Shashin: Japanese Canadian Photography to 1942
November 4, 2013
Review By Andrea Geiger
During the early decades of the twentieth century, a number of Japanese Canadian photographers established studios in British Columbia, where they plied their trade. In the process of doing so, these photographers also produced a valuable record not only of their Japanese Canadian clientele but also of the larger communities of which they were a part. Although not intended as a formal work of academic history, Shashin: Japanese Canadian Photography to 1942 makes an important contribution to the larger literature by drawing our attention to the work of these photographers and suggesting some of the many ways in which their work can shed light on a period in Japanese Canadian history about which relatively little has as yet been written. A major reason for the relative lack of historical writing on prewar Japanese Canadian history is not lack of interest but, rather, the difficulty inherent in locating archival material in the wake of the dispersal and sale of personal property left in the care of the Custodian of Enemy Property when Japanese Canadians were forcibly relocated to the BC interior in 1942. Carefully stored family and community photographs were often scattered or destroyed as a result. Originally produced as a catalogue for an exhibit of the same name – first shown at the Japanese Canadian National Museum in Burnaby, British Columbia, in 2005 – Shashin is the product of a preliminary effort to reassemble some of the photographs that remain, ranging from formally posed studio portraits to more candid shots of such events as the aftermath of the September 1898 New Westminster fire (83, 91). Beautifully curated, the photographs assembled in this volume serve not only as records of the events or persons they depict but also as sources that give us access to the aspirations and life experience of their subjects by revealing how they wanted to be seen.
Notwithstanding the hardships that had to be endured in Canada, including white racism, these photographs tell a story not of simple victimization but, rather, of success as measured by the standards of the dominant community of the time. Depicted in these photographs are Japanese Canadians and others who insist on being defined in their own terms, not measured by the prejudices of the day. Taken together, as a result, the photographs in this volume challenge simpler narratives of oppression and assimilation. The Japanese Canadian farmer standing in front of a carefully maintained barn, the coal miners posing for a formal studio portrait, and the sumo wrestler standing in traditional garb all reflect a profound sense of pride in what they represent and what they have accomplished (60, 47, 73). At the same time, the comfort with which two friends – one of Japanese and the other of European ancestry – sit side by side, the arm of one draped around the other’s shoulders, challenges conventional assumptions about the impenetrability of racist divides at the time (63). By the same token, the broad range of subjects – which include Chinese, Italians, African Americans, and others in addition to Japanese Canadians – reflects the key role played by some of the photographers in the larger communities they served.
It is the photographs that are at the heart of Shashin that allow this volume to succeed. Although they are supported by a series of short essays, these essays are not as well integrated or as comprehensive as they might have been. We are told, for example, that the Japanese Canadian community was distinctive with regard to the number of photographers among its ranks, but we are not told how their numbers compare with those of other photographers of other origins (7). The essays are nevertheless useful in establishing the general context within which the photographs were produced. An essay by Patricia Roy provides a brief introduction to the early twentieth century history of Japanese Canadians. Jan Gates explains the technology and photographic conventions of the time. Jim Wolf provides a short biographical account of P.L. Okamura, trained at the Meiji government’s School of Fine Arts in Tokyo, whose clients at his New Westminster studio included the local lacrosse team and annual May queens. Finally, Imogene Lim, granddaughter of Chinese immigrants who settled in Cumberland, British Columbia, shares with us her very personal response to photographs produced there during the early decades of the twentieth century as she searches for familiar faces.
The authors rightly emphasize the role photographs such as those assembled in this volume can play as a record of Japanese Canadian family and community. However, the stories depicted in these pages also need to be understood as stories of Canadian history – stories that are as relevant to those whose ancestors are not depicted here as they are to those whose ancestors are depicted. Although the authors ask a series of basic questions about subject and photographer, audience, and composition, there is also evidence in these photographs of a far more complicated story about how Japanese and other immigrants negotiated complex questions of identity in a Canada where social status was ordered along racial lines. As the curators of the exhibit and this small volume themselves point out, however, this compilation was intended only to suggest the enormous potential of visual sources (such as those assembled here) and the importance of reading them with the same degree of care as one would read any other source. So read, this small collection succeeds admirably, clearly revealing the depth and potential of the work of prewar Japanese Canadian photographers as historical sources and suggesting the broad range of questions that remain to be addressed.