“Japantown: A Zone of Conscience” by Ryan Kim15 min read

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300 Powell Street, circa 1929, City of Vancouver Archives

Buried deep in the Downtown Eastside, past Main and East Hastings where someone is trying to offload valium, past Powell where low income housing and treatment centres make up most of the block, the Vancouver Japanese Language School and Japanese Hall stands on Alexander. The school first opened in 1906, a culmination of the success Japanese-Canadians found in industry and in building community. It was located right behind Powell, where 400 Japanese businesses once thrived in an area once known as Japantown.

The school is split into two main buildings, the Y2K Main Building and the Heritage Building, each with its respective mosaic design signs. The Heritage Building’s sign reads “1928 Japanese Hall,” and the Main Building’s sign reads “2000 Japanese Hall Vancouver Japanese Language School,” both denoting the year of its construction. With its white stucco exterior, tall windows and black tiles that outline the buildings, the structures look simultaneously old and new like a restored painting.

As I walked inside the interior of the school, I was struck by how familiar it felt even though this was the first time I had ever been there. I noted the scuffed floors and heard the muffled laughter of children running around the gymnasium. It felt as if I was walking through the halls of the Korean church I grew up in. I could almost hear the chatter of native tongues when school was in session, a centralized place where community and culture intersect in comfort. In the waiting area of the main office, you could see a large crane obstruct the view of mountains in the distance. A Canadian flag waved on the short side of the crane and below it was a smaller flag billowing in the wind, a Jolly Roger flag.

Above the couch in the waiting area, a glass frame showed multiple photos of the principals from 1952 to 1992, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the school’s reopening from when Japanese-Canadians were allowed to come back from internment. I met Laura Saimoto in a conference room of the school. Saimoto is a member of the board of directors for the Japanese Language School and Japanese Hall organization, and is chair of its community relations committee and building committee. She exuded a formal warmth in both her attire and speech. She was dressed in a white blouse and grey slacks with a string of pearls draped across her neck. She was slight in stature and humble in speech, but was deeply intentional as she relayed the history and her hopeful vision for the surrounding area.

We sat at the conference table and behind Saimoto were a couple of dolls in kimonos encased in a transparent display. “These are just traditional Japanese dolls. They’re handmade and hand sewn. Dolls are very important in Japan… a sign of wealth.”

The Downtown Eastside (DTES) is infamously known for the exact opposite. An area pockmarked with numerous tents occupied by the mentally ill and drug addicted. There have been more businesses opening in the Downtown Eastside, shops selling $11 juices, $3,000 furniture, $30 entrees. Protestors have called the areas of these businesses “zones of exclusion” because low income residents are stigmatized and excluded by the exorbitant prices. The current gentrification is pushing out current residents but displacement isn’t unfamiliar in Vancouver.

From the European settlers who pushed out the Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh, and Musqueam First Nations to thedisplacement of black people in Hogan’s Alley, Powell Street was where many Japanese-Canadians flocked to because of the job opportunities provided by the Hastings Mill as well as the fishing and cannery industries.

Saimoto is a second generation Japanese-Canadian, her father was born in Steveston while her mother was born in Vancouver. Her father’s family found success in the fishery business while her mother’s ran a dry cleaning business off Main. Despite Japanese-Canadian flourishing, institutional racism limited their professions and denied them Canadian citizenship. This all came to a head in December 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked and the Canadian government immediately shut down the school.

In 1942, the government confiscated all the properties and shipped 22,000 Japanese-Canadians to internment camps far inland, away from their businesses and homes. This included Saimoto’s parents, who were children at the time, and her grandparents.

“There was this invisible wall a hundred miles east of the coast,” Saimoto told me. “It’s the same thing that’s happening in the US and Mexico border [now].” She compared the internment of Japanese-Canadians to the detainment of numerous people at the U.S.-Mexico border where the former U.S. president had promised to build a literal wall to keep migrants out of the States. The “invisible wall” Saimoto referred to was the distance the Canadian government put between the Japanese-Canadians and the coast they once called home.

When World War II finally ended in 1945, the Japanese interned in the U.S. had their homes and properties returned to them, but that wasn’t the case in Canada.

“The war ended, but the government didn’t want the Japanese to return to the coast. They issued a deportation order to go back to Japan or go to eastern Canada.” The Canadian government had sold all the confiscated property in Japantown and never returned any of the property back to its rightful owners. Saimoto believes the “yellow peril,” a xenophobic belief that Asian people posed a threat to the Western world, had gripped the government. Much like the rise of Asian hate crimes has stemmed from the false belief that all Asians are responsible for the spread of Covid-19, it appears that the “yellow peril” has now gripped the wider public. It wasn’t until the Citizenship Act was passed, where all citizens were granted freedom of movement and the right to vote, that Japanese-Canadians were allowed to move back. So in 1949, four years after the war had ended, Saimoto’s grandparents and parents moved back to continue where they had left off. However, the Japanese-Canadians that chose to return found that there was nothing to continue from. Everyone had to start over.

“The Downtown Eastside is what it is because it never fully recovered from that huge disruption.”

“The Downtown Eastside is what it is because it never fully recovered from that huge disruption.”

Saimoto’s statement jolted me. The DTES had undergone many disruptions, including the deinstitutionalization of psychiatric hospitals that forced many to move to low-income housing in the DTES. Expo 86, a world fair that put Vancouver on the global map, flooded the city with tourists and increased drug trafficking, evicting locals from residential hotels in the process. The DTES is what it is today because of the compounding of numerous events, including the aftershock of Japanese internment. However, I wondered what the DTES would be like if Japantown was still there.

From Alexander to Cordova with residents living further south in Strathcona, Japantown was a vibrant community of 8,000 Japanese-Canadians that lived in British Columbia in the early 1940s. This was a community that flourished through self-mobilizing, which was even apparent in the non-government internment camps. Unlike the government internment camps that required Japanese-Canadian men to forced labor, these camps required families to pay for their own internment and have at minimum $1,800 in the bank. Since these families had some agency in their daily lives, they pooled their resources together to build everything from the ground up.

“The older Japanese adults became de facto teachers, they opened their own Japanese schools to teach the young kids because they couldn’t go to the white schools,” Saimoto told me. In these non-government camps, the Japanese-Canadian people did what they did in the DTES.

“[In] New Denver, which is one of the largest internment camps, they built shacks on the farms and… they named their streets and built their own schools and tried to get their own hospital within these camps… It is harsh when you think about the interning of 22,000 people, but they made the most of it and there was a level of humanity there.”
Meanwhile, the DTES became a ghetto almost overnight. Out of the hundreds of Japanese owned businesses, the only property that would eventually be returned to the community was the school.

Saimoto’s retelling of the school’s history and the Japanese-Canadian self-mobilization in internment reminded me of the Korean church community I grew up in. And it also echoed a dissonance I associated with that community due to the clash between my cultural identities.

“You are not Korean,” my uncle told me when I was a kid with a hint of disdain. “You are Korean-American.” I could feel the hyphenated weight of “American,” how it dragged both aspects of my ethnic and cultural identities down somewhere in between nations. My feet weren’t set in two different places, rather I seesawed back and forth between them depending on my context. At church, I’d feel more Korean and at school, I’d feel more American. Both cultures are simultaneously something I can’t seem to let go of and yet can’t fully embrace. There’s a fine line between my Korean and American sides, a roaring river that cannot be waded across. It never occurred to me to strike a balance between the two because all I felt from the day that my uncle uttered those words was shame rifting those identities apart. The rift has widened even more now, not only for me, but for the millions within the Asian diaspora who are experiencing hate in an ever increasing politicized and publicized world. The after effects of this disruption now may sadly be echoes from the past.

“They were never able to step into who they truly are,” Saimoto says of her parents’ generation. I imagined growing up in an internment camp, experiencing the rift between the country of origin and the country they were born in. Saimoto’s own childhood is one that hits close to home.

Although Saimoto wasn’t interned, trauma still echoed through her life. She grew up as the only Asian girl in her elementary school on the affluent west side of Vancouver, made of predominantly white people. Saimoto was very aware of her place as an ethnic minority as she was bullied at her local school and her parents forced her to go to the Japanese school multiple times a week. No matter where she went, she couldn’t escape the constant reminders that she was different. The Japanese part of her identity seemed to weigh her down.

“That was the major trauma… Being ashamed of who you are.”

It wasn’t until Saimoto took a Japanese course at university that she felt a deeper part of herself being plumbed. It excavated a weightier shame that stemmed directly from her relationship with one of her grandparents.

“I was quite ashamed of myself because… I couldn’t speak with my grandmother. I felt because I looked Japanese I should speak Japanese and I just wasn’t good enough. I didn’t feel good enough.” This realization led Saimoto to declare Japanese as one of her majors, eventually receiving her Master’s in Sociology from Sophia University and working in Japan at a marketing company.

“I felt that learning Japanese opened up a part of myself that I was ashamed of.”

“I felt that learning Japanese opened up a part of myself that I was ashamed of.”

I’ve experienced that same feeling. Although I’m not fluent in Korean, I forced myself to speak to my parents in my limited Korean. Despite the long pauses I take in translating my American thoughts into Korean sentences, it’s begun to bridge the gap between my cultural identities. The roaring river isn’t as deafening as it used to be simply because in that work of internal translation I get to cross the bridge between both aspects of my identity and acknowledge that fluidity.
While it seemed that Saimoto had crossed her own bridge to Japan with finality, she came back to Vancouver 10 years later when her father fell ill. She started working for the Japanese school almost immediately as it had fallen on hard times financially and was coming up on its centennial.

“One thing you may not know about Japanese culture, is that it’s a very insular culture. The feudal mentality is still there… very, very deep. In today’s world, you can’t survive that way.”

Saimoto mentioned how Japan’s immigration bill in 2018 was a necessity because Japan was losing 400,000 people a year and didn’t have enough people to take care of the elderly. There’s a strong parallel between Japan’s open door policy and what Saimoto realized had to be done in order for the school to survive. Compared to the numerous other Asian ethnic populations in British Columbia, Japanese-Canadians were in the minority and would remain so as there were less than 100 new immigrants from Japan to Canada yearly.

“I’m a bridger, so I understand that. I understand history and the foundational, cultural thing that runs at the… bottom. At the same time, I also understand what it takes to understand the outside world and what it takes to be sustainable in these times of change.”

Saimoto helped to come up with a long term plan for the school. The board committed to renovating the heritage building and launching a childcare centre with Saimoto as chair of that project. The childcare facility was launched in 2012 and continues to offer daycare services as well as immersion programs.

“You gotta partner with the outside.” The school is no longer just for ethnically Japanese children. It’s open to anyone who wants to learn Japanese language and culture. Childcare services are for anyone who needs it. When Laura was in school, 80-90% were Japanese. Now, 80-90% are of mixed Japanese heritage and 15% aren’t Japanese at all.

“If you roam the halls of the school on Saturdays, it’s incredible. You hear all these languages and you hear Japanese. If the kids don’t speak at least three languages, you’re in the minority… That’s the great thing, nurturing global citizens is that they can easily take the value of each culture and move freely through them.”

Vancouver isn’t as homogenous as it was during Saimoto’s childhood. It’s a mosaic of numerous ethnicities and cultures, including Japanese. The history of displacement in the DTES is something that needs to be remembered, especially now. “Our organization is committed to keep[ing] culture and language alive so we can appreciate each other and also as a commitment to Japanese-Canadian heritage… to understand what happened so we don’t repeat those mistakes. What do the people we’re kicking out today look like today? Muslim, homeless?”

Saimoto relayed a story to me, one that was a turning point in realizing how the feudal mentality runs deep not just in herself, but in all of us. One day, Saimoto was walking down Alexander and she saw a woman shooting up on the sidewalk. Like many others would, she looked away and pretended the woman wasn’t there. As Saimoto tried to walk by, the woman looked up and apologized.

“She said, ‘I’m sorry’ and here I tried to run away. I really learned a lot about myself on that day. That wasn’t a shame about my culture, that was a shame about myself that I couldn’t face… It just means that I don’t have compassion for myself because I didn’t have compassion for her.”

A personal vision that Saimoto has for historic Japantown is to have “zones of conscience” in order to reflect the lessons of history onto ourselves. In 2017, the school celebrated the 75th anniversary of the internment. One of the main projects was putting up historical signs at the actual internment sites to acknowledge and face what happened.

“We’ve been through a lot of struggle and we’ve been through a lot of great achievements. We can share. That sharing is a form of collective healing… Once you feel through the shame, you can embrace and enjoy the value of it.”
Saimoto is somber in her reflection of that day on Alexander, almost repentant having gone through her very own zone of conscience near the school. When she explains the zones of conscience to me, it feels vague and amorphous.

“It is what we think we can make it be.”

But perhaps that’s intentional. Saimoto explains that these zones would be a way to reflect how the stigmas we’ve put on people are ones we put on ourselves. How the Japanese were once viewed and pushed out. How the low income, homeless, and drug addicted are viewed now and being pushed out. How Asians are viewed as a scapegoat for the global pandemic that will have lasting impact.

At the beginning of our interview, Saimoto gave me a map guide from the Vancouver Heritage Foundation.

At the beginning of our interview, Saimoto gave me a map guide from the Vancouver Heritage Foundation.

“It’s normally a toonie, but I’ll give it to you for free.” Saimoto smiles and I chuckle, thinking that she’s half joking. But she isn’t. On the front is a picture of Oppenheimer Park where the semi-professional Japanese baseball team, the Vancouver Asahi played. Inside is a list of all the significant places in Japantown, including the school.

On the first page of the guide is a black and white photo of the Parade on Powell Street in 1937. Numerous women are dressed in kimonos, similar to how the dolls I saw in the conference room were dressed. They’re walking ceremoniously down Powell street with crowds of people looking from the sides. I can imagine myself in the crowd staring as these women, reminders of their motherland, walk down the street past the numerous businesses, signs of accumulated wealth. I see the women moving slowly but surely past the people all the way down to the end growing smaller and smaller until I can’t see them.

Yet, they are captured in this photo and memorialized by their descendents like Saimoto, who tirelessly work to remember. In remembering, we can choose to face the trauma and shame embedded in us in order to have compassion on ourselves and heal. Then we can finally see ourselves as we are, even if others won’t.

 

 

 


Ryan Kim is a creative writing MFA graduate from UBC in Vancouver. He was a 2019 Nickelodeon Writing Program Semi-Finalist. He’s had short fiction published on Ariel Chart, Hidden Chapter, and The 22 Magazine, and non-fiction published in Popula, RipRap, and Ricepaper.

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