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NAJC President Terumi Kuwada Interview

Come this fall, Terumi Kuwada, 63, the current National Association of Japanese Canadians (NAJC) will be stepping down to make way for her successor.

As a Canadian community at a crossroads, it’s important for us to be proud of the contributions of Nikkei throughout Canada’s history towards helping build this nation’s sense of who and what it is as a multinational haven that is the envy of the world. However, as we have, to a certain extent, moved beyond the days of ‘open’ racism towards our community, beyond internment and into a new millennium, we have, largely lost sense of what and what we are as a community.

Memberships at our fractured cultural centers across the country are on the decline; young Nikkei largely lack any interest in their parents and grandparents experiences; we’re not listening closely enough to the voices of the post-World War Two generations who have immigrated from Japan. Being the NAJC president has remarkable challenges. Certainly, while you can’t force people to belong to a community, you do have to give them compelling reasons for wanting to be a member of it.

The following is an interview conducted via the internet in June and July.

– Can I begin by asking you about your involvement with the Nikkei community?

My family was sent to Winnipeg from Tashme in 1946, and my father became one of the community leaders, responsible for the building of the Manitoba Buddhist Church and the establishment of the Manitoba Judo Club, and many other activities related to community development. Our family was very involved in various community activities, and I recall being engaged with the community from a very young age. I served on the MJCCA as a young adult and later was president for two terms, in the early ‘p90s and then again in 2000. I joined the Manitoba Redress Committee in 1986 and was a member of the NAJC Redress Settlement Committee and NAJC Human Rights Committee following the Redress Settlement.

My father, Hisao (Henry), came to Canada when he was 19 years old, at the request of an aunt who needed assistance with farming duties. He was trained as a carpenter in Japan and soon left the farm to work in his chosen trade. My mother, Toki, was born in Eburne, B. C. and worked in the canneries, then as a domestic in a physician’ps home and also assisted her sister in her grocery store. My parents married in 1936. In 1942, my mother and older sister were sent to Tashme while my father was sent to the Jasper Road camps. Since he was a Japanese National he was considered a higher risk to security. My other sister and brother were born in the internment camp. Following the war, and our dispersal to Winnipeg, my parents worked diligently to make a life for us as a family and contributed much to the community. I was born in Winnipeg.

My father established his own construction company in 1950, ‘Kuwada Construction Co. Ltd.’ My parents were very industrious, hard working and dedicated individuals and as such, provided my siblings and myself with a very stable and nurturing environment in which to grow up. My father stressed to all of us the importance of a university education and to be the best we could be. He made it possible for us to have many opportunities. My parents were very mindful of their civic duties and tried in their own way to contribute to the life and times of the Japanese Canadian community, as well as enhancing relations between Canada and Japan. In the early ‘60s, my father sponsored an amateur hockey team from Japan to play an amateur hockey team in Winnipeg and in Kenora. He was later honoured by the patron of the Japan hockey team when my parents visited Japan in the 1970s. The proceeds of the hockey game in Winnipeg were all donated to the Amateur Hockey Association of Winnipeg and was considered to be the biggest private donation at the time. My father received a medal from the Government of Japan, “Sixth Order of the Rising Sun,” in 1986, for all of his achievements in promoting relations between Canada and Japan. My father passed away in 1989, while my mother passed away in 1996.

My siblings and I have enjoyed very fruitful careers, thanks in part, to the support and guidance of our parents. Now my two sisters and myself are retired, they from the education professions and myself from social work. My brother remains very active in his work as a medical researcher/professor at an American university.

– By what steps did you become president of the NAJC?

I have been involved with the Manitoba Japanese Canadian community for many years and served two terms as President and currently sit as a member of the board. The MJCCA was one of the centres involved in the Redress movement and I sat on the Manitoba Redress Committee. After the Redress settlement, the NAJC established the Redress Settlement Committee and the Human Rights Committee, both committees that I have sat on. Also, I was a member of the Aboriginal Task Force in the early ‘90s. I have also sat on special committees, like the Restructuring Committee and Human Rights Guidelines Committee. As president of the MJCCA for two terms, I did sit on the NAJC council at the AGMs. In 2006, I was acclaimed as one of the Directors of the NAJC board, and shortly thereafter was appointed to the position of Secretary. In 2008, I was acclaimed as president.

Terumi with Canada's Governor General, Michaelle Jean, who steps down on October 1, 2010

– Are you running again as NAJC president?

I have chosen to step down as president of the NAJC, when my term expires in October. Due to personal reasons, I feel that this will be the best decision for myself and my family.

– What kind of leader is needed to lead the NAJC at this point in our history?

All the past presidents have contributed in different ways to the NAJC, but it is ultimately, the membership that will determine the kind of leader that is needed in 2010, one that will fulfill the mandate of the NAJC, listen to their concerns and work together for the benefit of all.

– What are the most pressing issues facing the Canadian Nikkei community?

The Japanese Canadian community has changed significantly over the past number of years, with a high intermarriage rate, aging population and other demographic factors that have impacted our communities. Most communities are concerned about the lack of volunteers, of youth involvement and services to the elderly. Many newcomers who have arrived from Japan in significant numbers, especially in Vancouver and Toronto, have joined in community activities and have much to offer. The ability of all of us to address a variety of needs and issues continues to be a challenge to the communities.

– How has the NAJC been dealing with these issues?

For the past few years, the NAJC has made community development, a priority. We initiated a pilot project that invited our membership to consider a project that met community needs. Funds were then available for the members to cover these costs to a maximum of $2000. A website project a few years ago was intended to increase communication amongst the member organizations to facilitate sharing ideas and resources. Unfortunately this has taken longer than anticipated.

The Endowment Fund continues to be a significant resource to the Japanese Canadian Community in offering support to individuals, groups and organizations that apply for funding for various projects of importance to the community. There is an amazing amount of talent and skills within our communities and it is these innovative projects that add much quality to the life of the Japanese Canadian community.

– What challenges does the NAJC face as an organization?

NAJC as a voluntary not for profit organization has experienced limitations in effectively addressing all aspects of its mission, visions and mandate, due in part to its structure. A few years ago, a proposal was made to create an Executive Director’s position for the purpose of ensuring that the NAJC will be able to consistently address and employ sound practices to its programs and activities. The President of the NAJC is responsible for operations and governance, which can be quite extensive in terms of time and energy. The NAJC has worked hard to establish an honourable place in Canadian history. It is important to maintain the integrity and the significance of our work. It is my opinion that this will require changes in the structure.

– What do you think our place in Canadian history is now? Does there need to be more of an emphasis on education e.g., getting our internment/immigrant story on to high school curriculums across the country?

The NAJC has been involved in a variety of endeavours where the history of Japanese Canadians needs to be presented in an accurate and appropriate manner—one such example is the current discussions taking place with the Canadian War Museum. An important part of telling our story is educating young students about our history in Canada. The NAJC has assisted in the development of resource materials/curriculum modules in schools that document and teach the history of Japanese Canadians. The NAJC Endowment Fund has also supported projects that teach young children/students about the history of Japanese Canadians in a format that is easily understood (e.g., plays).

– What kind of national Canadian Nikkei community do you envision?

It is difficult to know. Many ethnic communities in Canada have experienced similar changes and question what we need to do to preserve our culture and heritage. I believe that we have begun the process of preserving our history with the many activities/workshops/conferences that have been undertaken in the past few years. Knowing that our population is aging and that the generation that endured one of the most devastating periods in Canadian history are becoming less able to be engaged in community activities, we must be vigilant in ensuring that their stories are told in a precise manner.

The future involves change for all of us. We need to be responsive to those changes and to view change not as a crisis, but an opportunity.

– What is the place of the Shin Ijusha in the next generation of the NAJC? How do we get young Nikkei interested in their heritage?

The Shin Ijusha, like many immigrants, come to Canada for a variety of reasons, that may or may not involve participation in the Japanese Canadian communities. It is an individual choice. It is at the same time, important that the JC communities make it relevant and inviting for the Shin Ijusha to engage with the JC communities as all of us can benefit from the diversity amongst us.

At the 20th Anniversary of Redress conference in 2008, many young Nikkei attended as participants on a Youth Panel, as well as part of the larger audience. We heard many say that this was the first time they attended such an event and how much it meant to them. It is through events and opportunities such as these that the young Nikkei can participate and learn more of their heritage.

– Who are your Nikkei heroes?

My parents and the generation that were forced into unspeakable conditions during WWII and came out of it with spirit and conviction to make a better life for their families and to rebuild their communities. My parents taught me the true meaning of ‘gaman’.

– Do you have a personal motto that sums up your hopes for the Nikkei community?

That would be: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” This motto of all working together, for the good of all, is my hope for the future of the Nikkei community.

I would like to take the liberty of saying ‘thank you very much’ for your family’s remarkable dedication towards the building of the Nikkei community in Winnipeg and nationally.

Otsukarei samadeshita. Arigato gozaimashita!

© 2010 Norm Ibuki

Canada Japanese Canadian NAJC National Association of Japanese Canadians