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Canadian Nikkei Series

Ijusha Yosh Inouye on Becoming Canadian Nikkei - Part 1

Yoshi Inouye

Torontonian Yosh Inouye, a retired 70-something photography teacher, was the one of the first to teach me about the paradox of what it means to be an Ijusha, a post World War Two immigrant from Japan.

In many ways, that community still self identifies more strongly with “Japan” than any kind of Canadian Nikkei identity that has evolved over the years, much as many of our pre-WW2 relatives did. Some friends, enrolled their kids in Japanese school here and are raised with a lot of exposure to Japanese culture.

The cultural divide is still very much intact for that group: we Canadian-born Nikkei are more westernized, have a clearer sense of “place” as Canadians-of-equal-status where our parents and grandparents were born, raised, educated and worked. They paid the dearest price in terms of suffering racism, especially in the years before, during and after World War Two. While the Ijusha missed this, their families in Japan did suffer the American attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and on lesser known civilian targets that were firebombed in many cities like Tokyo and Sendai. Like relatives who may have immigrated during the Meiji era, newer Heisei era immigrants also often self-identify with the Japan they left behind and may never become Canadian citizens as it would be at the expense of their Japanese identity.

Learning from the experience of Ijusha, we can certainly gain some deeper understanding about our own families and their separation anxiety from Japan, especially given that the first Issei were made to feel like “outsiders” from the moment they arrived because of systemic racism and exclusion.

In the following interview, Yosh is fearless and outspoken about being an Ijusha who after almost 40 years in Canada now self identifies as Canadian Nikkei.

First, Yosh, can you tell us a little about where you are from in Japan and your family there?

I was born in Gifu City. The size of the city is a slightly smaller than Hamilton, Ontario. I am the only one who left Japan in my family. I was born before the war broke out, yeah, in the same year. We were a big family, seven brothers and sisters. I think my parents had a hard time feeding us.

I am the first boy, though I had an elder sister, Sachiko. She is one year older than me. We had fights every day when I was young. She was a bully. When I became grade 5, we stopped fighting abruptly. I don’t know why? We became very close and good friends later. She died from cancer a year and a half ago. I went back to Japan and stayed with her.

Sachiko and Yosh, a month before she passes away, 2014.

You went to university there. Where did you go? Were you intent on a career as a photographer from a young age? What influenced you as a young photographer/artist?

I studied sociology at Meiji Gakuin University. The classes were boring, I learnt very little. I quit the University and entered Tama Art School to learn Photography. After graduating from Tama Art School, I entered Kuwazawa Design School to learn Graphic Design.

These are some of photographers I had a big influence from Bill Brandt, Hiro Wakabayashi, Yasuhiro Ishimoto, Shomei Tomatsu.

Why did I choose photography?

I think I have to go back to when I was 14 years old. This is what was happened with me. One day, I came back from school, no one was at home. I found myself in the middle of silence. Because I was so accustomed with surrounded by my noisy family. I panicked and started thinking I was alone in the whole wide world (my creative mind started here). Then, I found everything I see, I touch, I hear, and I smell only exists in my brain. I am the centre of the universe. If I die my whole universe will vanish. Well, this was a big discovery for a timid 14 years old, yeah, right?

Anyway, since then my little brain whispers me to live my way, not the way the society expects me to do. Being the first son I was groomed to live according to my family’s expectation. This was dreadful, I couldn’t breath.

All right, let’s go back to Tama Art School. The reason I chose photography was not because I liked photography, but I thought If I learnt photography or even, darkroom technique I could survive in other country. Yep, I was preparing to go as far away as possible from my family.

Why couldn’t you find an alternative lifestyle in Japan?

What I had to do in Japan was pretend I was a ‘main stream swimmer’ so to speak. I don’t think I could be proud of myself doing that.

You may think artists are different. Yes, they are different in the same way. I mean you have to behave and think like other artists, not as individual thinkers. No matter which group you belong to, you must behave and think alike, otherwise you are not welcome. This is Japan.

What was the process that led you to coming to Canada? When did you make that move? What was your family’s reaction?

I came to Canada in 1968. Do you remember Toronto 1968? It wasn’t quite ‘Hogtown’ but close to it. I was in Tokyo 10 years before coming to Toronto, I really felt Toronto was rustic. I regretted I came. I was already married and the first son was born soon after we came. We stayed. I worked for Yamada Studio the first year, then I moved to George Hunter Photography and worked there two years. In the third year I started my own studio. Fortunately I was extremely busy working for my studio, by the time I realized, I found myself liking this city. Now I honestly think I made the best choice by coming to Toronto.

What kind of relationship do you have with your family in Japan now?

I have three sons and four grandchildren living in Japan. They are from my first marriage and when we divorced, my ex. wanted to educate them in Japan. Unlike me, she had good foresight. As these sons are doing very well in Japan. We exchange emails and video chat very often, thanks to the internet.

Three sons, their family, and Yosh in Japan, 2011.

What are they doing for work?

One is specialize in network designing of business office machines, other is in charge of East Asia network of an American computer game company, the other is in industrial robotics and looking after manufacturing IT parts in Japan and in China. They are good at IT, but poor at philosophy.

Do they feel any connection with Canada now?

They are having good lives and that is all they are concerned. They visit me here and I visit them in Japan. We have good communication, but I have little influence to their value of life. So far I don’t think they feel a strong connection to Canada, It may change when they get older. Right now they are busy spending Japanese yen around.

My brothers and sisters are all in Japan. They don’t want to take the risk by leaving Japan. Whenever I visit Japan they all come around. Luckily, we get along quite well. I am already 48 years in Canada. When I meet my brothers and sisters, those years disappear quickly. We all go back to childhood. They stayed in the country they were born, and aged, lived the way the society expected, and they are happy, I can tell watching their faces they are all pleased. I know why I left Japan. If I didn’t, can I still have faces like them?

What did you do for work before joining Sheridan College as a photography instructor?

Because I am an advertising photographer, I picked the city where lots of advertising agencies had offices, which was Toronto. Since I arrived to Toronto, I didn’t move.

Most of my work are in studios using large format cameras, 4” x 5” or 8” x 10”. I photographed food and beverages, lots of alcohol beverages. I always had many bottles of hard liquor at the studio. My typical day starts with an Art Director arriving to my studio. He goes straight to a shelf where I stored hard liquor. While he is enjoying a bottle, we discussed the shooting settings. By the time we are ready to shoot it is lunch time. We would spend 2~3 hours over the lunch having ‘creative talk’. I usually managed finishing the shoot by the evening, processed and delivered the film by the next day.

I started teaching at Sheridan College 1983. Mr. Stan Shikatani was a chair of the graphic design department there. He asked me to show my slides to the students. At the end of the slide show, he asked me to give the class a project. Then I was asked come back for the critique. By the time I realized I was teaching a class for a whole semester.

I also did some location shooting using smaller cameras. Yeah, I did several album covers for the Toronto rock band Rush and others like the Ian Thomas Band and Max Webster.

Which Rush covers?

2112, Hemispheres, A Farewell to Kings, Starman Logo (photography).

Ian Thomas Band, Glider
Rush, A Farewell To Kings 

Can you describe your career as a teacher and photographer? Who were your Japanese and Canadian influences?

I had no intention teaching at college. As I mentioned above, I was lured in. I didn’t know I could teach, but when I started I really enjoyed it. I think my students enjoyed my class, too. I taught at Sheridan College from 1983 to 1997. From 1998 I started teaching at George Brown College as a full time faculty member until retirement. After I retired from full time work, I taught part time for three more years.

What is your relationship with Japan now? How often do you get back there?
I went back to Japan five years ago, before that, in the mid-’80s? In the last five years I went back to Japan three times.

Why so often?

My sons started coming see me in Canada. So I felt I should visit them. After 30 years of not visiting Japan, I needed a kick from someone. In 2011, I visited my sons. Their mother (who died in 1989) and I had a rocky relationship; my relationship with my sons wasn’t smooth either. When they welcomed me with wide open arms I almost cried.

In 2013, I had an email saying my younger sister, Yoko, is at the final stage of cancer. I rushed back to Japan and I spend one week with her. She died while I was holding her hands. In 2014, I went back to Japan seeing my elder sister off, as I mentioned before.

Yoko, 4 days before passed away, 2013.

My relationship with Japan now? I know this is not what you are asking, but I like to tell you something which changed in me.

During my teens and twenties, I enjoyed listening to Jazz and Classical music: I was pretentious. I hated Japanese Enka, cheap sticky popular songs. You know what? These days, I find myself listening Enka when I am feeling down. I know I have changed. I think I don’t need that ‘armour’ anymore, or, merely, I have just gotten old. I have come a long way.

Part 2 >>


© 2016 Norm Ibuki

Canadian ijusha nikkei photographer Shin-Issei Yosh Inouye

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.