History, Research

Faculty Profile: Andrea Geiger, History

May 22, 2015

When SFU Historian Andrea Geiger first came to Vancouver to do doctoral research in the late 1990s she found tapes of interviews with Japanese-Canadians at what was then the Japanese Canadian National Museum. The tapes would prove crucial to her research work. “Those who shared their stories on those tapes played a critical role in shaping my own understanding of the Japanese Canadian community and its history,” recalls Geiger. “At the time, the secondary literature was not as rich as it is now, and it was the Issei and Nisei [first and second generation Japanese Canadians] whose voices one hears on those tapes who introduced me to that history, as they experienced it, and who I credit as being my first teachers in the field.” 

The tapes made a lasting impact on Geiger who remained in touch with the Museum and was aware of the concerns of museum staff about the deteriorating condition of the cassette tapes on which the interviews were recorded. When SFU Historian Mary Ellen Kelm received funding to set up an oral history lab in the History Department, Geiger saw the opportunity to have the interviews digitized. She contacted the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre and SFU Library and launched a joint project to digitize the tapes.

The Japanese Canadian Oral History Collection, which continues to grow as new tapes are donated to the museum and new interviews are conducted, consists of some 350 interviews with Japanese Canadians. The interviews began officially in 1981 after the creation of the Historical Preservation Committee, a group operating under the Greater Vancouver Japanese Canadian Citizen’s Association. The goal was to preserve as much as possible of Japanese Canadian history. As Geiger explains, “when the redress movement began in the 1980s, there was growing recognition that the stories of Japanese Canadians who had been forcibly removed from the coast needed to be preserved. Joy Kogawa’s first book Obasan had recently been published and some of those who had experienced internment – and who remembered the prewar Japanese immigrant communities – were beginning to pass away, so there was a real sense of urgency on the part of those conducting the interviews.” Most of the interviews were recorded in the Vancouver area, but some of the tapes acquired by the Museum were recorded in other locations where Japanese Canadians were forced to resettle, some in Alberta and even as far away as Toronto. 

Digitizing the tapes took roughly four years. SFU’s Work-Study Program played a key role, making it possible for a total of 15 SFU students to participate in the digitization project. As they were digitizing the tapes (which must be done in real time) they made lists of search terms and wrote short summaries. The search terms allow researchers to investigate elements like conditions at particular internment camps, aspects of the wartime experience, or history of the prewar period, such as the fishing or logging industries in which many Japanese Canadians worked before the war. Geiger suggests, for example, using the search term ‘Hastings Park’ to get a sense of the stress and anxiety that accompanied the forced removal of Japanese Canadians from the coast.  Hastings Park was an initial assembly point for Japanese Canadians brought to Vancouver from outlying districts before being sent to the camps in the B.C. interior. Some of those at Hastings Park were housed in quarters that had been used to keep animals, “and the distress caused by this and the uncertainty as to what would happen next is evident in their voices.”

Linguists also have a valuable resource in the collection. About three-fifths of the tapes are in English, the rest in Japanese.  Geiger notes; “People who speak Japanese will be intrigued by the range of dialects on the tapes. Given Japan’s mountainous terrain, travel was difficult in the old days before mechanized transportation and, during the Tokugawa period, this was compounded by government restrictions on travel within Japan, so very distinctive regional cultures and dialects evolved over time. Japanese immigrants who arrived in the early 1900s still spoke quite distinct regional dialects.” 

Making the interviews accessible online has widened the scope of their impact. Geiger heard from one Japanese Canadian woman in Prince Rupert who stumbled across an interview her grandfather had done for the collection simply by searching his name online; “no one in her family knew he had done the interview so it was an unexpected discovery and it clearly meant a great deal to her to hear her grandfather’s story in his own words.”

“The Japanese Canadian Oral History Collection is a rich and wonderful resource and it’s been a privilege to be able to help preserve it,” says Geiger. By making widely accessible a crucial database of the Japanese Canadian experience in Canada, the interviews have already inspired such projects as the Landscapes of Injustice Project; with this valuable database of stories now online, the inspiration is sure to continue. 

Listen to the Japanese Canadian Oral History Collection here.