Abstract: Silent/Silenced Memory and Collective Pain: Contemporary Japanese Canadian Artists Addressing the Internment and Erasure (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

42P Silent/Silenced Memory and Collective Pain: Contemporary Japanese Canadian Artists Addressing the Internment and Erasure

Thursday, January 16, 2020
Marquis BR Salon 6 (ML 2) (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Izumi Sakamoto, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Toronto, ON, Canada
Jeff Tanaka, BA, Research Assistant, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
Matthew Chin, PhD, Assistant Professor, Fordham University, NY
Jane Ku, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Windsor, Windsor, ON, Canada
Ai Yamamoto, BA Hons, Research Assistant, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
Background & Purpose

During World War II, 22,000 Japanese Canadians (JCs) experienced mass incarceration, and dispossession, leading to community destruction and "cultural genocide". Research has shown that many descendants of internees are haunted by the burden of their ancestors' untold memories (Sugiman, 2004), while assimilating to avoid future discrimination (Sakamoto et al., 2016). Concurrently, there have been numerous efforts to engage with the intergenerational effects of racism and erasure in order to externalize suppressed memories through art practices and cultural activism. Informed by theories of memory and affect in diaspora studies (Gopinath, 2009), our research explores how JCs negotiate collective intergenerational trauma specifically through visual art and theatre by third and fourth generation artists.


For this project the research team engaged in ongoing self-reflection using a decolonizing, and intersectional framework (Sakamoto, 2014; Mehrotra, 2010; Smith, 2012). We were also supported by an advisory board of JC community leaders. We conducted 16 key informant interviews and two focus groups (12 participants) with Japanese Canadian artists and curators which were then transcribed and analyzed. Furthermore, we collected over 100 popular articles (e.g., newsletters by JC organizations) and attended over 20 art exhibits, theatre productions and JC community events. In the spirit of decolonizing methodology, instead of decontextualizing the interviews through repeated phases of coding, the transcripts were only coded in small batches and research team brought these transcripts in conversation with each other vis-à-vis theories offered by diaspora studies (Gopinath, 2010) and post-memory (Hirsh, 2008; 2012).


The artists we interviewed use their work as a way of transforming memory and bringing it to life, exploring historic and intergenerational relationships of what was told vs. not told. The tension of what is lost mirrors the fraught relationship of Saidiya Hartman’s trip to return to West Africa, the homeland of her ancestors (Gopinath, 2010). Gopinath states that Hartman’s journey seeks “to enter into slavery’s archive—the material documents and the physical ruins of slave holds and dungeons—in order to search ‘for the traces of the destroyed”’ (Gopinath, 2010, p. 170). The work of JC artists can be seen as excavating personal memory in search of “traces of the destroyed” (Gopinath, 2010, p. 170) – a way to mediate the seemingly insurmountable losses created through histories of incarceration and silencing. 

Conclusions & Implications:

Exploring JC artwork helps to theorize the creative expression of a disenfranchised group in the aftermath of state-sanctioned violence. This helps to deepen our understanding of historical trauma and its effects today, facilitating resistance against structural violence by making previously silenced histories part of our knowledge in the present. Documenting the history of JC Internment has “painful echoes in the present day”, states one JC art curator (Bresge, 2019); it’s not too difficult to apply the historical lesson to the current political climate against immigrants and Muslim communities.  We believe that this research will resonate with social workers in all areas of social work from clinical to macro social work.