David Iwaasa: re-energizing Tonari Gumi
When David Iwaasa and his wife Jane arrived in Vancouver a year ago this month, he was ready to begin a new chapter in an already-full life. Having spent a lifetime living and working all over the world, the climate and the nearness of family, including grandchildren, lured the couple back to the west coast, where they had lived for a time in the early seventies.
Born in Raymond, Alberta, Iwaasa attended university in Lethbridge for a year before making the decision to serve a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. At age 19 he was sent to Japan for two and a half years, where he served in Tokyo and throughout western Japan. After completing his mission, he returned to Lethbridge to complete his undergraduate degree. He married Jane in July of 1972, after which the couple relocated to Kyoto as David had received a scholarship from the Japanese Ministry of Education (Mombusho). After a year and a half, they returned to Canada, where David completed a Masters Degree in Economics and was recruited by the federal Department of Finance. The next thirty years were spent working for the federal government in various assignments, living in a number of cities including Ottawa, Washington, D.C., Paris, France and Tokyo. The last three years before relocating to Canada were spent in Fukuoka in Southern Japan where they presided over a mission for their church.
When the position of executive director at Tonari Gumi came up several months ago, David decided the time was right for a new challenge. Attracted by Tonari Gumi’s commitment to the concept of volunteerism and the strong grassroots support it enjoys within the Vancouver Nikkei community, he applied for and got the position.
Four months into his new job, David spoke to The Bulletin about this latest chapter in his life and the path that led him to Tonari Gumi’s front door.
Interview with David Iwaasa
You were born and raised in Raymond, Alberta. What are your memories of growing up there?
I have very positive memories of growing up in Raymond. It is a small town and I grew up on a small farm near town. My grandfather had moved to Raymond around 1909 and was a pioneer in the town. There had been a small Japanese community within Raymond from about that time and so the Japanese were well-accepted within the town. In fact, in a research paper that I wrote on the history of the Japanese Canadians in Southern Alberta, I contend that the existence of a Japanese community in the area was part of the reason why the West Coast Japanese could be “evacuated” to Southern Alberta during WWII because it made it somewhat easier for the local populace to accept more Japanese into the area. The fact that large parts of Southern Alberta, in particular, Raymond, Magrath, Taber, etc. had been pioneered by Mormons who continue to be the dominant religious group in many of these towns, made the atmosphere in Southern Alberta a little different than other areas in the region. Raymond also had a Buddhist Church in the town (housed in a former Mormon chapel) and this allowed me to be part of two different parts of the community as I had both Mormon (largely Caucasian) and Japanese friends. However, as a Japanese Canadian Mormon, I was always conscious of being a minority within a minority and, therefore, I was always a little different. As a Mormon, I was different from many of the other Japanese within the community, as most of them attended the Buddhist Church. As a Japanese Canadian, I was one of only a small group within the Mormon Church. However, it was something that I got used to and was able to bridge a number of different cultural, ethnic and religious divides.
How did it come about that you became a member of the Mormon Church?
I can trace a lot of my faith to my grandfather, who was the first member of our family to embrace the church in 1941. He was one of the founders of the Buddhist Church in Raymond and probably the first Buddhist service held east of the Rockies was held in my grandfather’s home. However, he was impressed by the examples of his Mormon neighbours and just prior to the outset of the war with Japan, he decided to join the church. This caused a great deal of turmoil in the Japanese community in Raymond at that time and he experienced ostracism from many of the other Japanese in the community, but he held firm in his new faith. I admired his example and was also influenced by the positive examples of my Mormon friends in Raymond which led to me becoming a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Interestingly, as a member of the church, I’ve been given the opportunity to go to Japan and to learn the language of my ancestry. In many ways, by being a Mormon, I’ve been able to reconnect with my own Japanese heritage.
We generally hear about Nikkei from the Toronto area and the Vancouver area, but there was a pretty sizeable population in Alberta, wasn’t there? Is there something that characterizes those Nikkei and sets them apart?
In analyzing the Nikkei from Alberta, you have to first be aware that there are two distinct groups. First, there are what I describe as the “old-timers,” or the Japanese who lived in Alberta (primarily Southern Alberta) prior to WWII. The second group would be those who were forcibly “evacuated” into the area in early 1942. The first group was quite small and never numbered more than several hundred from around 1909 through to 1941. The June 2, 1941 census lists 578 people of Japanese ancestry in Alberta. These are the “old-timers”. By July 1, 1942 the Japanese population in Alberta had exploded to 3,160. The “evacuees” had come because they were forced to leave BC and Southern Alberta was one of the few places where they could move as a family unit. While the “old-timers” were swamped by the “evacuees”, they continue to remain distinct in that they have a stronger attachment to Alberta and have generally remained. The “evacuees” were less-attached to Alberta and many left, either to the East or back to BC after the travel restrictions were lifted. However, it is interesting that a large number of evacuees did choose to remain in Southern Alberta and there continues to be a sizeable Japanese population in the area. In terms of differences between Nikkei groups elsewhere, the Southern Alberta “old-timers” are unique in that they constituted the only sizeable population of Japanese outside of BC and generally did not experience the same racial discrimination as those on the coast. Southern Alberta Japanese could vote locally, enter the professions, and enlist in the Canadian army. Also, they were not “evacuated” during the war. Otherwise, the posterity of both the “old-timers” and the evacuees living in Alberta are infused with the openness and optimism that characterizes Albertans in general.
You have one of those resumes that makes one wonder, how did one person fit all that into one lifetime?!
I’ve had three very different careers up to now: a federal civil servant specializing in international trade and finance, a marketing executive for the Canadian Wheat Board, a church missionary—and now I’m starting my fourth career with Tonari Gumi. I feel that I’ve been the same person in each of these careers. While each career was very different, I just tried to do my best in each one. What was a constant in each case is that I like challenges and I like working with people.
You grew up in Raymond and have lived in so many large cities in various parts of the world. Is there anything surprising that comes out of that experience, as far as how humans interrelate?
If there is anything surprising, it is that people are more or less the same everywhere. While some individuals who live in large cities may be more cautious and wary than those in small rural areas, it’s simply because they have either experienced or heard of horror stores where people were not careful. However, once you gain a person’s confidence, they are all more or less the same inside.
You’re the new Executive Director at Tonari Gumi, a volunteer-based organization. You have a broad base of experience as a volunteer yourself. What are the values of volunteerism, do you think?
Volunteering gives people the chance to broaden their experiences and to have the satisfaction of doing something for others because of desire rather than monetary reward. I feel that volunteering reveals who you really are inside and builds initiative and a feeling of self-worth. Volunteer work allows us to do things and achieve things without having to wait for others or the government to do it for you.
Tonari Gumi has been integral to the revitalization of the Nikkei community in Vancouver. When you look at the role it played in bringing the sansei into the community and the politicization of many younger Nikkei, you could argue that it had an impact far beyond its size. It began as a grassroots organization and really has kept that identity over the past 36 or so years. I know you’ve only been on the job for a few months, but I’d like your perspective on where TG is today and where it’s headed.
While I’ve only been working at TG since March, I’m really excited to be a part of this organization. TG started in 1973 with Jun Hamada and a handful of other sansei and shin-issei trying to assist people who needed help in the community. This is what I like about how TG evolved—people would see a need (e.g. seniors needing a place to socialize, help in accessing the medical system, advice on how to adjust to life in Canada, etc.) and then they would try to do something about it. TG doesn’t just facilitate activities; it organizes volunteers, gathers the resources and gets to work. Based on this self-help attitude, TG not only helped lonely seniors but it also spawned the Powell Street Festival and played a role in the redress movement. As you indicated, TG helped to restore self-worth and revitalize the post-war Japanese Canadian community. I feel that TG has become somewhat pigeon-holed as the organization that focuses on helping new immigrants and Japanese-speaking seniors. There is nothing wrong with these activities as they are much needed, and TG does a great job in meeting these needs. However, as a number of our members have indicated, TG could do much more. We could reach out more to help a wider range of individuals in the community, such as aging Nisei and sansei who need help in English rather than in Japanese. In addition, just as the founders of TG helped to re-build a sense of community by interacting with the issei, today’s TG could play a role in building inter-generational and cross-cultural linkages among the sansei, the shin-issei and their posterities. In other words, the definition of the Japanese Canadian community needs to go beyond the children and grandchildren of the pre-WWII Japanese to encompass the post-war Japanese and their children and grandchildren. I think that this is an exciting prospect and one that could re-energize the Japanese Canadian community.
I’m also very privileged to be working with a very motivated Board of Directors which incorporates many of the different elements of the Japanese community. Derek Iwanaka, our Chair, is relatively young in his thirties, but he is also the son of TG’s first elected chair, linking Tonari Gumi’s past with its future. The other members of our Board also represent the various parts of our constituency and are working together on developing a new strategic plan for the Tonari Gumi. My predecessor as TG Executive Director, Joji Kumagai, even though he is no longer obligated to be involved, is continuing as a Board member and in helping me with the transition, typifying the commitment that staff, volunteers and members have to the ideals of Tonari Gumi. I’m also excited to work with TG’s current staff: Sayuri Sugawara, our program coordinator, Shihori Scott-Moncrieff, our community service worker, and Junko Takashima, our administrative assistant. They are exceptionally dedicated to Tonari Gumi, coming early in the morning and staying well after closing. I look forward to working as a team to move TG into the future with the same spirit and enthusiasm which symbolized its beginnings.
I understand that Tonari Gumi will be holding a reunion in the summer.
The upcoming TG Reunion scheduled for August 21st is, in my view, an important step in re-energizing Tonari Gumi and the Japanese Canadian community. We are hoping to invite everyone who has had anything to do with TG over its 37 year history to join us at Jericho Beach Park. Because TG encompasses both the new immigrant population and the pre-WWII Japanese posterity, our guest list pretty well covers the entire Japanese Canadian community. This reunion, coupled with the recent publication of our TG history book, Spirit of the Issei: The Story of Tonari Gumi, gives us the opportunity to revive memories of the energy and excitement of the original TG and, in so doing, revitalize that same spirit of self-help, cooperation and pride in community in today’s TG.