Mennonite and Japanese: from the outside in and the inside out

On this Canada Day, as I think about the many cultures that are part of the Canadian mosaic, I’m thinking especially about the Mennonite and Japanese communities that were featured in the recent People of the Valley exhibit at The Reach Gallery Museum.

Since I’m part of a Mennonite church and since my husband is of Japanese descent, I was doubly interested in the joint exhibit, but who else but us would have thought to put those two groups together? It seemed a rather odd combination for a museum exhibit. But according to the gallery notes, the reason for their juxtaposition was that

“conflict and the erosion of their rights” figured prominently in their two histories.

For Mennonites, it was conflict and the erosion of their rights in Russia beginning in the late 1800s and into the next century that led to their migration to Canada in search of a better life; for the Japanese people, it was the conflict of the Second World War and the erosion of their rights in Canada that led to the confiscation of their property and forced removal from the Pacific coast including the Fraser Valley where I now live.

For me the most striking thing about the exhibit was not the history itself, but the way the exhibit contrasted and compared with what I know of that history from my own personal and family experience. It felt strange to see culture and history on display in one way, and at the same time to know them from the inside out in a somewhat different way.

For example on the Mennonite side, according to the display:

You are considered a Mennonite if you are born into a Mennonite family, however you must also choose to be baptised, as an adult, into the Mennonite religion. Being a Mennonite has both ethnic and religious connotations.

In contrast to this rather flat definition, in my experience of the Mennonite church there is considerably more ambiguity about what it means to be Mennonite, and most wouldn’t dream of talking about “the Mennonite religion.” What’s more, as a third-generation Canadian of Chinese descent, I don’t fit the museum’s definition, but in my church I’m often considered Mennonite by faith and choice; as one Mennonite who does fit the above definition has said to me, “You’re more Mennonite than the Pope is Catholic!”

On the Japanese side, here’s the official notice of removal posted as part of the exhibit:

In contrast, here is the way my father-in-law describes what it was like as a 17 year-old at the time. In his own words neatly printed on lined paper in block capital letters:

Still attending school. Waiting for our evacuation notice. Had to report to the RCMP. Curfew restriction on—had to be indoors by 6pm.  Fishing Boat taken away, and radio.  Fishing Camp all closed up and boarded up.  They said security will be posted and not to worry.  Evacuation notice arrives that we are to leave first week in May, only one suitcase per person.  Rest of belongings to be left behind.  Friends and neighbours leaving daily left and right.  Any male 18 and over taken away from family and sent to road camp.  Went to see principle Mr. Sinclair at VanTech to inquire about my grade 11 as I would be missing the final two months of school.  He said it will be based on the yearly mark.  Diploma followed later that I had passed.  For the first time in my life I received an honorary passing diploma.  Maybe they just felt sorry for us.

These and other contrasts remind me that on one level, there may be neat definitions of culture, but on another level a much more nuanced ambiguity. On one level there is the official history that we can remember and learn from, and on another deeper level, there are all of the personal stories that we also need to remember and learn from and de-construct that history.

In particular in this exhibit, the Mennonite and Japanese communities were set side by side, but what about their interaction? At one point in the exhibit I read, “Some tried to help relocated Japanese friends and neighbours by holding their belongings until they were able to return but in many cases the government confiscated and eventually liquidated these goods also.”

Were Mennonites among those who tried to help? What about those who benefited from the situation? (See Mennonites in Canada, 1939-1970 by T.D. Regehr, pages 110 and following) While the 1988 official apology from the Canadian government to the Japanese people was part of the exhibit, nothing was said of the MCC apology to the Japanese people on behalf of Canadian Mennonites. I had hoped for at least something on the interaction between these two communities.

Still I’m grateful for The Reach and its mission of “preserving and sharing the stories of our rich and diverse cultural heritage,” and I’m glad I was able to see this exhibit on both the Mennonite and Japanese communities. I’m even more grateful for the people whom I know and love in both.

In my reflection on this exhibit, I couldn’t help but think also of Canada’s Aboriginal People, and the contrast and comparison between official histories and personal histories. I pray for truth, reconciliation, healing, and hope.


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2 thoughts on “Mennonite and Japanese: from the outside in and the inside out

  1. Yes I see the relevance and also the contrast between the official notice and the personal experience. Both groups in the exhibit were denied even the most basic respect and compassion in the past. I am thankful that I have grown up with “rich and diverse cultural heritage” as something to be celebrated and valued.

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