all over the island or in the suburbs – there is no Japantown, and I doubt there ever will be one. Meanwhile, funds for renovation are limited. We need new members and activities to drive this growth. It is a challenge, but with the thousands of people attending festivals and so forth, there is clearly an audience out there.

Is there a ‘Montreal Nikkei’ identity that is distinct from that of Toronto or Vancouver, for example?

As for a distinct Montreal Nikkei identity, yes, I would say there is one. It is a humble voice, much more so than in Toronto, where all the money in the country is gathering, or in Vancouver, which is the sentimental home for the entire community. Instead, the Montreal Nikkei have that feeling that all Montrealers have, the sense of faded but cherished history, a certain smugness over the range of cultural activities there are to choose from and the feeling that Montreal as a city has forgotten more than every other city in the rest of Canada will ever learn.

How are your wife Akiko and two kids adjusting to life in Montreal?

My wife and children are doing very well. My eldest son, Shu, is attending the local public school, which is an immersion school. His first years are in French only but the other students are all basically from families similar to ours, so he has been able to pick up French but without too much pressure. My daughter, Koko, will start this school this week as well.

Family vacation in Izu, Yumigahama, August 2009

How connected is your wife to Japan and Japanese culture? Are there places to learn Japanese in Montreal?

As for Japanese, there are two schools aimed at Japanese-speaking children, and my wife has become the vice-president. Class is every Saturday, and there are about 200 elementary school-aged students. The cultural centre has a large library of Japanese books, and we also subscribe to Japanese cable TV.

Does your wife teach Japanese to your kids?

She also teaches the children Japanese exercises every morning before school. The children also went back to Japan this summer for a few weeks and even attended local schools there to keep their levels up. They are nearly 100% bilingual, and in the case of my son, his English is actually a bit behind his Japanese ability, with French bringing up the rear. So basically, the bonds are quite strong, and my wife is extremely conscientious about maintaining this.

How does she describe herself culturally?

Culturally she sees herself as a Japanese, and this I foresee being the case for the rest of her life.

Do you ever foresee her becoming a Canadian citizen?

I don’t think she will make the leap to becoming a citizen, although it depends on the local politics. That could be a motivating factor. But giving up Japanese citizenship would be very difficult for her to do, I am sure.

What kind of Montreal Nikkei community do you want there to be for your kids?

I have a very clear image of the kind of community I would like: one where you can walk down the street and go to a nice sento with your family, and have a relaxing bath, without it being weird or outrageously expensive. I know this sounds rather modest and material, but getting to such a stage will actually require a broad-based societal transformation.

I think Montreal society is missing a certain amount of the Japanese sense of being conscientious. I would like to somehow bring this value system to Canada. I had visions of moving the cultural centre to a downtown location and providing that kind of experience, but I am afraid that might be out of reach. So failing that, a community where the children can develop lasting relationships with a set of their peers in a mostly Japanese-language setting would be a more realistic alternative.

If they could find a decent bowl of noodles to share with their gang, that would be great as well.

Growing apace: a Sunday afternoon in December 2011, Kurosato Koen, Inokashira, Tokyo

Any final words?

Norm, I want to thank you for this interview. While it was sometimes challenging to articulate responses to your thoughtful questions, you successfully stirred things up in my mind concerning questions of identity, and how we as Japanese-Canadians strive to orient ourselves toward our dual heritage.

The reason it was a struggle is because I don’t have definitive answers, even though I wish I did. I spent a lot of time in Japan and my guess is that the experience was similar for you, in that it was at times extremely frustrating and even alienating, and other times absolutely and deeply satisfying. But in the end the insularity of Japanese society remained a barrier for me. I suppose having a Japanese background enhances the sense of expectation we bring when we go – or prevents some of us from going altogether – and ultimately means we are bound to be disappointed on some level. I was frequently struck by the irony of it all, how Japanese society can be so closed as to impede its own diaspora from re-integrating, while Japanese-Canadian culture can be such that we wouldn’t really feel comfortable fitting in with the majority anyway. But putting it that way is to try to generalize what was really my own personal reaction to the place.

I think what I am trying to say is this: I would encourage all Nikkei people to go to Japan and see for themselves what it is really like. Get to know it as deeply as you have time and energy for, learn it, breathe it, taste it, live it. And along the way, there will be many things that will surprise, delight, confound and disappoint you. For all its warts and wonders, there are few places like it in the world, and we owe it ourselves to develop our own relationship to it.”


© 2014 Norm Ibuki

Canada Canadian community filmmaker montreal Montreal Japanese-Canadian Cultural Centre NAJC nikkei Toronto writer

About this series

The inspiration for this new Canadian Nikkei interview series is the observance that the gulf between the pre-WW2 Japanese Canadian community and the Shin Ijusha one (post-WW2) has grown tremendously. 

Being “Nikkei” no longer means that one is only of Japanese descent anymore. It is far more likely that Nikkei today are of mixed cultural heritage with names like O’Mara or Hope, can’t speak Japanese and have varying degrees of knowledge about Japan.

It is therefore the aim of this series to pose ideas, challenge some and to engage with other like-minded Discover Nikkei followers in a meaningful discussion that will help us to better understand ourselves.

Canadian Nikkei will introduce you to many Nikkei who I have had the good fortune to come into contact with over the past 20 years here and in Japan. 

Having a common identity is what united the Issei, the first Japanese to arrive in Canada, more than 100 years ago. Even in 2014, it is the remnants of that noble community that is what still binds our community today.

Ultimately, it is the goal of this series to begin a larger online conversation that will help to inform the larger global community about who we are in 2014 and where we might be heading to in the future.