Editorial / 真の心 / shin no kokoro / My True Heart: Freedom to Create Self-Identity as a Japanese-Canadian

by Ellie Wakabayashi
edited by Emma Corso

quotes-beginning-01Surprise! This is a semi-typical dialogue that I have when I meet someone for the first time.  The above questions and statements are what first come to mind when people hear the word “Japan” followed by “Canada.”  When people ask me these questions, the tone of their questioning has a sense of sincere curiosity.  It shows what they think they know about Japan and Canada.  But what do they know about Canada’s relationship with Japanese immigration, and the struggle Japanese-Canadians go through in navigating identity formation as proud Canadians with Japanese ancestry?  The purpose of this creative self-reflection piece is to highlight the difficulty of navigating the creation of a unique “self” amidst the tension of having one’s personal identity and history assumed by others.  This creative piece will analyze how I, as a Japanese Canadian, feel cultural alienation from current Japan, understand Japanese immigration to Canada, and reconcile my personal identity considering my own family history.


Figure 1. “7-5-3, Hitchi-Go-San, 七五三”, 2002, Wakabayashi.


How does Japan’s national identity and self-image impact me in Canada? 

The fact that so many people know the word “Konnichiwa” is a testament to Japan’s pervasive soft power, that is the exportation of the country’s cultural influence through the globalization of manga and Japanese animation (“anime”)  consumption. Most commonly known Japanese words come from song titles, or catch phrases in manga or anime. Naruto is a story about ninjas.  In Sailor Moon, high school girls turn into sailor outfit-clad heroines who save the world. Battle Angel Alita is about a female cyborg who fights futuristic robots. In all three of these mangas, the themes of uniting together, punishing those who break the rules, and constantly refining oneself to better meet social expectations are embedded into the storyline. In other words, familiar tropes are accepted and normalized to reinforce how Japanese should act. The female characters are often portrayed as obedient, cute, fragile, or simply dumb. Of course, not all readers would think the same way I do, but it is hard to ignore certain portrayals of Japanese women in this genre of manga.  For many non-Japanese, the first exposure to Japanese culture is through this type of literary art.  Manga and anime are a major export of Japanese pop culture, and book sales alone contributed over 280 billion yen to the Japanese economy in 2014.[i] At one level, I am proud that Japan has such as positive reception in the Western world.

When I was younger and lived with my parents, I felt stronger pride in having ‘Japanese’ traits as I was praised by those around me for being so respectful and courteous. However, as I moved away from home and created stronger friendships with Canadian friends, I became more critical.  Being immediately categorized as more Japanese than Canadian evolved into a source of discomfort rather than pride. Due to the popularization of manga stereotypes, I have had instances where I felt objectified as obedient, cute, fragile, or simply dumb. True, I do look physically Japanese, but my outward appearance is not my sole identifier. I am a proud Canadian too. My inner identity is a mix of Japanese and Canadian values.  I am Japanese-Canadian.

To be more accurate, I am Nikkei-Nissei-Kadajin, a.k.a. second-generation Japanese-Canadian. I am an Albertan with an Alberta Health Care Card.  I am a Banffite born in the town of Banff National Park and raised in its large Japanese diasporic community. Admittedly, this unique location has led to my unique outlook on identity.  There are far fewer Japanese-Canadians than those of other visible minority groups.[ii] According to the 2011 National Household Survey, people of Japanese heritage number 0.34% of the total population- and are mainly Canadian-born citizens.[iii] Therefore, it is statistically highly unlikely to meet a Japanese-Canadian despite the long, complex history of the two major waves of Japanese-Canadian immigration and diaspora.


Figure 2. “Family, on a trip in Alberta”, 1990, Wakabayashi.


Initial Japanese immigration to Canada

The initial wave of Japanese immigration followed an optimistic call to Canada for work on the National Railway.[iv]  The immigration of Issei (first-generations) was marketed as a way to make a clean start in a land of opportunity. However, this suddenly turned to oppression and political enslavement under the War Measures Act during World War 2.[v] Imperial Japan became the enemy and heightened the increased the paranoia of anti-Japanese politicians like John Hart and Ian MacKenzie.4 The Act specifically targeted Japanese-Canadians, as Chinese- and Korean-Canadians were allies in the war effort.  Initially, the Canadian Government only required routine check-ins.  However, tensions and the fear of “Imperial Japanese Spies” quickly erupted, leading to the complete oppression, forceful relocation, and internment of all Japanese-Canadians on the Pacific Coast.[vi] Despite no reports of any actual sabotage or spies, the source of persecution was an imagined affiliation with Imperial Japan and its assumed values of extreme nationalism.4 Ironically, many of those interned were born in Canada and only saw Canada as their home.7 Their Japanese looks and any pride in upholding Japanese values led to oppression, sickness, or in certain cases death.[vii] The freedom of self-expression was stolen from them once again.


Secondary Japanese immigration to Canada

The second major wave of Japanese immigration to Canada occurred many years after the oppression of World War 2 was conveniently pushed into the closet.  In the 1980s, a period of rapid growth in Japan’s economy, financial well-being encouraged Japanese to travel to overseas destinations such as the Canadian Rocky Mountains.[viii] The purpose of coming to Canada was a desire to be amazed by the untouched nature, and to find a place to breathe, away from the increasingly industrial and frantic rebuilding of Japan’s economy.  Hundreds of young Japanese workers made the conscious decision to seek out full-time jobs in Canada, which reflected the enthusiasm many felt towards creating a “free and individual self” who had cut ties from traditional Japan.[ix]

My mother was one of those who left Japan to pursue her own version of happiness.  After attending university in Kyoto, she worked as a quality checker at Kirin – a large beer company.  It was a monotonous 8-5. It was long days of pushing buttons. It was changing pipettes. It was the mechanical movements and the endless beeping of the machine. On top of that, it was the feeling of constantly being careful to not act out of place or speak out of place.  Being part of a company meant being obedient to  hierarchical power dynamics.

For my mother, living in Japan became constraining. Initially, she had hoped that this company would provide her with a sense of pride in her workplace, feelings of wellbeing, and sentiments of fulfillment. In comparison, stories about living in Canada were advertised as an escape from the constraining communal bonds and obligations of corporate Japan, in other words a clean start in a land of opportunity. For young and nature-loving workers such as my mother, the desire to liberate herself from her company overlapped with her aspirations for a happier and more international life.  She looked to Canada as an ideal place for finding herself; with its vast natural landscapes, as a land of potential, Canada was a place to establish her new subjectivities.

scottish house

Figure 3. “Scottish House at Banff Fairmont Hotel”, 1994, Wakabayashi.

Banff National Park was an overwhelmingly popular destination. My parents moved there and opened their Scottish clothing store in the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. The Scottish tartan-check patterns and wool fabric were exotic to the many Japanese tourists, who had never strayed far from the kimono silk and floral or animal based designs.  Here was a place where the grandeur of the mountains and the endless forests washed away the feelings of being constrained by strict social rules. This was another version of freedom, a breathing space which transcended a sense of individual worries where both self and others could co-exist peacefully.

In 1995, at the Banff Mineral Springs Hospital, I was born on a cold winter’s day in December.


Finally, a reconciliation of identity and belonging

Therefore, I am a product of the desire for freedom. A child born by Japanese immigrants who chose Canada, as a land of potential, to become free and re-define their own identity.  My parents made decisions about my upbringing. They gave me opportunities to become more stereotypically “Canadian.” Decisions included having a Rotweiller and German Shepard Cross dog, enjoying winter activities, and encouraging me to speak English better than Japanese. I was raised through stories centered upon Japanese and Canadian characters.


Figure 4. “Elsa, my big sister”, 1998, Wakabayashi.

I am a proud Nikkei-Nissei-Kadajin, Banffite, and Albertan.  Now, I am also a McGillian. Growing up in Canada ended up mixing a medley, diversity, and patchwork of identities to create one person. The current me, who has inherited the freedom to choose between two different cultures and values.

For those that exclaim “Arigatou, Kon-nichi-wa!” when they learn that my parents are Japanese, I will politely smile and go along with it.  It’s obvious that there is no malicious intent behind those words and I am happy that others are interested in Japanese culture.  Having said that, I would appreciate it if you, the reader, recognized that the history of Japanese-Canadians is complex. The choice to spread roots in Canada comes with a desire to find liberation from the rigidity of Japanese culture.  I don’t exist in an identity dichotomy of either being Japanese or Canadian.  Having the right to choose which values define my identity is part of the freedom that my parents sought in this land of potential, and a freedom passed on to me.


The opinions expressed in this essay are from personal reflection and do not attempt to reflect those of the wider Japanese-Canadian population.


Ellie Wakabayashi is a first-year student of a Master of Science in Family Medicine and Biomedical Ethics at McGill. She is a Japanese-Canadian who was born and raised in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada. Feeling a sense of belonging to both Japanese and Canadian culture, this places her at a unique position of experiencing the best of both worlds.  She feels conflicted when choosing between her favourite foods; smoked salmon with cream bagels or Japanese pizza “okonomiyaki.” Both options are very savory.



[i] Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO), Japan Animation Industry Trends in Japan Economic Monthly.  2015 http://facweb.cs.depaul.edu/noriko/JapanTrip08/JETRO-market_info_manga.pdf.

[ii] Statistics Canada. 2011 Household Survey: Data tables,  https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/nhs-enm/2011/dp-pd/dt-td/Rp-eng.cfm?LANG=E&APATH=3&DETAIL=0&DIM=0&FL=A&FREE=0&GC=0&GID=1118296&GK=0&GRP=1&PID=105392&PRID=0&PTYPE=105277&S=0&SHOWALL=0&SUB=0&Temporal=2013&THEME=95&VID=0&VNAMEE=&VNAMEF=.

[iii] CBC news. 1 in 6 Canadians is a visible minority: StatsCan. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/1-in-6-canadians-is-a-visible-minority-statscan-1.710493.

[iv] Sunahara, Ann. “Japanese Canadians.” In The Canadian Encyclopedia, 2011.

[v] Smith, Denis. “War Measures Act.” In The Canadian Encyclopedia, 2013.

[vi] Robinson, Greg. “Internment of Japanese Canadians.” In The Canadian Encyclopedia, 2017.

[vii] Frede, Josh. “Tainted: The Treatment of Japanese-Canadians during World War Two.” 2011. http://app.ufv.ca/fvhistory/studentsites/wwII/japanesecanadianswwII/japaneseloyalty.html.

[viii] Statistics Canada. “Chart 4: Growth in overseas travellers visiting Canada, by region, 1972 to 2015.” The evolution of Canadian tourism, 1946 to 2015. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/11-630-x/11-630-x2017001-eng.htm.

[ix] Satsuka, Shiho. “Narratives of Freedom.” In Nature in Translation: Japanese Tourism Encounters the Canadian Rockies, 39-66, 2015.

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