Bob Nimi: steadfast in support of seniors
In Robert and Jane Nimi’s hallway there is a photo hanging on the wall depicting three smiling young men clad in black leather motorcycle jackets astride Triumph Thunderbird motorcyles. Taped next to the photo is a clipping of Marlon Brando riding the same motorcycle in the classic film The Wild One. As Bob leads me through to the living room for our interview, he stops and points out himself on the far right of the photograph. Just after graduating high school, he explains, he and two high school buddies set off on a three-week road trip to San Diego, camping along the way. It was, he says, one of the highlights of his younger years. While the photograph stands in contrast to the elegance of the house, it does tell you something about Bob Nimi and the sense of determination that has served him well during his lifetime. One of the key figures in the building of the Nikkei Place complex, in particular the Nikkei Home assisted living residence, he was recently awarded The Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays, one of Japan’s highest civilian honours, in recognition of his immense contributions to the social welfare of the Japanese Canadian community.
The day after the ceremony, I sat down with Bob Nimi and his wife Jane at their house in North Vancouver and talked about his involvement in the Canadian Nikkei community.
In His Own Words
Interview with Bob Nimi
Tell me about your family’s background and your early years.
My parents owned a drug store on the 300 block Powell Street. My father emigrated here in 1905 at the age of 15. His parents had come here before him, just before the turn of the century. In Japan, around that time, life was very difficult in the countryside, they were having such a hard time even putting rice on the table. The adventurous ones left the country, seeking a better life. In 1877, the first Japanese immigrant came, Manzo Nagano—everyone knows about him. Ten years later, in 1887, there was a fellow named Gihei Kuno from Mio, or Amerika-mura, in Wakayama. He was very adventurous. He came to Canada and started fishing on the Fraser River. He then went back to Japan and told the people there about this huge river with so many fish that you could walk across it on their backs. That’s the Fraser River of course. And so my grandfather—he was from Tokushima on Shikoku Island—he heard this story. He decided to take a look and come to Canada. At that time, Tokushima would not allow people to exit the country, I don’t know why. So he went up to Niigata, which is way up north on the Japan sea side, and boarded a ship there and came around the other way. That’s how he came to Vancouver. And not a word of English. They asked him his name at immigration and he said Nimi. Now, the Japanese generally write it as N i i m i, it just means “new look.” So whoever admitted him put Nimi, N i m i. So Niimi became Nimi. And he started fishing on the Fraser. He wasn’t even a fisherman, but he was fishing. Now, my grandmother didn’t hear from him for months and months, I don’t know how long, this is what my father tells me. There was no communication, so she decided to follow him. Same route: up to Niigata, she boarded the ship, came down to Vancouver and started asking questions. And she found him fishing on the Fraser River. The guy never wrote!
JANE: She was a samurai’s daughter, you see. Very brave
So she found him there, and stayed here with him. She had left their two kids—my father and uncle—in the care of her family. My father came over in 1905 and started working in sawmills and planer mills in Vancouver. Then my uncle came. In 1918, jointly between my grandfather and father, they bought the store at 331 Powell Street. Eventually, my uncle went back to Japan with my grandfather. But he was here in 1918 for sure, because he’s listed on the roster of the Asahi baseball team of that era, both he and my father were playing for the Asahi—Pat and Joe Nimi.
There’s a funny story. In 1925, my dad was coaching youngsters, 15-year-olds, and there was one boy, his name is Hajime, they called him Swanee. He’s a hundred years old now, he’s living at New Sakura-so. He used to say, oh, in those days if they didn’t perform properly my father would slap them on the head. That’s discipline! So we had a big laugh over that. And he’s still living with his wife at New Sakura-so. A hundred years old —isn’t that something?
I was born in 1932, and spent my early years, until the so-called internment, on Powell Street. Of course from ’42 to ’49 we couldn’t come back to Vancouver, so we spent it in the interior. When I started to go to high school, I had to find place to go to high school because there were no high schools in the small towns where we lived. One year I went to a mining town called the Bralorne because my sister was living there. And then the next year my aunt was living in Hamilton, so I went to Hamilton. And then in 1949 I was able to come back to Vancouver, so I attended Lord Byng on the west side, and that’s where I met those guys there in the picture, on the motorcycles. And then I became involved in this manufacturing business which started in Vancouver and then it moved to Burnaby. I was going to UBC at that time but I got involved in this company and I spent the next 45 years doing that, and I retired in ’99. That’s my rough background.
You became heavily involved in the creation of Nikkei Place. How did that come about?
I got interested in care for the seniors because by the early eighties, the lifestyle of the niseis and the isseis was changing. In Japan, traditionally, most of the care for seniors was taken care of by family. Now the second generation of Japanese Canadians were working, the ladies too, and that made it very difficult for them to care for the seniors, and so some of the seniors went into care facilities, but they had a terrible time, because they were raised in difficult times. Most of their lives they faced severe discrimination. Although they understood some English, they couldn’t get jobs outside or anything like that, so they lived amongst themselves. Some spoke English, a little bit, but not fluently, and their diet was mainly Japanese. So when they went into care facilities, mainstream ones, they didn’t do very well. When we were allowed to come back to the coast in ’49, we were all dispersed. You know, they didn’t want to go back to Japantown because there was nothing left for them. And the only reason Japantown existed in the first place was because of discrimination. Nobody could get a job at an insurance company or a bank or anything like that. There was one person I knew that was working at the Royal Bank at Main and Hastings, but only because the Japanese customers would come there, and they needed a Japanese-speaking clerk. And then of course the war years was a very difficult time.
So this movement started way back in the early eighties. This is when the community decided that we should have a care facility of our own. Now, I have to give the ladies credit for this, because they started by meeting amongst themselves. People like Miki Tanaka, Ruth Coles, Jean Kamimura, Joy Kogawa and many others were involved in this movement at the beginning. I didn’t join this movement until maybe a year or so later. And of course you know I have to give Jane the credit for encouraging me.
JANE: Well, you see, I used to volunteer at Tonari Gumi, and I did visitations also, not just cooking. And I found there were only one or two isseis at some of the care facilities, and the older ones did not speak too well—it was a very lonely life for them. But I knew that we, as women, couldn’t do too much financially, we needed someone in business, accountants or someone more knowledgeable about it. We could have all kinds of dreams and ideas, but you need money to start something like this.
So that was the beginning of my involvement. Everybody thought it was a good idea to build a care facility, but the implementation was another matter, So we formed a committee, the Japanese Canadian Health Care Society of B.C. And the first thing they said was, oh, you can be the president. Well, gee, what am I going to do? So I said, okay, I’ll try it. And then of course that meant we had to register the society with Victoria. It took many years, though, because of the complicated procedures. I didn’t know anything about registration and that kind of thing, but I got volunteer lawyers to help me. The first was Cassandra Kobayashi. I didn’t know her, but I just picked up the phone and said, could you help us please. Oh sure, okay, she says. So we started with her. It’s not that easy to register something that has a care component because the B.C. government has something to say about our constitution. So then we got David Masuhara. He’s a judge now, but at that time he was working as a lawyer for Pacific Inland Gas. So David continued the process, and I think in 1986 we got the final approval after making changes to the constitution. And then the next step was getting charitable status with the federal government, and that took almost two years. So actually the formal portion of the society wasn’t completed till we had the charitable status in 1988. This final step was done by another lawyer, Glen Hara. We had to depend on so many people to help us. And so that’s how it started.
We take facilities like the Nikkei Place complex for granted, but it was a protracted struggle, I know.
Oh sure. And the struggle continued for many, many years. Currently the health regions have been changed to Vancouver Coastal Health, which encompasses Richmond, Vancouver, North Vancouver, and the Fraser Health Authority, which goes out from Burnaby, Coquitlam, all the way up to Boston Bar, I believe. But in those days the health region was separated in a different way. Richmond had their own, Vancouver had their own, Burnaby had their own health care department. So we first tried to get Vancouver to help us. Guess what? Nobody’s interested in spending something like $7 million to help us. And then we went to Richmond—same thing. We spent years with Burnaby to try to convince them. It didn’t work.
Every year for years and years, our society, the directors, would go to all the bazaars and events all over the Lower Mainland: the Steveston community events, Buddhist churches in Steveston and Vancouver, The Vancouver Japanese Language School, all the Christian churches. We even went as far as the Japanese United Church out in Surrey. All of them would welcome us to set up a little table and we would publicize our society and its aims, and then maybe try and collect some small membership fees just to get them interested. And this went on for many years, and we got lucky one day, very lucky. We were at Riley Park, there was some kind of an event there. And this woman came up and said, what are you doing? Oh we’re trying to get a care facility for the Japanese seniors. Oh, that’s interesting, she said. And she gave us a real sizable cheque. So that gave us some encouragement.
Around this same time there was a drive to build the Heritage Centre, wasn’t there?
Yes. Around the mid ’80s I got involved in the cultural centre aspect. They formed the site management committee and we were looking for property, but it was very, very difficult to find property. But luckily, around 1990, we were alerted to a property at the old Burnaby South High School site. A Japanese company had bought it, but then Japan had that recession about the same time.
Henry Wakabayashi, you wrote about him a few months ago, he’s the one that mentioned to us that this property might be available. And so we pursued that. Burnaby had some pretty serious restrictions about building a cultural centre, but we presented this situation where we would have a residence for independent seniors, which is New Sakura-so now, and we were wanting to build a care component, some kind of a care facility, and these two items satisfied their social housing requirements for that property. And of course the cultural centre was included in that, and they approved it. So that’s how it started.
A major factor in building the complex was the Redress Foundation. In ’88 they had given each individual $21,000 for compensation for all the problems that we had. But they had also set aside some money for community redevelopment, because our community was decimated. And so we managed to receive money from them which allowed us to buy the property.
Aside from that money from the Redress Foundation, I must say that the principal reason that this whole complex which is called Nikkei place succeeded was trust. I don’t know what else you would call it. We trusted each other—we had made an agreement between the cultural centre people and our society, that we would be in this together.
The first component that went up was New Sakura-so, because funds were available at that time. It was affordable housing with a graduated tier of rental based on income. And then the next project was fund-raising for the Centre itself. I was asked by Robert Banno to help fund raise for the Heritage Centre, and I remember saying that I’m trying to get a care facility going, but he says, well, let’s do it together—you help now, and we’ll help you later. And I had to trust them to move forward. There was nothing written, no agreement, nothing, but their word was one hundred percent, and this is the amazing thing, that what they agreed to do, they did. So we were all in it together, really solidly.
So the cultural centre was built, and then the next step was again the difficult one of getting funding for a care facility. There was some clause in the purchase agreement saying that the Burnaby High School, who were the previous owners of that lot, had a say in the purchase. If it was going to be used partly for the care facility, they’d approve it. So that was a condition. And we used it to get the final approval from the City of Burnaby to rezone the property.
It’s all very complicated. Very few people understand how the funds were raised for each component of Nikkei Place. In fact, if you talk to various individuals in the community, many people don’t even know the difference between the Centre, Nikkei Home and New Sakura-so. And then the Museum, which used to be a separate society, merged with the Centre and that made it even more confusing! But the long and the short of it is that the funding for the Nikkei Home side was a joint venture between our society, which was then called the Japanese Canadian Health Care Society, the BC Housing Management Commission, (which is simplified to BC Homes), and the Fraser Health Authority. Our timing was very good I think, because the Vice-President of the Fraser Health Authority was becoming aware of the need for assisted living. It’s not a full care facility, it’s to help in the first stages of care for seniors, and it serves that function well, too. From the funding angle, the size of the property and the endorsement of the health authority, Nikkei Home was a perfect fit.
So, you know, this was a big gamble in a way, and it was a gamble in faith too. As I say, it was built on trust. So when I received The Order of the Rising Sun, the consulate general gave me a choice of guests for that event. So I made sure that people who were involved in everything with me were there. Some of the board members supported this whole project right from day one. In fact they were involved in the community when it was just an ad hoc committee or just talk, and that’s close to 30 years, and they stuck with it.
When I was preparing my acceptance speech there was a word that came to me and it was “steadfast.” There’s that painting in the lobby of the Nikkei Centre. It’s a painting of the Pacific Ocean. After the centre was built, Robert Banno commissioned Ted Colyer for a painting. He left it up to him to come up with something. Ted Colyer had spent 18 years in Japan studying art and he married a Japanese lady. And so he chose to portray an aspect of the Japanese characteristic, and it’s titled Steadfast, the Pacific Ocean. I looked at the painting and I thought about it, and I realized what he meant by the title was that we were steadfast like the Pacific Ocean. The Pacific Ocean is named Pacific because it’s the calmer of the two major oceans. So he meant no tsunami, just gentle pressure. And the two countries, Japan and Canada, share the same ocean. So now, you look at that picture, and realize that you yourself, you’re steadfast too. Think about it. Your mother was, and also your father was. They both supported the community for years and years. When I look at this community, the word steadfast says it all.
When I was born in 1932, things were very difficult for the Orientals here—not just us, but the Chinese, East Indians, they were treated very badly. I would think that for our community, probably the thirties was the worst because the discrimination became open, and then the internment happened and we suffered in many ways, including monetarily. Now that’s over, but I personally experienced all that myself. I often say this: I didn’t feel comfortable even using chop sticks in a public place, a picnic or something, till probably in the eighties. It’s because I can remember being called all kinds of names.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve taken a greater interest in my heritage. In the eighties I became interested in my family tree. Quite a few years ago, my cousin sent me all the information, right up to my great-grandfather, and of course I couldn’t read it. So just recently I had a person translate it for me, to tell me exactly what their names were. I knew up to my grandfather but beyond that, I didn’t know. And it has both sides of the family, so it means a lot more. It’s something that I have taken a great interest in. Jane and I even went to conversational Japanese courses at UBC and Douglas college for several years. I keep very close touch with the existing relatives in Japan, and periodically we would phone them. There are some language difficulties, but we get by.
I had the honour of meeting the Emperor and Empress of Japan when they visited Nikkei Place. It was so special for everyone, especially the seniors from Nikkei Home and New Sakura-so. When I was little, my mother always told us we were never even allowed to make eye contact with the emperor. You had to get down on the ground, look down and not make eye contact with him. So here they were, visiting our Centre, they both went around and took the time to shake everyone’s hand and say a few words. They spoke perfect English too. And you know what she said to me, the Empress Michiko? She said, “Thank you for caring for the seniors.” Oh gee, that meant so much to me.
Many sanseis and yonseis are not really aware of their background as Nikkei. You know the word Nikkei, what that means? I think they started using the word Nikkei in the US about 15 or more years ago. We use it in a different way from the Japanese. If you look at the kanji, Ni is the word for sun, and the next one is Kei, if you look at the word by itself in the dictionary, it hints of continuity from your ancestors. We look at it as anybody who has some Japanese blood in them. And we also include those who are in close relationship with a “Nikkei” person. So you’re a Nikkei, I’m a Nikkei, everybody from Japan is also a Nikkei. They have a different understanding of the word in Japan, but I think they are starting to understand our meaning here.
I’ve been to Japan, oh I don’t know, six, seven, eight times in the last 20 years, for various reasons, and I learned more about the Japanese culture, Japanese background, and things that relate back to older eras, and the more I learn about my heritage, the more meaningful it gets.