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Cartographies of Violence: Japanese Canadian Women, Memory, and the Subjects of the Internment

By Mona Oikawa

Review By Jordan Stanger-Ross

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 182 Summer 2014  | p. 237-238

In the second chapter of her powerful book, Mona Oikawa indicts the critical reception of well-known Japanese-Canadian representations of Internment. Readings of Muriel Kitagawa’s This is My Own, for example, have tended to “exceptionalize” it (reinforcing a broader trope of “silent survivors”) or to “suggest resignation and even pathology” on the part of the author, masking her “sheer outrage and sharp critique” (69). In this study of the transmission of knowledge about the Internment, by contrast, Oikawa situates Kitagawa within a vital multigenerational tradition: the Japanese-Canadian women who are the focus and inspiration of this book fought back against the multiple harms of Internment and since the 1940s have continued to articulate critiques of Canadian racism and to serve as the most important caretakers of their own histories. Cartographies of Violence, itself a work of “outrage and sharp critique,” makes a valuable contribution to this legacy.

After two chapters critiquing interpretations of the Internment that minimize its significance, sever it from the present, and homogenize the experiences of its survivors, Oikawa uses her interviews of twenty-one Japanese-Canadian women to illuminate “what the forced movement of over 22,000 people and the places in which they were incarcerated enabled both in the past and the present, and the role the Internment has played in the reproduction of a racial social order and a white settler nation-state” (13). Pairing historian Ian McKay’s analysis of Canadian liberalism with the theoretical literature on racialization and gender, Oikawa positions the Internment and its representation at the centre of the ascendancy of the Canadian “symbolic liberal subject” (10).

The book is most persuasive when it is grounded in the rich and revealing interviews that Oikawa conducted in the 1990s. Aya had three young children and was pregnant with a fourth when she was uprooted from her home in Steveston, where she was born, and separated from her husband and her own mother and brothers. Interned first at the Greenwood camp, she and her children were relocated four further times between 1942 and 1946 (132). Her fourth child was one of 2,500 Japanese-Canadians born in captivity. Aya’s story, among others, teaches us that Japanese-Canadian experiences of Internment were shaped by the particulars of place, personal circumstance, gender, and economic standing. The effects of these highly differentiated, and yet shared, hardships linger to the present day. Although Canadian policies racialized Japanese-Canadians as “one group and one enemy” (104), Oikawa forcefully demonstrates that our histories must not do the same.

Despite its many strengths, the book is not without missteps. Oikawa criticizes Patricia Roy on the basis of a short co-authored volume, overlooking Roy’s more influential, substantial, and recent work (which Oikawa might have folded into her critique of liberalism). Similarly (following scholars like Ann Gomer Sunahara), Oikawa is severely critical of mid-century sociologist Forrest E. La Violette, whom she lumps together with federal officials in a category of “white men” seeking to justify Canadian policies (28). Careful criticism of La Violette’s work is well warranted; however, his volume (published in 1948) also situates the Internment within a century of racism, highlights Japanese-Canadian resistance, and criticizes the government’s handling of Japanese-Canadian property at a time when that issue remained before a Royal Commission. (La Violette describes the property liquidation as “entirely racial and without concern for Canadian citizenship”).More broadly, Oikawa’s theorization of spatial as against “temporal” analysis could perhaps have used fuller articulation. While Oikawa’s point that history is not easily left in the past is well taken (and well sustained in the volume), it is not clear that this insight derives, as she suggests, from freeing history from “temporality” (226). Finally, in rare but important instances the analysis seems to flatten its sources. Detailing the views of women who did not see themselves as interned despite their own uprooting—“it wasn’t like internment at all . . . I mean there was freedom,” says one woman (181)—Oikawa nonetheless presses to convey these experiences as incarceration (176-81). She is right to stress that such freedoms were very limited, but greater fidelity to her own emphasis on the equivocation and complexity inherent in memory and experience might have led Oikawa to a richer analysis of these reflections.

Future scholars will grapple with Oikawa’s book. This is an important and serious contribution to the scholarship on a topic of vital significance. Cartographies of Violence demands attention, provokes reflection, and is sure to generate response.


Roy, Patricia. 2007. The Triumph of Citizenship: The Japanese and Chinese in Canada, 1941-67. Vancouver: UBC Press.

La Violette, Forrest Emmanuel. 1948. The Canadian Japanese and World War II: a Sociological and Psychological Account. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Cartographies of Violence: Japanese Canadian Women, Memory, and the Subjects of the Internment
By Mona Oikawa 
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012. 492 pp. $39.95 paper.