LONDON – An endeavor called the Wasurena-gusa (Forget-Me-Not) Project, documenting the video testimonials of Japanese who emigrated to Britain after World War II, has been underway to preserve their memories for future generations.
Aptly named after the flower known as a symbol of constancy, the project aims to record the history of the Japanese community in interviews, explaining the motivations and daily lives of the first wave of Japanese who made Britain their home from the 1950s onward.
“People who came to Britain after the war weren’t part of a mass movement like to Brazil. They came on their own, individually,” Momoko Williams, who heads the project organized by the Japan Association in the U.K., said in a recent interview.
“They seem to be people who didn’t accept Japanese norms at the time, to follow the ordinary route and get an ordinary job,” said Williams, 73.
There were those who married Britons, and there were Japanese business expatriates who decided to stay, while others single-handedly built their own businesses from scratch in a new land.
Whatever the hardships they faced, the Japanese community that formed in Britain during those times varied widely in occupation, from monks to musicians, to acupuncturists and people who started the first local Japanese restaurants.
With the boom of the Japanese economy during the 1960s, traveling overseas became easier — although it involved weeks of being at sea or using the railway. Restrictions on passports were relaxed, and Japan took the international stage with the success of hosting the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
By interviewing those who made the long journey to create a life far away from home, Williams hopes the stories of ordinary folks, which tend to get overlooked, will be remembered.
“Usually when ordinary people pass away, they aren’t recorded in history, or recorded in either country, even though they have such fascinating stories,” she said.
The subjects for the interviews focus mainly on the pioneers. They are asked to recall the hardships of when they arrived in Britain and their reasons for moving there.
Two edited versions, one approximately 30 minutes long in Japanese and a shorter version of about five minutes, which includes English subtitles, have been uploaded on the Wasurena-gusa website.
Williams has recorded over 60 testimonials since the project started about three years ago. Her goal is to interview 100 people over five years. Ultimately, the plan in the future is for the video footage to be used as a resource for academics and researchers.
The interview subjects tend to view the project as an opportunity to reflect on their first years in Britain. For some, the videos have become a way to remember their relatives and friends, some of whom have passed away since being interviewed.
Last November, Williams interviewed Masaaki Takashima, 65, and his wife, Kiyoko, 63, at their residence in a London suburb.
The Aomori natives lived as expats in central Manchester for 22 years before returning to Japan once and coming back to Britain where their children reside to live in retirement in 2016. Compared with when they first arrived, it seems like a dream that they now can buy Japanese rice at supermarkets in Britain, they said.
In the 1950s, the Japanese population in Britain was in the hundreds. Now it is estimated to be around 67,000.
Williams herself has personal experience of what it was like in Britain for someone coming from Japan over 50 years ago; she arrived in 1966, traveling on the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Originally from Kumamoto Prefecture, she met a British man while at university who eventually became her husband and decided to join another friend who wanted to travel abroad. It was a heady time when the London-based Mod subculture was just taking root.
“London was at its height when I first arrived,” she recalled. “I had long hair like Yoko Ono and Mary Quant was in fashion. There wasn’t any smog anymore, but the buildings were black.”
She said, “You could only phone home once a year. I went back maybe once every three or four years, but there are some who haven’t been back to Japan in 50, 60 years.
“You don’t consider it bravery, but I couldn’t imagine (doing) it now. That’s the power of youth,” she reflected.
Williams believes there isn’t much of a difference between the two countries now, but “only because the pioneers back then responded to the needs of the growing Japanese community. People who come over nowadays don’t know about this history,” she said.
Some of the interviews from the project have been shown in public screenings, most recently at an event organized by the Japan Society in London.
Japan Society Chief Director Heidi Potter considers the project a “valuable initiative” that tells the story of the Japanese community in Britain.
“The testimonies being recorded through the Wasurena-gusa project will be welcomed by all who are interested in the personal dimension of the U.K.-Japan relationship, be they scholars or family members,” Potter said.
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