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Hiroshima-area family roots inspire Canadian film director

Ohama's works win prizes but another focus is on helping the children affected by disasters

by Mami Maruko

Staff Writer

When Linda Ohama, a third-generation Japanese-Canadian, heard the news about the earthquake and tsunami that hit the Tohoku region on March 11, she says she was “very shocked” and felt a strong urge to do something for the people there — especially the children.

Ohama immediately gathered leaders of the Japanese-Canadian community in Vancouver and arranged for a charity concert given by volunteer musicians and performers in April. The money raised at the concert was donated to the Japanese Red Cross and the Canadian Red Cross for disaster relief.

“It was not just to raise money, but (to) raise care and feelings for Tohoku,” Ohama said.

Ohama also organized a quilt project to help children in the devastated areas find hope for the future.

She asked youths from several schools in Canada to draw and embroider pictures and messages on cloth, and when she had collected all the pieces they were sewn together to make one large quilt, and it was sent to Japan.

Then kids from several schools in the Tohoku area, including Yuriage Junior High School in Natori, Miyagi Prefecture, responded by making their “cloth letters” in a similar way. They wrote messages and drew pictures on pieces of cloth cut by residents of Onomichi, Hiroshima Prefecture — the hometown of Ohama’s grandmother.

A total of about 1,400 pieces — 700 from Canada and 700 from Japan that were sewn together to make up 10 quilts — are being exhibited at the Canadian Embassy through Dec. 13. The exhibition will tour major cities in both Japan and Canada.

“I thought that we could help (young people in Tohoku) to know that there are young people in other parts of the world that care and think about them at this time,” said Ohama.

Ohama, who is an artist and film director/producer, has in the last decade made efforts to promote cultural and educational ties between Japan and Canada. She has created a series of free workshops on art, food, storytelling and crafts for youths in Japanese cities and smaller towns.

She now spends six months of the year in Vancouver and the rest in Onomichi.

When she is in Japan, she directs films with a crew and producer based in Onomichi. She has won several awards for her film work, which includes the 2011 Nikkei Place Community Award she received in September for her “exemplified leadership, philanthropy or service to the Nikkei community” in Canada.

Born and raised on a potato farm owned by her parents in Rainier, in Alberta Province, Ohama went on to study political science and history at a university in Canada. Originally, she aspired to a career in law, but decided to change her course and studied fine arts and education.

After a teaching career in Quebec and Ontario for several years, Ohama moved to the west coast of Canada and started her career in visual arts and film, directing her first movie in 1992.

One of the themes that she pursued as a director was her Japanese roots. In 2001, she directed a film titled “Obaachan’s Garden” — a half documentary-half drama about her grandmother. In the film, which was shown in 16 Japanese cities in 2003, she traces her family history by looking closely into the life of her Onomichi-born grandmother.

Through interviewing her grandmother for the film, Ohama says she found out about the internment of Japanese-Canadians during World War II.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii in 1941, Japanese-Canadians were interned by the federal government and deprived of all their assets and properties because “they were considered as enemies,” said Ohama.

Over 20,000 Japanese-Canadians were placed in detention camps and relocation centers. Ohama’s grandparents’ family was relocated from British Columbia to a farm in Manitoba.

She says she never knew about this, as she didn’t learn about it at school or hear any of her family members talk about it.

“It wasn’t a proud thing to talk about. The Canadian government didn’t want to put it in the books in schools, because it wasn’t a proud thing to do. Now it’s (taught) in schools, and that’s good,” she said.

“Maybe racial discrimination can’t happen to other nationalities if we admit it,” she added.

When she was growing up, Ohama said that she was punished by her parents if she spoke in Japanese.

“I was trained or brainwashed (to think) it’s really bad to say Japanese words — like saying a swear word. I used to choke and cough whenever I had to say a Japanese word,” she said.

“After the sansei is born, the nisei think, ‘OK, sansei is never going to experience that fear (of internment). Sansei is going to be English-Canadian, not Japanese. They thought they could educate us to be more English-Canadian,” Ohama said.

Later, after visiting Onomichi several times, Ohama wanted to learn to speak Japanese, so she attended a Japanese class in Vancouver.

At the beginning, she was still nervous and scared, but after three months, she says she managed to speak without choking.

“No choking and coughing for the first time! Actually, I had tears in my eyes, because finally — finally — I could believe that it was OK to be Japanese,” she said.

“Somewhere I had a memory in my childhood that it’s bad to be Japanese. Being able to speak without pain was a very wonderful feeling,” she added.

Ohama noted that she found out through her research in Onomichi that her grandmother, who died in 2003 at the age of 104, had a secret life back in Japan before emigrating to Canada.

Before coming to Canada in 1923, her grandmother had been married to a man in Onomichi, and had three children — two daughters and a son. The son died soon after he was born, and so she was forced to divorce her husband by her in-laws.

“My grandmother was sold to Canada as a picture bride (to be married through an exchange of photographs) by her in-laws. She went to live in a fishing village in Steveston, British Columbia,” Ohama said.

But she decided not to marry the man after meeting him “because she did not like his looks and also she was still in love with her ex-husband,” Ohama said. She took on several jobs and worked hard for a few years to pay back the money for which she was sold.

She later married a Japanese-Canadian that she was introduced to by an acquaintance and had six children, including Ohama’s mother.

Ohama’s first visit to Japan was in 1999 to do research for the film about her grandmother in Onomichi.

“There was something about Onomichi I liked from the very first day. It felt homey. I think I was able to feel my ‘Japaneseness’ inside me, because it’s very strong inside me,” she added.

Ohama says that she sometimes feels like she has no country that she can call her home.

“I’m sort of in the middle (of Canada and Japan). I feel like I’m stuck in the middle of the ocean,” she said.

“In Canada, it has always felt foreign. In Canada, I’m considered Canadian, but when I was younger, I was still considered foreign — from the first look. In Japan, it always feels ‘not foreign,’ but I’m considered a foreigner,” she added.

She stressed that being Japanese-Canadian “puts you in a unique position — to may be do some things for both Japan and Canada that other people are not in the position to do.”

“I really feel very grateful that my grandmother’s blood is in me, and that through my work with grandmother, I discovered my Japanese heritage and something natural that I’m born with — my DNA,” she said.

“I’m very grateful to the people in Onomichi that support my work, and support my love of Onomichi and Japan.”

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