Southern Alberta oral history project proves popular

When his recent oral history presentation on southern Alberta’s Japanese emigrants and their descendants drew a crowd three times larger than expected, Dr. Darren Aoki (BA ’90) knew he had a project that resonated with people.

Now a lecturer at Plymouth University in England, Aoki began his Mukashi Mukashi (Nikkei History in Southern Alberta – After the War): Stories of Global Significance research project in 2011 and has completed more than 30 interviews with local Nikkei, or Japanese emigrants and their descendants. Even though he was raised in Lethbridge — his grandparents started Nakagama’s — he didn’t become interested in local history until he’d spent a few years living in Japan.

After completing a BA in history at the U of L, Aoki took advantage of the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme and his one-year adventure in the Land of the Rising Sun soon became five.

“It is a wonderful exchange and it can really change people’s lives, like it did mine,” he says. “I had so many opportunities to meet people. My roots are in Japan so it gave me a chance to think about a lot of things I had taken for granted as I was growing up.”

The experience led him to focus on Japan in his graduate education, completing a master’s at the University of London and a doctorate in Japanese studies at Cambridge.

“At Cambridge, I became particularly interested in issues of identity, how the nation state was built and how the building of the nation state affects ideas of identity, both at a national level and how that’s distilled through to the individual level,” he says.

Aoki focused his research on gender, sexuality, ethnicity and race in relation to the Allied occupation of Japan in the seven years following the Second World War and the ensuing decades. He was particularly interested in individual experience and how people talk about themselves in relation to racism and discrimination. He wondered if the experience of individuals in Japan was also reflected in Japanese communities abroad.

“That’s when my own heritage kicked in and I thought there may be some interesting questions to ask if I go back to the community I was raised in,” says Aoki.

He wanted to know how Japanese Canadians, who were forced to move to internment camps in the interior of the country during the war, carried on after losing their homes and possessions. About 12,000 moved into internment camps set up in ghost towns and several thousand made their way farther east.

“Another three to four thousand are then moved out to the Prairie provinces, especially Alberta, under agreement between the RCMP and the Sugar Beet Association, for example. That’s why you get this influx of people into Alberta, adding to an already existing small, but important, Japanese community in Raymond and Hardieville,” he says.

Most research on the topic has concentrated on Canada as a whole or in cities, such as Vancouver and Toronto, with large Japanese communities. He says the southern Alberta Japanese community is distinctive because of its rural base and its Japanese-Canadian cultural infrastructure.

“When I first started the project in 2011, it was going to be an oral history project to try to rescue memories,” he says. “A lot of that wartime incarceration history is now well-known so my focus was much more the post-war period. What happens after the war? How do people, if they’ve been through that experience, rebuild their lives? The second thing is to really focus on the so-called second generation, the Nisei, because a lot of those people born in the ‘20s all the way up to just before the war aren’t going to be around much longer.”

People he’s interviewed have told him they carried on their lives by finding ways to compartmentalize their thoughts. They took advantage of educational opportunities that opened up after the Second World War. They also found ways to deal with hurt and humiliation. While they may have tried to bury their feelings, Aoki says it still funnels through the way people think, talk and interact, often using both good-natured and biting humour.

Many commented on how they worked hard and sacrificed so their children could succeed as Canadians but one of the poignant consequences was loss of ‘Japaneseness’ through intermarriage. Many of these couples, especially since the 1990s, give their children Japanese names and make a concerted effort to explore Japan and its culture.

“In that sense, the Nisei haven’t given up that Japaneseness; they’ve given that to the future generations,” Aoki says. “The biggest thing about assimilation is that the non-Japanese part of society has actually assimilated into the Japaneseness as well. If they’re marrying, they might come into contact with Japanese food, and practice sports like Mr. Kinjo’s karate or Mr. Senda’s judo.”

For Aoki, oral history is a powerful way to bridge the broader study of history with individual experience. Scholars can study documents in archives and those materials will always stay the same, but oral history allows the past to be distilled through the present.

“One of the reasons oral history has such an application beyond just the study of history is that there can be therapeutic elements to thinking about it, thinking about it again, telling it and putting your past into an order as you articulate it,” he says. “Oral historians have a huge responsibility because these people have given you their time; they’re inviting you into their memories and stories and some of them could be painful. Although we can’t help them, the process might be useful to that person.”

He’d encourage anyone interested in oral history to take part in this summer’s workshops being offered through the U of L’s Centre for Oral History and Tradition and the Galt Museum.

“These workshops will give you a good set of skills. It creates, more than the skills, an awareness of what oral history can open up, what you can hope to find, but also how to best cultivate those opportunities while also implanting that sense of responsibility,” says Aoki.