Best of Vancouver 2011 communities: Japanese traditions bond diverse community
What is a Japanese Canadian?
The answer isn’t always as simple as you might think. And it may foreshadow the future of other visible-minority groups in Canada.
The question is one that visual artist Kaori Kasai faced when she moved here from Numazu, Japan, in 1994. “I felt really isolated. And I didn’t know who I was,” she tells the Straight over coffee in Chinatown. “I questioned myself, ‘Am I Japanese? Or Japanese-Canadian?’ And I felt really lonely.”
She joined the all-female drum ensemble Sawagi Taiko, and expressed her feelings through her paintings. Although she has designed the Powell Street Festival’s poster three times, it wasn’t until this year’s edition that she finally felt comfortable calling herself “Japanese Canadian”.
She feels like a part of the community now. But she has noticed that sometimes Japanese from Japan and those born in Canada circulate in different social strata in this city.
John Endo Greenaway, who has been the editor of the English-language Japanese-Canadian publication The Bulletin for the past 18 years, has observed this as well.
“The new immigrants are coming from a prosperous Japan and have a really different view, I think, of the world and their place in it, and I think probably their place in Canadian society,” he explains by phone. “The history that the established community shares is, they’re the descendants of the first immigrants, for the most part. They lived through the early struggle of the [Second World] war, the internment, the redress. I think there’s a bond there that’s created from a shared history.”
And what an extensive and complex history it is.
It’s 1877 and the first known Japanese immigrant to Canada, Manzo Nagano, arrives in New Westminster. When others follow, Steveston and Powell Street become the main settlements (the latter giving rise to Japantown). The swelling population sparks backlash: the 1907 anti-Asian riot hits Japanese and Chinese businesses, Japanese Canadians are repeatedly denied the franchise, Japanese-Canadian fishing licences are severely restricted.
Then comes the fateful morning of December 7, 1941: Japan bombs Pearl Harbor, Canada declares war on Japan, and the lives of over 23,300 coastal Nikkei (Japanese born or living outside of Japan) are irrevocably changed.
Mass evacuations of Canadian Nikkei away from B.C.’s coast commence. Men are sent to road camps. Women and children are shipped to detention camps in the Interior: Greenwood, New Denver, Slocan, Tashme, and more. Properties, businesses, boats, and belongings are confiscated. A campaign to move Japanese Canadians to Eastern Canada or repatriate them to Japan (even though the majority were Canadian-born) begins in 1945 and continues even after Japan surrenders.
It’s not until 1949 that Japanese Canadians gain full citizenship rights and the freedom to move throughout the country. As some of the dispersed community resettles in Vancouver, a quest begins as Japanese Canadians forge a political voice to fight for redress.
And after tireless efforts, they’re finally heard: a historic official apology and compensation are issued in 1988 by the Brian Mulroney government.
“The redress movement was a cathartic moment for the community,” Greenaway explains. “It definitely wasn’t unified in its approach to redress. But I think, in some cases, it forced people to talk about it, even if to say they didn’t want to talk about it. I think it brought up a lot of emotions in people that they didn’t want to face but sort of had to.”
Traces of this history are still evident in the community.
One such sign is geographic. The Vancouver Japanese Language School & Japanese Hall (which Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko visited in 2009) and the Vancouver Buddhist Temple are almost the last vestiges of a Japantown that once boasted everything from a baseball team and a bookstore to confectionaries and ofuro (communal bathhouses). Even Little Ginza, a stretch of businesses catering to Japanese tourists that thrived on Alberni Street particularly in the ’80s and ’90s, has evaporated. But you can now find Japanese culture intimately woven throughout Vancouver’s urban fabric, from downtown to UBC to the suburbs. (See below for more details.)
Another sign is the community’s demographics. According to the 2006 Canadian census, Japanese Canadians have the highest rate of interracial marriage, all visible-minority groups, at 75 percent. That explains why 43 percent of Japanese Canadians (37 percent in Vancouver) are of mixed heritage. That also explains why the community readily adopted the use of the Hawaiian term hapa (“person of interracial descent”).
“We’re going to take over,” Greenaway, himself a mix of Japanese and Caucasian heritage, says, chuckling. But it’s true. “You go to any [Japanese-Canadian] event and you can see if there’s any young people there, you can see the preponderance of hapa kids, that’s for sure.”
It’s another reason why the definition of “Japanese Canadian” isn’t simple. “I guess one of the things about being hapa is, to some degree, you can choose how you’re going to identify yourself,” Greenaway says.
Yet, in spite of all these various facets, the community knows how to pull together when it needs to in times of crisis. And this year, it did just that.
It’s Friday, March 11, 2011: a 9.0-magnitude undersea earthquake strikes off the coast of northeastern Japan, the most powerful recorded earthquake ever to hit the island nation. It’s only the start of a three-pronged catastrophe: tsunamis devastate the coastline, wiping entire towns off the map, and trigger meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear-power plant, one of the worst nuclear disasters in history.
Aftershocks hit this side of the Pacific in emotional waves.
Kasai, for example, says she was affected for a whole month. “The sad energy flowed everywhere, even Canada, or Japan, and I felt it,” she says. She had designed a PSF poster of a boy riding a surfboard on a Hokusai-inspired wave, but replaced it with an inspiring image of a boy grabbing the sun, a representation of the Japanese flag, while leaping over Oppenheimer Park. “I just wanted [to] cheer up everyone.”
Japanese and non-Japanese Vancouverites alike initiated numerous relief efforts, such as the B.C.–Japan Earthquake Relief Fund and Japan Love Donation Boxes. Among them was the Ganbare Japan! benefit concert at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on April 19. It featured 167 performers (including media personality Tetsuro “Shiggy” Shigematsu as cohost), all of whom donated their time and effort. More than $259,434 was raised for the Japanese and Canadian Red Cross. The finale featured 60 taiko drummers performing together for the first time. “It seemed to have sparked a new sense of camaraderie and collaboration within the taiko community,” Greenaway, a founding member of Katari Taiko, says.
It’s an example of the community’s propensity for harnessing transformative powers in the unlikeliest of circumstances. In the past, one of the most common expressions during the internment helped Japanese Canadians endure hardship: Shikata ga nai (“It can’t be helped”). But perhaps another expression better captures the community’s spirit, both past and present: Ganbatte (“Do your best”). It’s also fitting, as local Nikkei clearly contribute to the best of Vancouver.
Best fight for your rights
After redress was achieved, the community turned its political energies outward. In 1990, the Greater Vancouver Japanese Canadian Citizens’ Association formed the Human Rights Committee (jccabulletin-geppo.ca/0804-april-08/jcaa-human-rights-committee/ ) to “protect and promote the past, present, and future legal rights and democratic freedom of all persons in Canada regardless of race, religion, status or sex” (as stated in the 1985 JCCA constitution). The committee, which engages in advocacy and education, is a member of the B.C. Human Rights Coalition and Amnesty International. It’s worked with Chinese-Canadian, Muslim Canadian, and aboriginal communities, and addressed issues from LGBT concerns to racial profiling.
Most familiar faces
Among the ranks of notable Japanese Canadians, many claim Vancouver as home.
Author Joy Kogawa wrote an acclaimed fictional account of the internment, Obasan (1981), and a sequel about redress, Itsuka (1992). In 2006, the Land Conservancy of B.C. purchased her childhood home in Marpole and transformed it into a historic site that houses a writer-in-residence program.
B.C. Liberal North Vancouver–Lonsdale MLA Naomi Yamamoto made history in 2009 by becoming the first Japanese Canadian elected to B.C.’s provincial legislature. Professional ice-hockey player Paul Kariya, who played 15 seasons with the NHL, is also a North Shore Nikkei.
Local Nikkei have also taken to screen and stage, from actors Hiro Kanagawa and Kevan Ohtsji to Theatre Replacement artistic director Maiko Bae Yamamoto. Of course, there are also performing-arts groups like Yayoi Theatre Movement Society and Kokoro Dance (with artistic director Jay Hirabayashi), not to mention numerous classical- and folk-dance schools. And a new generation of filmmakers is depicting Nikkei culture on film, among them Jeff Chiba Stearns (One Big Hapa Family) and Brendan Uegama (“Henry’s Glasses”).
But the most internationally famous Canadian Nikkei of all is a Kitsilano resident: environmentalist and The Nature of Things host David Suzuki, who was voted fifth in CBC’s Greatest Canadian poll. His daughter, Severn Cullis-Suzuki, carries on the family tradition as an environmental activist in her own right.
Best Place to Find Japanese Culture and Landmarks
At UBC, you’ll find the renowned Nitobe Memorial Garden, with its ceremonial teahouse. In Stanley Park, you can find the Japanese Canadian War Memorial, unveiled on April 9, 1920, which commemorates Japanese Canadians who served Canada in the First World War. At Seaforth Peace Park in Kitsilano, there’s a bust of Hiroshima-bombing survivor and peace educator Kinuko Laskey, who moved to Vancouver in 1954. Oppenheimer Park features memorial sakura (Japanese cherry) trees, planted in 1977 to commemorate the Japanese-Canadian centennial, and a plaque to honour the Asahi baseball team (established in 1914) was unveiled on September 18 of this year.
Community organizations can be found around town. Tonari Gumi, or the Japanese Community Volunteer Association, is located on East Broadway. The Steveston Buddhist Temple also holds various events in Richmond. The National Nikkei Museum & Heritage Centre officially opened in 2000 in Burnaby, with the Sakura-so Seniors Residence next door. Also known as Nikkei Place, this is one of the main venues for the community, with numerous events and organizations housed here.
Best place to find japanese food
To say Vancouverites love Japanese food is an understatement. Almost every decade has ushered in a new culinary trend from the Land of the Rising Sun to our city. Teppanyaki restaurants, flaunting spatula-juggling chefs, introduced locals to teriyaki and tempura in the ’70s. Sushi and sashimi first caught on in the ’80s. Izakaya sailed in on the wake of the tapas craze in the ’90s, as miso, matcha, and edamame were integrated into mainstream menus. Ramen, yoshoku (western-style food), okonomiyaki, takoyaki, and even Beard Papa’s and Japa Dog have all helped to diversify the local food scene. Meanwhile, Guu, Dan, En, Zakkushi, Kingyo, Motomachi Shokudo, Hapa Izakaya, Tojo’s (with celebrated chef Hidekazu Tojo), and numerous others have boosted the profile of Japanese cuisine in this city.
Need Japanese groceries? Check out the three Fujiya locations (a community mainstay since the original location opened on Powell Street in 1977) or Izumi-Ya in Richmond. ESL students often congregate at the Konbiniya Japan Centre on Robson Street for imported snacks and more.
Jonesing for sushi? You’re in the right place—you can find it on almost every major street here, not to mention in grocery and convenience stores.
Best festivals to get your Nikkei on at
The Powell Street Festival in Oppenheimer Park at the end of July is the community’s most beloved annual blowout, with everything from sumo wrestling and martial arts to blocklong lineups for takoyaki. But there are plenty of other events to take note of.
Although the springtime Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival isn’t necessarily a Japanese-Canadian community event, it was inspired by Japan’s sakura festivals and is a way of appreciating Vancouver’s cherry trees, which originated as gifts from Japan.
In July, the Vancouver Buddhist Temple presents Obon, a Japanese Buddhist ceremony that honours the departed along with traditional service and the Bon Odori dance.
Every year ends with the popular Mochitsuki Day, presented by the Vancouver Japanese Gardeners Association at Nikkei Place. Rice gets pounded with wooden mallets into paste to make desserts like mochi (soft rice cakes) and manju (sweets, often filled with red bean) for Japanese New Year’s. (Unlike other Asian cultures that celebrate the lunar new year, Japan moved its weeklong New Year’s celebration, Oshogatsu, to coincide with the western solar calendar during the Meiji era.)
Other events abound throughout the year, with plenty of opportunities for everyone to get involved, regardless of whether you’re Nikkei or not.
You can follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at twitter.com/cinecraig.