Tsunagu/Connect in Orkney 2-13 May 2023

Published on Apr 27, 2023

Orkney Japan Association (OJA), in collaboration with the Consulate General of Japan in Edinburgh with generous support from Orkney Library & Archive presents “Tsunagu” (“Connect”).

This is an exhibition created by New Earth Theatre as part of a bigger oral history project to tell the stories of Japanese women who settled in the UK since 1945. It will be on display at the Library in Kirkwall from 2-13 May (please note library opening hours; closed Sunday 7 May and bank holiday 8 May), and is made up of 20 panels with the individual stories, sound clips and a short film of children interviewing their mothers. These personal stories raise large themes that are very relevant today – immigration, identity, belonging, prejudice, loneliness – because while they are about Japanese women who came to the UK, the experiences they describe will be recognisable for many others who have found their way to new countries. The reasons they came, and the reasons they stayed are many and varied, but they all had to find their way in a new place, maybe learn a new language, and make a new life. The exhibition is supplemented with teaching resources for schools that explore these themes in a broader context.

OJA first connected to New Earth Theatre at a conference in Edinburgh last year, where many stories were told of how Scotland and Japan connect including how Henry Scharbau, grandfather of the 11th Laird of Breckness, contributed to the modernisation of Japan, and how this group of Japanese women came to live in the UK just about a hundred years later.

As it turned out, there were several connections to Orkney even in that group of 20 women. One is the story of Akemi Tanaka, whose daughter Rimika Solloway shares some memories:

“I attended Hope Primary School between 1996-1998 and lived on Burray with my Granny and Grancha. I had only known Japan before then, but the change from one island community to another wasn’t a big deal for me as I was only seven years old. In fact, I loved the islands and having the freedom as a child to roam the links with my two cats Puss and Kitt. For my mother, Akemi Tanaka, I imagine things were very different. The language was probably the easiest thing to master, as English is taught as part of the curriculum in Japan. What I mean is: the cultural differences must have been difficult for her to get used to. In Japan we take our shoes off in the home, we must bring gifts when we visit each other’s homes, we eat by picking up our small bowls by hand and using chopsticks.

Because I was a child, I was learning new things all the time, but for my mother in her late thirties things would have been different to what she was used to. The way people interacted and got along would not so easily been understood by her. This is why I love the exhibition Tsunagu/Connect. It tells the stories of Japanese women who made this daunting cultural leap from one way to another. I didn’t know how difficult this was (or what my mother even thought at the time) because I was busy making friends and integrating pretty easily. But now, looking back I think my mother must have felt bewildered and sometimes lonely, missing her family and friends in Japan, but also, I think she would have thought she made the right decision coming to the UK to settle and start a different kind of life here.

Akemi Tanaka went on to be a Japanese language and cultural lecturer, and an author of the Japanese lifestyle book The Power of Chowa. She told me she would never have done these things without moving here and taking that leap.”

As OJA, our main focus is in fostering and creating links between Orkney and Japan, especially ones that may benefit young people here. We hope that an exhibition like this will be another way to highlight that folk of all kinds have lots in common and can learn from each other’s experiences rather than focusing on where they differ or disagree.

Following on from our Cranes for Ukraine project last year, we would like to invite folk who visit the exhibition to try their hand at making an origami crane for peace. There will also be a donation box, with proceeds going to the DEC Humanitarian Appeal for Ukraine, as before.

And finally, stories are an important part of Orkney’s culture and heritage, and new stories are being added all the time. If the exhibition sparks a memory or a thought and visitors would like to share that story, please send it to us at info@orkneyjapan.com.