Stage Door Review

The Tashme Project: The Living Archives

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

✭✭✭✭✩

by Julie Tamiko Manning & Matt Miwa, directed by Mike Payette 

Tashme Productions, Factory Theatre Mainspace, Toronto

January 29-February 10, 2019

“They assimilate so well they disappear”

The Tashme Project: The Living Archives is documentary theatre that is important in its subject matter and elegant in its production. Dealing as it does with the internment of Japanese-Canadians during World War II and its effects upon the community, it is necessary viewing for all Canadians and a warning to all viewers of the dangers of viewing fellow citizens as the Other because of international events.

The impetus for the internment of Japanese-Canadians who lived primarily in British Columbia came from the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Japanese-Canadians were declared “enemy aliens” under the War Measures Act and until 1949 their homes and businesses were confiscated and they were relocated into internment camps. These were really concentration camps in the strictest meaning of the word since the view was that the government could not keep track of the movements of Japanese-Canadians if they were spread all over BC, so that it was better to concentrate them in a few select locations as a defence measure. In all, more than 22,000 Japanese-Canadians were removed from their homes and interned. 

On January 14, 1942, the Canadian government passed an order calling for the removal of all Japanese males between the ages of 18 to 45 from a designated protected area from the British Columbia coast to 100 miles inland. While these men were sent to road camps, the women, children and men outside the age limits were sent to internment camps. The creators of The Tashme Project, Julie Tamiko Manning and Matt Miwa, came together because they discovered that they both had had relatives who were interned in the Tashme Camp, near Hope, BC, about 150 km east of Vancouver. Contrary to what many may think, Tashme is not a Japanese word but derives from syllables of the three members of the BC Security Commission who set it up – “Ta” for Austin C. Taylor, “sh” for John Shirras and “me” for F.J. Mead. 

Many people would like to think that Canada was merely following the racist policies of the United States in interning its own citizens, but, sad to say, Canada beat the US in its overreaction since the US did not enact a policy of internment until February 19, 1942.

Manning and Miwa had two principal goals in creating the show. One was to collect first-hand accounts of what life was like in the camps while it is still possible. The Issei (first generation) of Japanese-Canadians, the ones who originally emigrated to Canada, have all died. Their children, the Nissei (second generation), are now quite elderly but can still remember what it was like in the camps when they were children. Since it is part of Japanese culture not to discuss anything considered too upsetting, the Nissei remained silent about their experiences. Manning and Miwa wanted to get them to talk while they were still around.

The second goal, related to the first, is to create a play built of the verbatim reports of those interned so that later generations of Japanese-Canadians can finally become familiar with this previously self-suppressed part of their own history. One of the effects of internment was to break this link between generations. Manning and Miwa aim to reforge it.

Over eight years Manning and Miwa collected nearly 100 hours of interviews from over 35 Nissei. The play consists of Manning and Miwa playing themselves and telling us directly of their project. They depict the difficulty of getting the Nissei to speak about incidents that they had relegated to silence for more than sixty years, but also how through sympathetic encouragement they finally began to talk.

Miwa first interviews Manning who plays an older woman. Then suddenly Manning shifts from her character back to playing herself and interviews Miwa who now plays an older man. This back-and-forth role-playing continues with Manning and Miwa playing twenty characters, all based on real people acknowledged in the programme and speaking the the very words they spoke. 

Manning and Miwa effortlessly shift from playing themselves to playing their interviewees and equally excel at keeping each of the ten characters they play distinct in voice, personality and body language. Statements from the interviews are grouped according to focus – reaction to the first government warnings, curfews, forced selling of household goods, life in the camps, the holding centre in Hastings Park in Vancouver, visiting Tashme after the war and the after-effects of internment. Between each section there is graceful, choreographed movement to mark the transition from topic to topic but also to mark the unity Manning and Miwa feel with each other and with those they interviewed.

Since the Nissei were children when they were in the camps they know their experience is not the same as that of their parents. They don’t understand why hakujin (white people) started calling them names, why they have to move, why they have to sell everything they own, they their fathers and brothers have gone away. They are aware of crowding, the lack of privacy, the lack of heat in their jerrybuilt new homes, the lack of funeral services so that some funeral ceremonies are shamefully botched. 

Yet, with few exceptions, the stories are told with a remarkable lack of anger. Some tell their stories as if they were humorous, no doubt out of embarrassment over what they had endured. But the key aspect we learn of the internees’ experiences is how stoically they endured them. In fact, the very lack of rebellion against the government’s edicts make the government’s fear-mongering look even more foolish.

We learn that the way the internees coped with their situation corresponds with the long tradition in Japanese culture when people are faced with adversity, an attitude summed up in the phrase “Shikata ga nai” (仕方が無い) meaning “It can’t be helped”. 

One terrible aspect of Manning and Miwa’s presentation that most people will not know is how internment was only one part of the government’s plan to destroy Japanese-Canadian communities entirely. After the war, the Canadian government did not allow those interned to return to where they had lived. Rather, the government resettled them all across the Canada with the object of preventing any re-formation of Japanese-Canadian communities. As Manning and Miwa note, this plan succeeded only too well. The children of those interned learned there was no advantage to retaining any Japanese heritage and so sought to assimilate with the hakujin around them. As Manning comments in the play, “They [the Japanese Nissei] assimilate so well they disappear”.

Thus, The Tashme Project seeks not merely to document an infamous event in Canadian history and to break the silence about that event that has existed within families, but to remind assimilated Japanese-Canadians of their own Japanese-ness, to be proud of it and to be unafraid to reassert it.

The goals of the The Tashme Project are so important and are achieved by such tasteful theatrical means that it is a show all Canadians should see if they want to understand the history of this country. More than that, it is a show people should see to understand the damage caused by the politics of fear, damage that is still being done in the present. 

Our neighbour to the south still has people it rounded up as enemy aliens after 9/11 languishing without trial in Guantanamo Bay. It has characterized people from Latin America as undesirable, placed them in detention centres and separated them from their children. The Tashme Project demonstrates step-by-step how the politics of fear impact not merely the generation interned but negatively affects all the descendants of that generation. Little could Manning and Miwa have known when they began this project eight years ago how horribly relevant it would be today to the plight of more than Japanese-Canadians. 

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top): Julie Tamiko Manning and Matt Miwa; Julie Tamiko Manning and Matt Miwa. © 2018 June Park.

For tickets, visit factorytheatre.ca