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Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada

Japanese Canadian Photographers


In 1942, with the wartime internment of Japanese Canadians and the confiscation of their property, most of the visual records of early Japanese Canadians were scattered and lost.

Grace Eiko Thomson, of the Japanese Canadian National Museum, in partnership with UVic historian Phyllis Senese and student researchers, tracked down and examined three important collections of historical photographs. Partners and local collaborators of the project were the New Westminster Museum and the Cumberland Museum where two of the major collections are housed. The collections represent the life work of selected Japanese Canadian photographers from the turn-of-the century to 1942 in Cumberland, New Westminster, and Vancouver's Japantown. These remarkable photographs give insight into Japanese Canadians' lives and experiences in British Columbia. Entitled “Shashin,” the Japanese word for photograph, which literally means “true reproduction,” this collection is an examination of some of the last remaining material records of the early 20th century Japanese Canadian community in British Columbia.

This CURA project explored the cultural and social lives of Japanese Canadians during this period through representations of race and class in the photographs. The researchers examined issues such as assimilation and exclusion, the aesthetic and technical qualities of the photographs and the role of Japanese Canadian photographers in Canadian society. They provided biographies of some of the most inspirational Japanese Canadian photographers, bringing to life the brilliant artistic personalities behind the camera. The resulting exhibition shows a vibrant community with its own scout teams, baseball teams, and photography clubs – evidence of segregation, but also of acculturation. While Japantown's photographers had a large Japanese client base, in the smaller communities of Cumberland and New Westminster Japanese photographers enjoyed the patronage of a diversity of clients, from the elite of the white community, to the Chinese Canadian miners.

The project resulted in a catalogue and a travelling exhibition, both entitled Shashin: Japanese Canadian Photography to 1942. The exhibition opened at the end of January 2005, at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria. Material for a museum education resource kit was developed to complement the show. The show travelled to the Maltwood Art Museum and Gallery, where it was on display from April 21- June 22. Langley Centennial Museum in Fort Langley, BC, hosted the exhibition during the summer of 2005. . It then travelled to the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre in Kamloops, BC, where it was shown until November 15 th . It will open in December at the Gendai Gallery at the Toronto Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre. The travelling exhibition is supported by funding from the Museums Assistance Program, Department of Canadian Heritage.

For more information about the exhibition and for copies of the catalogue please contact the Japanese Canadian National Museum in Burnaby, BC, at

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