SFU historian Andrea Geiger's work has helped to preserve the history of early Japanese Canadians.
Andrea Geiger grew up in multiple cities across the globe (including Amsterdam, Philadelphia, Bangalore and Hiroshima) before she even reached adulthood, which made the value of all cultures second nature to her. It is fitting that the SFU associate professor of history has made vital contributions to the documentation of pre- and wartime Japanese Canadian experience, including 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 known as the Japanese Canadian National Museum) has been recording and storing interviews with elderly Japanese-Canadians since the late 1970s. It was a pivotal moment when Geiger discovered the cassette tapes in the late 1990s.
“I went to the museum every day for weeks and listened 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 were interviewed which we would otherwise no longer have access.”
About one-third of the interviews were conducted in Japanese and reflect a range of prewar dialects that would be of great interest to linguists. They describe experiences such as life in a new country, the forced removal of Japanese Canadians from the coast and the indignities of the World War II internment camps (as well as other exclusionary measures that targeted Japanese Canadians), working life in staple B.C. industries such as fishing and logging, and the impact of historical status differences rooted in Japanese society. The latter is one of Geiger’s main interests and the subject of her 2011 book Subverting Exclusion: Transpacific Encounters with Race, Caste and Difference, 1885-1928, which won 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 by the time Geiger encountered them and staff were concerned about their durability. However, it would take almost a decade for the resources for a digitization project to become available.
When SFU historian Mary Ellen Kelm received funding to set up an oral history lab in her department, Geiger remembered the tapes (and the valuable stories on them) and made their digitization a top priority. The Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre chose which interviews it wanted to make widely available to the public and in 2010 the project began in earnest, ultimately taking four years and fifteen SFU Work-Study students to complete. The SFU Library was also involved as the online home of the collection. The Japanese Canadian Oral History Collection now stands as a catalogue of 200-plus (and growing) interviews.
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 be able to help preserve it as a resource that is available to 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.