05/12/2019 22:09 EDT | Updated 05/14/2019 14:45 EDT

The Suitcase Project Personalizes History Of Japanese Internment

Japanese internment happened decades ago. The impact still resonates.

What would you take with you if you only had 24 to 48 hours to pack your most important belongings into one suitcase?

That's the question Canadian photographer Kayla Isomura asked her subjects for The Suitcase Project — and it's a question that has new relevance, threading together a part of Canada's racist history with the current global crisis of displacement and increasingly insular policies in the U.S.

Isomura found 83 people — all fourth- or fifth-generation Canadians and Americans of Japanese descent — to share what they would pack if they were suddenly forced into an internment camp, just as thousands were during the Second World War.

Kayla Isomura
Some of the belongings Kayla Isomura chose to pack for her Suitcase Project.

After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, the U.S. and Canadian governments detained and then interned thousands of ethnic Japanese people on the West Coast, in the name of "national security." Without any due process, they were treated as prisoners and sent to harsh camps with little food or heat. Their homes, businesses and possessions were sold.

The majority of the 22,000 people interned in Canada were born in the country. Isomura's grandparents and great-grandparents were interned in B.C.

What would that moment have looked like

Isomura, 24, said her project was sparked after she returned from a backpacking trip a few years ago.

"I got comments from people who were like 'Wow, it's amazing you could just live in a tent for a few months and live out of your backpack,'" she said, making her think about her family's history with being forced to take what you could carry into an unknown future.

Kayla Isomura
Kayla Isomura's own portrait for her Suitcase Project.

"[I was] kind of trying to imagine in my head what would that moment have looked like for people in 1942 when they were actually leaving their homes."

The Suitcase Project resulted in dozens of portraits of people ranging in age from six months to 51 years, as well as audio and interview components.

Laura Fukumoto, 29, who grew up in Toronto but now lives in Vancouver, said she participated as a way to explore her family history.

"This project is kind of a really accessible way to open up that conversation and say, 'This did happen, it was in recent memory.' My grandmother doesn't talk about it very often but she's 98 years old," Fukumoto told HuffPost Canada.

"It's one of those things where I can then go to my family picnic ... and sort of raise that conversation with my cousins and they're really excited and eager to also have those conversations because it's something we've never talked about before."

Kayla Isomura
A portrait of Laura Fukumoto for the Suitcase Project.

The packing assignment was an interesting exercise for Fukumoto. Along with leaving her passport and marriage licence behind, she nearly forgot to pack food for a hypothetical three-day journey — but she did remember a prized possession: a fur coat.

"I really love that coat but it's not practical," she admitted.

Resonance with the project has come from different viewpoints.

"Reminded me a lot of how I [fled] my home to Canada. Thank you so much for putting this together, I'm in tears," said a Russian refugee, according to the project's website.

Watch: A participant, Sylvie, shares why she packed what she did. Story continues below.

Isomura noted that Canadians tend to respond to her project by wanting more education in school curriculums about the Japanese internment, while Americans connected that piece of history to ongoing issues like the escalation in deportations and the ban on people from certain Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S.

Library and Archives Canada
A Japanese-Canadian family being relocated in British Columbia in 1942.

"The overarching conversation for me is that it can happen to any subgroup, any minority group if you don't have such strong boundaries against that. So I think this creates some sort of like a humanization to that history," Fukumoto said.

"Whenever I hear somebody's story or somebody's family story of how they were displaced it enrages me, and I hope that other people similarly feel that kind of enragement that we continue to create databases of people because for some reason we feel threatened by them as subgroups ... and really see how that plays out in the world and how those systems recreate themselves in present day."

Library and Archives Canada
Japanese-Canadian fishermen are questioned after having their boat confiscated by a Royal Canadian Navy Officer in this undated photo.

In 1988, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney apologized to Japanese Canadians and their families for the internment, and unveiled a $300-million compensation package.

The Suitcase Project was first exhibited at the Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre in Burnaby, B.C. in 2018. It now travels to other locations, and has recently been on display in Vancouver and Seattle.

It will be exhibited at the Japanese Garden Society in Salt Spring Island, B.C. this fall.

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