It is July 4, 1942, months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. A 17-year-old girl named Yuki and her family leave their home in Vancouver for the last time.
Like thousands of other Japanese-Canadians, they are forced inland by the Canadian government under the War Measures Act to internment camps in eastern British Columbia.
When Yuki and her family arrive in the old silver mining town of Slocan, they find harsh, cramped conditions.
“We know how the country sees us. The signs in Vancouver told us we were hated. Since we’ve been here, nothing has changed. The newspapers tell us so. Politicians say so,” an excerpt from Yuki’s diary reads.
This depiction of a dark chapter in Canadian history is the subject of “East of the Rockies,” an interactive, augmented reality storytelling app launched on March 1.
Yuki is a second-generation Japanese-Canadian girl, and her story — a 50-minute journey through memories and words — is narrated by her granddaughter Anne, who reads Yuki’s diaries in the present day. The characters are fictional, but the history is behind the tale is true.
During World War II, Vancouver’s Japantown neighborhood was forcibly emptied. More than 21,000 Japanese-Canadians were sent inland to internment camps, sugar beet farms, prisoner of war camps and other holding places. All Japanese-Canadian property — farms, fishing boats, houses and businesses — were seized and later sold by the Canadian government. For years after the war, Japanese-Canadians were not allowed to return to the British Columbia coast.
In “East of the Rockies,” users can see a 3D rendering of Yuki’s story on devices pointed at a flat surface. It works best on a table or desk the user can move around easily. The story advances as the user taps and swipes glowing objects to have characters perform chores and actions such as turning on a record player. There is also a non-augmented reality version.
“From a storytelling perspective it’s kind of like a bigger metaphor to see this kind of injustice or story play out in your own environment,” says Jason Legge, co-director of the app, which was coproduced by design studio Jam3 and the National Film Board of Canada.
Yuki’s story was written by celebrated Japanese-Canadian author Joy Kogawa, who was herself interned in Slocan, British Columbia, as a child during World War II.
“Dirk (van Ginkel, co-director) and I were looking for a project to do around Canada 150,” Legge says, explaining how “East of the Rockies” was conceived as a timely project related to the 150th anniversary of Canada in 2017.
“There was a lot of rah rah rah; very positive stuff about Canada. It was like ‘Canada the beautiful,'” he says. This led to a conversation about the darker parts of Canada’s World War II history. That, in turn, sparked the idea of creating an interactive app to teach others about the Japanese-Canadian internment and its aftermath.
Legge had read Kogawa’s semi-autobiographical book “Obasan,” years before, which he says taught him the most about the Japanese-Canadian internment.
After brainstorming the general storyline of the app, he and van Ginkel reached out to Kogawa, who says she “leapt” at the opportunity to rewrite the app’s script, even though she had never done a project like it before.
“It’s not a novel, it’s not a documentary,” says Kogawa, pointing out that using an app for the story has both strong and weak points. “But it’s a presentation of a piece of history and I hope that it will be helpful.”
To narrate and serve as the voice of Yuki’s granddaughter, Anne, the team brought in Kogawa’s real-life grandchild, Anne Canute.
“I think the fact that (the app is) interactive means that it really demands attention,” says Canute. “You have to make choices, you have to interact with the story.”
A strong theme throughout the app’s storyline is that despite their treatment during the war, there is an enduring love for Canada by both first- and second-generation Japanese-Canadians.
“Most of these people who were interned, they wouldn’t have (had) that kind of belonging in Japan either, because they had been in Canada for so long. Canada was home,” Canute says. “So really, what could they do besides be intensely loyal to their home?”
Yet the sad reality of Canada’s dispersal policy for Japanese-Canadians is that it was very successful. There is no Japantown in Canada now. After the war, the Canadian government pressured Japanese-Canadians — whose confiscated property had not been returned — to choose deportation to Japan. In the end, about 4,000 left Canada.
“Canada wanted to disappear us altogether,” Kogawa says. Truth, she says, needs to be remembered and people need to be healed of past wounds. “And you cannot be healed without truth.”
Canute hopes that sharing such stories will not only educate viewers about mistakes of the past, but also that “by bringing them to light we can reflect on them and we can, most importantly, not repeat them.”
“East of the Rockies” is now available for $2.99 in English and French on Apple’s App Store, and playable on iPhones that support the app’s augmented reality system (iOS 6 or newer) and iPad Pros. Japanese and Mandarin subtitled versions are planned for release before the end of the year.