While prominent human-rights activist and U.S. actor George Takei has first-hand experience of the Japanese American internment, he recently furthered his understanding of what was happening at the same time on this side of the border.
Takei, who rose to fame in his role as Hikaru Sulu on Star Trek, is currently in Vancouver filming Season 2 the horror-drama history TV series The Terror, for which he is a series regular and consultant. In this season of the anthology series, the storyline is set during the Japanese American internment.
During the Second World War, Takei, who is now 81 years old, was interned with his family in Rohwer, Arkansas, and Tule Lake, California.
While in Vancouver, Takei and his husband Brad Altman had been hoping to tour the former Japantown on their own but then received an invitation from Laura Saimoto, community relations committee chair of the Vancouver Language School and Japanese Hall (VJLS-JH).
On March 11, Saimoto and volunteer tour guide Martin Kobayakawa led Takei through the historic Japanese Canadian district in the Downtown Eastside known within the community as Paueru-gai, a literal translation of Powell Street, which became known by others as Japantown.
The community existed from the 1890s until 1942 when the Canadian government forced the relocation of over 22,000 Japanese Canadians from the B.C. coast during the Second World War. (Saimoto said less than half returned to the B.C. coast after the war.)
The tour began at the VJLS-JH at 475 Alexander Street, which was originally established in 1906 at 439 Alexander Street.
Saimoto said they now have over 160 children in their childcare centre, which offers daycare, pre-school, and Japanese immersion, in addition to Japanese language classes, which includes adult students.
According to the Vancouver Heritage Foundation, the building is the sole remaining property that was returned to Japanese Canadians owners after the internment.
Because the Canadian Armed Forces occupied half of the complex and, as Saimoto explained, the board of directors (who were all interned and therefore couldn’t hold a meeting to make a decision about the property) refused to sell it, Japanese Canadians successfully reclaimed the property and the school and the hall reopened in 1953.
“It’s a miracle organization,” she said of the municipal and provincial heritage site, which is currently awaiting a federal heritage designation.
When Takei pointed out that the war ended in 1945, Saimoto explained that Japanese Canadians were still not allowed to return to the coast at that time.
In contrast to the Japanese American internment which ended in 1945, full restrictions on Japanese Canadians under the War Measures Act were not lifted until 1949.
“The B.C. politicians did not want the Japanese to return so they extended the War Measures Act—they changed the name—and it was illegal; it was against the Geneva Convention,” she explained. “The Canadian government was called out on it but by that time they had already deported 5,000 Japanese to Japan or had shipped them out east.”
Meanwhile, the Canadian government sold all of the property and possessions of Japanese Canadians.
“All Japanese Canadian property was put into a protective trust and then it was sold out from underneath their feet and so that trust was broken,” Saimoto said.
Locations that Takei visited on the tour included the Komura Building (269 Powell Street), now the location of the French-Canadian restaurant St. Lawrence; Vancouver Girls’ School of Practical Arts (302 Alexander Street); Fuji Chop Suey (314 Powell Street), which served Japanese versions of Chinese food; the upscale Maikawa Department Store (365 Powell Street); and the Tamura Building (398 Powell Street).
The tour also visited Oppenheimer Park (400 block of East Cordova), where a plaque commemorating the historic Vancouver Asahi baseball team exists and is the site of the annual Powell Street Festival.
After the tour, the VJLS-JH organized a reception for Takei, which was attended by community seniors. The last surviving member of the Vancouver Asahi baseball team, 97-year-old Kaye Kaminishi, was also in attendance. The Asahi and Kaminishi were featured in a Heritage Minute released on February 20, and the Asahi will also be featured on a Canada Post stamp to be released later this year.
The Nikkei National Museum, Vancouver Japanese Canadian Citizens Association, Tonari Gumi (Japanese Canadian Volunteer’s Association), and the Tashme Historical Society were among those who presented Takei with gifts from the community.
In a speech, Takei, who identified himself as sansei (third generation) because his grandparents emigrated from Japan, told attendees of the event that they all share a common experience of “incarceration by our own governments because we happened to look like the people who bombed Pearl Harbour”.
He pointed out how after the bombing, Japanese Americans went to recruitment centres to serve the U.S. military but were rejected.
“This act of patriotism was answered with a slap on the face,” he said. “They were denied military service and categorized as enemy aliens, which was absolutely crazy.”
He also recalled his own experiences of the forced removal.
“I was about…five years old when this happened and I remember being packed on board a very crowded train as we were taken two-thirds of the way across the country from Los Angeles to Arkansas,” he said.
As he reflected upon his own experiences, he added that he respects Japanese Canadians after realizing how much colder the climate is here than what conditions he grew up in.
“Frankly, having been here since January in Vancouver, I think you Japanese Canadians had it worse simply because your prison camps were in Canada north of the border. It was colder. We were incarcerated in the hot sultry swamps of Arkansas.”
Takei told the Georgia Straight that he was aware of elements of the Japanese Canadian experience because he has Japanese Canadian cousins on his mother’s side.
Nonetheless, Takei said he found the tour “very informative and very moving” and found several points of interest that he may look further into in the future.More