When I was a kid, my childhood friend Phyllis gave me a Japanese doll in a tiny glass case. It was a small plastic woman with a white plastic face, not even brown skinned, wearing a typical silk kimono. I can’t recall now what colour the kimono was. I think it was red. It was probably made in China even though the gift was given in the 1960s. The case stood about six inches tall. A mirror on the inside back of the display case highlighted the back of the kimono. And there was that little knapsack-styled bulge on the back of the kimono, the name of which I had to look up and have now discovered is divided into many segments: Senui. Obiyama. Otaiko. Tare.
I kept that case on my dresser for years. It sat in an esteemed place where I could look inside it every day. And there was something symbolic about part of my white face, looming in comparison to the doll’s, reflecting back at me from behind the little figurine.
Finally, and I don’t even recall when, after so many moves, I finally let it go. It might have been in my 30s or 40s. I do recall the outside plastic was beginning to peel away and brown stains were forming on the back of the little silver box and that contributed to my decision. When it comes to stuff, I’m pretty good at letting go, too good in fact, inevitably as an afterthought years later wishing I could examine specific things long gone just one more time.
Phyllis used to tell me that I was more Japanese than she was, my interest in all things Japanese greater than hers at the time. I’m not sure what it was exactly that appealed to me so much. Was it just viva la difference? Was it how everything in Japanese culture seems to be done with such pristine consideration and exactness and that way of being is so opposite to my somewhat fractured, spontaneous dabbling? Was it that secrets and privacy dot Japanese culture and who doesn’t love a secret, not in the form of gossip, but in the form of hiding places? Spaces that beckons us with the promise of mystery across a divide. The folds in origami. The aromatic and culinary delights lying in wait inside bento boxes? The fine manipulations of rolls to create sushi with the delectable tastes snugly molded into seaweed rugs.
So when I heard about this exhibit called Hope Chests at the Burnaby Art Gallery, I knew I wanted to go. Saturday afternoon, the artist Michiko Suzuki was there. A small group gathered round and she spoke in Japanese dropping in English phrases doing her best to explain through an interpreter about this unique work. We followed her from one fabric tent to the next as she explained a little about each girl she had chosen and the rationale for the colours of the girls’ hope chests and their interests.
There was something so delightful in the gentle pulling back of the panels on the white fabric tents, each girl’s image on the front, and peering inside to where the bottom part of the hope chests lay. A collage of images and fabric represented what the artist had learned about each adolescent girl, eight girls in total.
The project began from a much sadder place. The artist was thinking of young girls in the sex trade in S.E. Asia (Cambodia specifically) whose hopes for their futures have been so darkened and dashed and of the girls in Fukushima whose exposure to radiation has impacted their futures through others’ perceptions of them, almost as if they may be Japan’s untouchables.
If you live nearby, it’s definitely worth a visit to June 12th, 2016. Michiko Suzuki is a well known print maker in Japan. Her husband, Wayne Eastcott, also a printmaker, is originally from Trail, B.C. They split their time between Vancouver and Tokyo where the exhibit will go next.