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His grandfolks went to WWII camps in B.C. He shares their story

"Sansei: The Storyteller" runs from April 16 to 20 at the Evergreen Cultural Centre in Coquitlam.
Kunji Ikeda, who grew up around North Road on the Coquitlam/Burnaby border, presents "Sansei: The Storyteller" at the Evergreen Cultural Centre in Coquitlam from April 16 to 20, 2024.

At the turn of the 20th century, three brothers from Japan moved to Steveston and bought seven plots of land to earn livings as fishermen and to raise their families.

But after the Japanese bombed the American naval base in Pearl Harbor, in 1942, the federal government forced 21,000 Japanese–Canadians into internment camps.

Kunji Ikeda’s paternal grandfather, the son of one of the three brothers, was among those imprisoned at Tashme, near Hope, the largest of eight B.C. internment camps.

Ikeda’s grandmother and her two children were also uprooted to Tashme, but they were transferred to the camp in New Denver, in the Kootenays, for four years.

After the war, the family wasn’t allowed to return home, so they resettled near Lethbridge, close to a relative. Conditions were harsh, but they rebuilt their lives.

And soon Ikeda’s father was born.

Such is the tale that Ikeda weaves through language, music and movement in Sansei: The Storyteller, a work that Ikeda will perform this week at Coquitlam’s Evergreen Cultural Centre. Show tickets are now on sale through the box office.

In an interview with the Tri-City News on April 11, Ikeda talked about how being a third-generation (sansei) Japanese–Canadian has influenced his livelihood as an artist and how the piece he created about a decade ago evokes strong memories.

“There are so many untold stories,” said the Burnaby Mountain Secondary graduate who grew up around North Road, on the Coquitlam border.

“I thought this was going to be a personal study but everywhere I go, the floodgates open. In Haida Gwaii, the community was so ready to talk about systemic oppression. At another place I performed at, somebody in the audience knew my aunt. It just blew me away.”

Ikeda, who is the artistic director of Cloudsway Dance Theatre in Calgary and who now calls Toronto home, said he uses the term “Re-Spect” to reexamine history and to broach difficult conversations about past wrongs, racism and lack of inclusion.

Initially when he toured, his show highlighted current news topics like policies by the American president George W. Bush and Canadian government cutbacks in the arts.

Then, Ikeda shifted to vent his political frustrations about the Trump administration.

Now, he talks about how vulnerable Canadians continue to fall through the cracks.

Still, he recognizes some societal changes have been made to address the hurt: In 2022, the B.C. government announced a $100-million redress package for Japanese internment-era survivors, following an apology a decade prior. The announcement came on the 80th anniversary of the first arrivals to the internment camps in 1942.

“It’s leaving this community feeling heard that lot didn’t expect would ever happen.”

Sansei: The Storyteller runs from April 16 to 20 at the Evergreen Cultural Centre (1205 Pinetree Way) at 7:30 p.m., and 3 p.m. Saturday. There will be a special Tasting Tuesday event with Brave Brewing, and a Talk Back on Thursday.