The Story Behind the Japantown Mural
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The Story Behind the Japantown Mural

New video provides a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of a unique piece of street art.

It’s possible you’ve already seen it while walking along Queen West: a large mural featuring things like giant robots, mountains, flowers, and colourful patterns, executed with skills drawn from sources as diverse as traditional Japanese painting and anime. It takes up the entire side of a building at Queen West and Claremont—and it’s no accident that building is home to Sanko Trading Co, which, in operation now since 1968, is one of the oldest Japanese-Canadian-owned businesses in the city.

And as well as being an artistic enterprise, the project represents an exercise in community-building: “My mandate is to create projects that get young Japanese Canadians involved in the community—to get a dialogue going,” says Ken Galloway, creative director of the Japantown project. “There are two really unique groups that make up the Japanese-Canadian community,” he explained. “There’s an influx of young people here for working holidays, and then there are the generations who have been here since well before World War II, who don’t speak any Japanese.” And those in the latter group, because of various factors associated with WWII internment and resettlement, have fanned out. “People have gradually lost touch with each other,” Galloway says.

He and five other young Japanese artists—Timothy Fukakusa, Mitsuo Kimura, Takashi Iwasaki, Darcy Obokata, and Shogo Okada—used the mural project as an opportunity to provide a physical presence for the community in a city without a Japantown, and to explore various dimensions of Japanese-Canadian identity through their art. Not that this eclectic, vivid work is didactic or suggestive of a single, unified cultural vision, though: “The intent here wasn’t to create concrete definitions of what it means to be Japanese Canadian,” says Galloway, “but to create a dialogue and bring people together by exchanging ideas through imagery.”

So that’s why we find anime-inspired images alongside techniques drawn from traditional painting—why there are robots and girls and flowers and mountains, executed in different styles. The mural doesn’t communicate a clear and consistent notion of what the Japanese-Canadian community is or should be, but instead provides a space in which questions of identity, belonging, and self-definition can be explored—colourfully, creatively, and often irreverently.

The mural was completed this winter, and the video above—produced by the National Association of Japanese Canadians, in association with the Toronto Arts Council—introduces us to the artists and their inspirations, and documents the creation of both an art work and a lively and ongoing conversation about collaboration and community.