2018 · Nikkei National Museum

The Suitcase Project

The Suitcase Project asks fourth and fifth-generation Japanese Canadians and Americans what they would pack if uprooted from their homes at a moment’s notice.

While these descendants of the internment and incarceration may never have to endure the same forced uprooting as their ancestors, Kayla Isomura’s work examines how they and those descended from families who experienced other forms of discrimination, remain affected by this history today through a series of photographs, short films and interviews.

Over the course of nearly three months, more than 80 subjects ranging in age and background shared their stories from cities in British Columbia, Canada and Washington, USA.

Self-portrait (2017) for The Suitcase Project

I never knew what my grandparents and great grandparents packed with them during the internment and incarceration of Japanese Canadians in 1942. They died before I could hear their own accounts of this history, yet the premise of The Suitcase Project began with my curiosity about this part of their lives. What challenges did they face when assembling their baggage? What were they forced to leave behind?

In early 2018, I took these questions to members of the younger generations of Japanese Canadians and Americans. More than 80 individuals were photographed and interviewed across Greater Vancouver, Vancouver Island, and Western Washington, the majority identifying as yonsei or gosei (fourth or fifth generation).

Each participant was given 24 to 48 hours notice to prepare their belongings, receiving instructions based on original documents distributed to Japanese Canadians and Americans during the Second World War. I wanted to discover how each participant would interpret the document they received. This process quickly turned into a conversation about the family narratives and life experiences of these individuals, and how this history continues to prevail more than 75 years later.

Listening to each participant share their stories has been a powerful experience. Many of us share similar narratives, but some cast contrasting perspectives on how this history has played a role in their lives. Regardless, our stories are complex and layered, and there is no one way to define those of us who belong to these generations.

I am beyond thankful for these stories and to these individuals for allowing me into their homes and spaces. Organizing and producing this project was exhausting, but the end product has been invaluable.

Since learning of my family’s internment, I have spent the last few years constructing my own identity as a yonsei, and each encounter I have with this history continues to contribute to that. As I open this exhibit and close the chapter of discovery that coincided with its creation, I look forward to carrying these conversations forward into our immediate and broader communities.

To those who have supported and continue to support this work, thank you.

Excerpt, June 2018.