Unlike the cathedral, Nikkei Place, the National Nikkei Museum and Heritage Centre, is a rather impressive building, set in an attractive garden on a quiet suburban Burnaby street. Yet what’s inside is something of a disappointment.
Beyond the nice garden, elegant façade, and airy foyer, the building is essentially little more than a souped-up community centre, with the usual array of rooms to rent at prices we are assured give excellent value for money.
The museum itself is simply a small room off the foyer, and apparently there’s no permanent collection. The exhibition when we visited was “Tenugui: Design Excellence in Japanese Daily Life,” a display of Japanese cotton hand towels accompanied by a short video, some prints in which these towels feature, and a couple of other bits and bobs.
The exhibition is pretty and informative enough, don’t get me wrong. It takes an everyday object that can no doubt easily get overlooked, and shows both the multitude of its uses (hand towel, headscarf, glass cleaner, handkerchief…) and the way in which its simple but elegant motifs, usually either abstract (dots, circles, lines) or drawn from nature (flowers, grasses, seeds, suns), always exceed its utilitarian functions. This is a design philosophy of unobtrusive adornment: an apparent contradiction in terms that structures everyday life in Japan.
But the strange thing is that this is indeed an exhibition about Japan. Given that we are at the Japanese Canadian National Museum, it’s odd that there’s no attempt to address the Canadianness of the Japanese Canadian experience. What new uses or meaning accrete around tenugui outside of Japan? What new motifs appear as the cloth is transculturated or appropriated into other visual traditions? (There was at least one design with penguins; are there any with polar bears, beavers, or hockey pucks?)
In short, instead of providing a window into “the history of Japanese Canadians” (as the museum’s mission statement has it), we have instead a dehistoricized celebration of one small remnant of the Japanese motherland. It’s as though the hand towels themselves, with their ordered repetitions, were a synecdoche for a vision of Japanese culture in its entirety as always the same, intact in all its incarnations.
It’s not surprising that a diasporic community should have such a nostalgic and idealized vision of its cultural roots. But I’m not sure why it should be enshrined so uncritically in an institution that has at other times had so much more interesting things to say.