Powell Street Festival pays homage to the spirits while advancing social justice and pushing artistic envelope

Now in its 45th year, the annual event that celebrates Japanese Canadian identity has never been commercialized or commodified

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      (This article is longer than what normally appears on media websites.)

      The members of Onibana Taiko are old hands when it comes to drumming. With more than 100 years of experience between them, the trio of E. Kage, Noriko Kobayashi, and Leslie Komori have performed their original and Japanese traditional works in many venues with their much-admired feminist, queer, punk aesthetic.

      But on the B.C. Day weekend, they’re going to participate in something that’s never been done in Vancouver before: a 29.5-hour durational drumming marathon on the roof of the Vancouver Japanese Language School and Japanese Hall in the 400 block of Alexander Street.

      Led by Kage, this ceremonial taiko event will begin at 1 p.m. on Saturday (July 31), carry on through the night and the next day, before ending at the conclusion of the Powell Street Festival at 6 p.m. on Sunday (August 1).

      “We see it as a healing ceremony because drumming is healing,” Kage told the Georgia Straight by phone. “We are doing it in the Downtown Eastside because that is an area that has been hit with an overdose crisis. There’s poverty, displacement, and homelessness going on there.”

      Not only that, the neighbourhood once known as Paueru Gai—the Japanese translation of Powell Street—used to be home to a thriving community of Japanese Canadians. That was before the residents of Japanese ancestry were stripped of their possessions during the Second World War and sent to internment camps and work farms far away from the West Coast.

      On the roof of the language school and hall, there will be several elders who will be invited to speak as the drumming is taking place, with the volume being brought far lower at those times so that their words can be heard.

      And yes, Kage conceded, this ceremonial durational drumming can be seen as honouring the spirits of those former residents of the neighbourhood who are no longer alive.

      “We often do a participatory obon dance, which is the dance to celebrate and honour the spirits who go to die—our ancestors,” Kage said.

      Onibana Taiko won’t be the only group participating—other taiko drummers have also registered to perform, each for up to six hours.

      “Those of us who have signed up to drum are very excited,” Kage said. “It’s kind of like a challenge—how long can we last?”

      Video: Tetsuro Shigematsu introduced the first Paueru Mashup in 2020, complete with proper physical distancing.

      Paueru Mashup returns

      This year, the Powell Street Festival is celebrating its 45th anniversary but because of the pandemic, there won’t be any large public gatherings.

      But for anyone who visits the Powell Street Festival website, there are more than 100 ways to enjoy the festival through online discussions, artistic events, and community engagement.

      Throughout its history, this festival has never become commercialized, retaining its quirky grassroots sensibility while advancing social justice, LGBT+ equality, and topnotch arts and cultural events.

      As an example of “quirky grassroots sensibility”, the festival commissioned the Paueru Mashup in 2020 with music composed by Onibana Taiko and choreography by Company 605.

      Riffing on traditional Tanko Bushi dance and Radio Taiso morning exercises, it’s a collective line dance that executive director Emiko Morita hopes will be embraced across North America in the coming years.

      On July 31, to coincide with the public component of the festival, there’s going to be a flash-mob performance of the Paueru Mashup in Oppenheimer Park. In fact, lessons in the mashup have been offered in the park since it reopened earlier this year.

      “We’ve also had people from across the country joining online lessons earlier in the spring,” Morita told the Straight.

      The Paueru Mashup is a joyous dance, but a serious message lies underneath. Morita said that she recently learned a Japanese word, furusato, which means “hometown”.

      “It’s the village that your family comes from,” she explained. “Maybe you weren’t even born there but it’s your furusato. And Powell Street is that for many people right across the country who have Japanese heritage.”

      Powell Street, or Paueru Gai, is certainly Morita’s furusato. Her immigrant grandparents had restaurants on Alexander Street and Powell Street before they were shipped to an internment camp in the B.C. Interior community of Greenwood. That’s where her father was born.

      For Morita, it was an emotional event returning to Oppenheimer Park to practise the dance.

      “We had a Japanese senior out and we had community park patrons joining us,” she recalled. “The composition is fantastic.”

      Another example of the festival's quirky side is its annual sumo-wrestling tournaments, which continued for years until the pandemic put an end to public gatherings.

      The wrestlers were not professionals; they were festivalgoers.

      "It doesn't reflect traditional sumo wrestling, which is a Shinto-based practice," Morita noted. "It really does embody the hybridity of Japanese Canadians and the Powell Street Festival."

      Powell Street Festival executive director ensured that Downtown Eastside residents provide overnight security when events could be held in Oppenheimer Park.

      Festival promotes social justice

      This year, Powell Street Festival organizers also collected folded origami daruma (a traditional doll of the founder of Zen Buddhism) in Oppenheimer Park in advance of its Daruma Community Art Installation Campaign.

      It’s another sign that they’re very conscious of the need to involve members of the Downtown Eastside in their event. Like the organizers’ ancestors, Downtown Eastside residents are also facing the possibility of displacement, only this time it’s more often on the basis of poverty.

      Every weekday since the pandemic, the festival has funded the preparation and delivery of 200 meals through the WePress Community Kitchen.

      That’s not all. Prior to the pandemic, when the festival set up in Oppenheimer Park, it hired local residents to keep an eye on the site overnight.

      “We don’t hire commercial security teams,” Morita said. “We rely on the local residents because they know everybody in the park. They understand the dynamics and they can teach us how to understand and support people who might be agitated.”

      Kage, the taiko drummer, knows all about the festival’s progressive history, pointing out that the settlers of Japanese ancestry were living on stolen Indigenous land. And Kage, who prefers being called by the pronoun “they”, noted that Japanese Canadians weren’t the only people who’ve been kicked out.

      “There’s a very strong community there in the Downtown Eastside,” Kage said. “I’m witnessing this with some of the park events that have been going on recently.”

      Onibana Taiko appears on the cover of this week's print edition of the Georgia Straight.

      Kage cofounded Bamboo Triangle

      There’s one thing that Kage is particularly emphatic about—and that’s the Powell Street Festival’s longstanding support for LGBT+ people.

      “As a person from the queer community, I would like to say ‘queer’ has been part of the Powell Street Festival for decades as coordinators, staff, volunteers, and performers—like, right from the beginning.”

      In the 1990s, Kage and a couple of other people from the queer community created a group called the Bamboo Triangle. They set up a post-office box and distributed flyers in the hope of meeting more gay and lesbian people of Japanese ancestry in Vancouver.

      “We had a booth at the Powell Street Festival,” Kage recalled. “It was really important for us to have queer visibility.”

      Not all festivalgoers approved of the booth—the Bamboo Triangle members received some flack—but Kage said that the festival organizers were extremely supportive.

      Since then, Kage’s racialized queer friends have been converging on the festival through 2019, hanging out in Oppenheimer Park, eating food, and enjoying traditional and avant-garde arts.

      “Powell Street Festival is my Pride,” Kage declared. “It’s always been my Pride.”

      Morita has another reason for feeling pride in the festival—and that's for its role in putting taiko drumming on the map in Canada. It all started when some drummers came up from California to perform at an early festival.

      "These Japanese Canadian women witnessed it and said 'oh my God, I want to do that,' " Morita said. 

      That led to the founding of the community-drumming group Katari Taiko, which was the catalyst for the creation of professional taiko drumming groups, including Onibana Taiko.

      Accoring to Morita, there's political activism embedded in B.C.'s taiko community—many of the drummers are women, whereas in Japan, this is traditionally done by men.

      Video: Watch "dear community", which emerged out of Powell Street Festival director Angela May's conversations with family and friends about Japanese Canadian history.

      Powell Street still challenges status quo

      Vancouver artist Paul Wong has noted that over the past decade, there’s been a great deal of “noise, breakthroughs, and advancements” regarding artists of colour, identity, politics, and sexual orientation. But he quickly added that those are things that the Powell Street Festival has always dealt with in its history, which dates back to the late 1970s.

      This year's festival includes many examples, including exhibitions by artists Henry Tsang and Cindy Mochizuki at the Surrey Art Gallery, a short film featuring hapa singer Denise Sherwood, and another film by Randall Okita focusing on his grandparents' struggles.

      In addition, there's a commissioned piece by Jody Okabe, an Indigiqueer composer and singer of Tsimshian, Japanese, and French ancestry, who worked with producer Ruby Singh and director Aya Garcia. Plus, Vancouver dance artist Shion Skye Carter and calligraphy artist Kisyuu have created a new iteration of Flow Tide, which premiered at last year's festival.

      Video: "Broken Promises" was written and performed by Jody Okabe and produced by Ruby Singh.
      Aye Garcia

      And a new festival board member, Angela May, a PhD student and mixed Japanese Canadian settler, is continuing the Powell Street tradition of challenging the status quo with an online film entitled “dear community”.

      In a phone interview with the Straight, May praised the festival for being “place-based”, which keeps it rooted in the neighbourhood. However, she also believes that the Japanese Canadian community as a whole needs to think more about class dynamics that are leading to the loss of so many lives to the fentanyl crisis gripping the Downtown Eastside.

      She readily acknowledged that there was a need to focus on identity in the 1970s and 1980s in the fight for redress for the internment, but she worries that paying too much attention to this can come at a cost.

      “I’m making critiques about the limits of what an identity can give you from the vantage of a mixed young Japanese Canadian in 2021,” May emphasized.

      After the trauma of being interned during the Second World War, enduring racism in the school system afterward, and being excluded from returning to the West Coast until 1949, a significant number of Japanese Canadians went out of their way to integrate into mainstream society.

      Despite the discrimination, many prospered economically—to the point where Canadians of Japanese origin eventually earned higher incomes, on average, than the rest of the population. And several years ago, Statistics Canada reported that the percentage of mixed unions was by far the highest among Japanese Canadians.

      May, like so many others, is impressed by the community's stunning rebound from the 1940s, when Japanese Canadians were forced to live in crowded camps. But she worries that the level of overall prosperity, not to mention how the community has been dispersed, has resulted in less collective action on the part of Japanese Canadians to deal with the wrenching social problems in their historic neighbourhood of Paueru Gai.

      She added that she’s still thinking through a lot of these issues, including the community’s orientation to the white community that played such an instrumental role in its historic oppression. And she hopes to develop these ideas more completely in her yet-to-be-written PhD thesis.

      “It sounds impressionistic and not so grounded in evidence at this point,” May said, “but I do feel there is an impulse in our community to get as proximal as we can to whiteness. I mean, I feel like I’m—quite literally—biologically a product of that in some ways.” 

      With provocative views like this on the board of the Powell Street Festival, it’s certainly not going to lose its edge anytime soon.