Author Grace Eiko Thomson’s new memoir, Chiru Sakura—Falling Cherry Blossoms: A Mother & Daughter’s Journey through Racism, Internment, and Oppression explores moments in Japanese Canadian history through both her and her mother’s perspectives.
VANCOUVER — Author Grace Eiko Thomson‘s mother always emphasized studying and practicing the Japanese language and customs, even when the family was forcibly uprooted during the Second World War and relocated to Minto City.
Every day after school, there would be textbooks and a small snack on the table waiting for Thomson. While Thomson’s mother did the daily washing in the furoba [bath] with the door propped open, Thomson would practice her Japanese. At the time, Thomson resented the lessons. While she practiced writing kanji and reading aloud from the textbooks her mother had collected, her friends and brothers played outside.
“I was very lucky because I had this strict mother who was educated, and she expected me to be beside her and to be able to speak the language. She raised me to have that ability, and for that reason, we were able to continue [communicating] until she died,” Thomson tells Nikkei Voice in an interview.
Years later, when Thomson’s mother, 84 at the time, handed her a small green book, titled “Journal,” and asked her to read the first entry aloud, written in Japanese, she could. Filled with memories of her life, she asked Thomson to translate the journal, so her grandchildren would understand the life she lived.
“And I realized that she wanted to tell her story, which to me, is not just her story, but the story of Japanese Canadians, how we were treated, and how we lived our lives after,” says Thomson.
The journal became the base for Thomson’s memoir, Chiru Sakura—Falling Cherry Blossoms: A Mother & Daughter’s Journey through Racism, Internment, and Oppression, released earlier this year. Each chapter of the memoir begins with a translated entry from her mother’s journal paired with Thomson’s memories from those moments of their shared lives. Thomson, a historian, and retired museum curator, also provides historical context and background. Through Thomson and her mother’s memories comes a story of resilience in the face of racism, sexism, and the internment; and an exploration into how these experiences shaped them as people.
Thomson is a Nisei, born in Steveston, B.C., who lived in the Powell Street neighbourhood in Vancouver before the Second World War. Sent to Minto City, the self-supporting incarceration site, the family moved around rural Manitoba after the war. When restrictions against Japanese Canadians lifted in 1949, the family moved to Winnipeg. Thomson now lives in Vancouver.
A curator, historian, and social activist, Thomson’s education has focused on exploring her cultural identity and overcoming the racism and discrimination she faced in her life through art. She has worked as the curator of museums around Canada, including curator of Burnaby Art Gallery and founding director-curator of the Japanese Canadian National Museum, now the Nikkei National Museum in Burnaby.
“I think I am who I am because of my mother,” says Thomson. “With my mother, you always had to finish what you started, but also do the right thing. Don’t leave something that’s not quite right, don’t ignore it. I realize that I lived my life that way, and I think it has to do a lot with my mother’s teachings.”
Thomson’s mother, Sawae Nishikihama (nee Yamamoto), was born in the small village of Mio, in Wakayama prefecture, in 1913. Sawae’s parents valued education and sent her to Wakayama City to further her education. She married a naturalized Canadian and immigrated to Canada in 1930, settling in the Powell Street neighbourhood, Paueru Gai, with hopes and dreams of what Canada could be, says Thomson.
Sawae kept journals her entire life, but she began working on the journal that became her memoir in the 90s. At the time, Sawae was angry and frustrated over the life taken from her, says Thomson. After being forced to leave Vancouver, Sawae and her husband, Torasaburo, struggled their entire married lives to find work and raise their five children. By the time Sawae wrote her memoir, she had outlived her husband and three of her children.
“My mother was always such a strong person that I never really felt the need to look after her in that way. But during the period when she was dealing with all these deaths around her and after they had all gone, for about 10 years after that, she was dealing with her own anger and emotions,” says Thomson. “That’s when she started thinking she had to write because writing and reading were her main occupations throughout her life. I think she decided that writing was the best way for her to deal with these things.”
After Sawae passed away, Thomson read her journal again, but this time she began to write down some of her memories of the moments in their shared lives. Thomson found there were moments that she remembered differently from her mother. As a result, the memoir explores moments in history from two generationally different Japanese Canadian women, Sawae, an Issei born in Japan, and Thomson, a Nisei born in Canada.
Translating Sawae’s memoir gave Thomson a new perspective on her mother. It offered a glimpse into the life Sawae had in Japan, the hopes she had for her family when she started her life in Vancouver, and how within 12 years of arriving in Canada, that was all taken away.
“I took it for granted who my mother was, but when I read her memoir, that’s when [I] realized how much she suffered, coming as a young bride, and thinking that she’s going to have a great life in Canada,” says Thomson. “As a child, you depend on your parents to look after you and accept whatever happens around you. I wasn’t thinking about my future at that point. My mother was looking at her everyday life as totally changed, and not sure what was going to happen next.”
Now Thomson is close to the age her mother was when she wrote her journal. But while Sawae wrote when she was frustrated and angry, Thomson wrote her memoir looking towards the future with hope.
“I’m lucky to think at my age—I’m hoping to have a few more years—but at the same time, I’m proud of my children and my grandchildren, and I’m proud of our community, that we have achieved so much,” she says.
Thomson was introduced to the noted editor, Barbara Pulling, who suggested she submit the book to a publisher after reading the first draft. The manuscript was accepted by Caitlin Press, giving Thomson a new sense of encouragement to share her story, not only with her children and grandchildren but also the younger generations of Japanese Canadians so they can understand their community’s history.
Thomson is encouraged by the younger generations of Japanese Canadians, who are curious about researching their ancestry and learning more about themselves, their families, and their history. Many who experienced the internment are gone now, and Thomson feels a responsibility to make sure this history does not disappear. By learning their history, young generations can be encouraged to stand up against racism and injustice that still exists in Canada, she says.
“I want our children to know this history because it has to do with a government that was committing crimes. I want them to remember that, so in the future, such things don’t happen again. But we have to know the history to prevent these kinds of things, to prevent people from holding office and doing crooked things,” says Thomson.
“I do believe that our future is more positive, even as I’m seeing the horrible news right now. I’m in touch with several young people in Vancouver, and I have so much faith in them. I feel very lucky that I got to know them and what they’re thinking. And that so many of them are writing, writing poetry, writing plays, they’re doing all kinds of things that were not possible in my youth, so I feel very positive, and because of these people and my grandchildren, I know the future is better.”
Grace Eiko Thomson’s memoir, Chiru Sakura—Falling Cherry Blossoms: A Mother & Daughter’s Journey through Racism, Internment, and Oppression, is available at Caitlin Press and most major bookstores.