World War 2 is a dark chapter in Canadian history. It excused, and pointedly encouraged racism towards Japanese Canadians in response to the bombing of the US military base, Pearl Harbour. The Canadian Government gave Japanese Canadians the same choice before and after the war. Japanese Canadians were either to report to a designated office to be relocated, or return to Japan. Those who stayed were stripped of their belongings. In the end, While some fled back to Japan, others felt it difficult to return to a country that had been defeated by war and stayed in the country that held them captive.
At the end of the war, racism towards the Japanese Canadians who stayed remained for decades. As the Japanese elders grew older, they decided to allow younger generations to marry into non-Japanese families to keep their dwindled lineage alive and to escape racism. Instead of teaching their children to speak Japanese, newer generations only grew to know English. All other cultural references to Japan were often kept from newer generations out of fear of racism. As a result, the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th generations of those families come from Japanese heritage but have not been raised to embrace it.
Ashley Sugimoto (22) is a 3rd generation Japanese Canadian. Like many others in her generation, she doesn’t know much about her Japanese heritage. Growing up closer to her Japanese family has lead her to more commonly identify as her Japanese heritage. Being raised in a society that is settled within North American culture questions that identity. If you are of both Caucasian and Japanese descent, does it seem right to identify as just one or the other?
The 21st century has seen mainstream society taking big steps towards inclusion and acceptance in many respects. The last decade has introduced new terminology to better encompass communities of people who feel restricted by the categories typically imposed on them. Among those terms, is ‘hapa’, a Hawaiian term for “half” meaning people of Asian or pacific islander ancestry. The release of One Big Hapa Family (Jeff Chiba Stearns, 2010) introduced the term. In August of 2019, Ashley met another Japanese hapa. They helped Ashley begin to consider what the term really meant.
Finding Hapa-ness is a documentary film following Ashley Sugimoto as she traces her family roots back to Japan. Stringing together interviews with other 3rd generation Japanese Canadian hapas, members of her own family, and footage of her journey, Ashley hopes to erase the looming question mark of her multicultural identity. She also hopes to open doors for other hapas to share their stories. We should be helping each other better understand the importance of embracing all parts of their heritage. Conveniently, Ashley lives in Vancouver, the hub of all Japanese immigration before world war 2 in Canada’s Western hemisphere.
Using her connections within Canada, Ashley will interview with members of her own family. Each member will belong to each generation since her family’s immigration to Canada. She hopes to interview as many other Canadian hapas as possible. The more stories and experiences of others’ mixed-race journeys the better. Her location will make this part of the project easier than it might be otherwise. There remains to be a large population of Japanese Canadian hapas in British Columbia. Vancouver is home to some of Canada’s best resources for Japanese Canadian history. Among them, the Nikkei Cultural Center, Hapapalooza, and Powell Street Festival, and Sir David Suzuki himself.
Ashley will travel to Japan where she will trace her family’s roots. She will begin in the small farming town that her great grandfather grew up in. Her partner, Heilam, will help translate to help ease conversation with her distant relatives. She hopes to gather a more clear vision of her family’s samurai history. Ashley hopes to gather more details on the circumstances that lead her great grandfather to move to Canada. Ashley wants to be able to honour her great grandfather at her family’s temple. This will pay homage to the man who began her family’s Canadian lineage.