SFU historian Dr. Andrea Geiger has worked to help ensure a legacy for early Japanese Canadian culture
Before reaching adulthood, Andrea Geiger had already lived in multiple cities across the globe, including Amsterdam, Philadelphia, Bangalore, and Hiroshima, an experience that made her sensitive to the value of all cultures. It is fitting then that the Simon Fraser University associate professor of history has made vital contributions to the documentation of the pre- and wartime Japanese Canadian experience, including her work with the Japanese Canadian Oral History Collection which serves as a rich resource for linguists, historians, and all Canadians.
The Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre (formally the Japanese Canadian National Museum) has been recording and storing interviews with elderly Japanese-Canadians, many of them since passed on, starting in the late 1970s. It was a pivotal moment when Geiger discovered the trove of interviews on tape in the late 1990s.
“I went to the museum every day for weeks, listening to as many of the tapes as I could,” says the award-winning author. “They represent a very precious glimpse of the life experiences of those who we would otherwise no longer have access to.”
About one-third of the interviews were conducted in Japanese and reflect a range of prewar dialects of great interest to linguists. On the tapes, interviewees describe experiences such as life in a new country, working in staple B.C. industries such as fishing and logging, the indignities of exclusionary measures during World War II such as the forced removal of Japanese Canadians from the coast to internment camps, and the impact of historical status differences rooted in Japanese society.
The latter is one of Geiger’s main research interests and the subject of her 2011 book Subverting Exclusion: Transpacific Encounters with Race, Caste and Difference, 1885-1928, winner of both the 2011 Theodore Saloutos Memorial Book Award and the 2013 Association for Asian American Studies Book Award.
The museum’s cassettes were in bad shape and staff were concerned about their durability. However, it would take almost a decade for the resources for a digitization project to become available, leaving the tapes, and the stories on them, in a precarious state.
When Geiger learned that fellow SFU historian Mary Ellen Kelm had received funding to set up an oral history lab, she remembered the tapes and made digitizing them a top priority. In 2010 the project began in earnest. The Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre chose which interviews it wanted to make available to the public, and after four years and fifteen SFU work-study students, it was finally complete. The SFU Library website serves as the online home of the Japanese Canadian Oral History Collection which now stands as a catalogue of 200-plus (and growing) interviews that are available for all to access.
Looking back on the project Geiger says, “I want to emphasize what an enormous privilege it has been to both immerse myself in the collection and to help preserve it as a resource researchers across Canada and around the world.”
Dr. Andrea Geiger joined SFU's history department in 2005. Her research interests include transpacific & borderlands history, race, contact relations, migration and legal history. She currently holds a SSHRC Insight Grant for a research project titled “Alternate Spheres of Encounter: Contact Relations between Japanese Immigrants and Aboriginal People in the North American West, 1885-1945.”
Q & A with Andrea Geiger
What motivates you as a researcher?
What motivates me is an abiding interest in teasing apart the ways perceptions of race and difference were historically constructed, and the role that law played in that process. When one understands the constructed nature of social categories such as race or caste, and the extent to which they have changed over time, it becomes possible to see beyond the prejudices to which they give rise. This is what I most hope that the students who take my classes and the people who read my book take away with them.
How important is collaboration in advancing research?
Collaborative projects can be enormously important in advancing historical research, particularly when they are structured in ways that ground academic projects in the life of the community that is involved in the project. It’s critical, however, that academic researchers who are engaged in collaborative research remain sensitive to the needs and concerns of the community as their research evolves.