60 Years on the Ground with the Vancouver Japanese Gardeners Association featuring David Suzuki
The Vancouver Japanese Gardeners Association was formed in 1959, in the aftermath of the wartime internment and dislocation of British Columbia’s Japanese Canadian community. Today, the organization continues to serve as an umbrella association for its 50 or so members, while undertaking larger projects under its own name, including the design, construction and upkeep of the Nikkei Garden at Nikkei Place, the Momiji Gardens at the PNE and the Hope Friendship Garden, in Hope, BC.
The VJGA was founded during the construction of the University of British Columbia’s Nitobe Gardens which was built under the direction of Kannosuke Mori, a renowned landscape architect from Chiba University in Japan. The garden had been commissioned by UBC president Norman Mackenzie as a way of honouring the memory of Japanese author, educator, diplomat, and politician Nitobe Inazō, who died in 1933 in Victoria, and whose goal was “to become a bridge across the Pacific.”
This year, the Vancouver Japanese Gardeners Association is celebrating its 60th Anniversary – looking back at its long history, but also looking forward to an uncertain future in the face of a changing climate. To that end, they have invited renowned geneticist, broadcaster and environmentalist David Suzuki to be the keynote speaker at the VJGA’s 60th Anniversary event at the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre in Burnaby on Sunday, November 10 at 2pm.
I visited two members of the association at their headquarters on Slocan Street in Vancouver. Shimpei Okada is the president of the VJGA, and Morio Kaneda is a past president and chair of the 60th Anniversary committee.
SETTING THE BOTTOMLINE IN THE ANTHROPOCENE
Dr. David Suzuki speaks as Keynote speaker at the 60th anniversary of the VJGA. Two guest speakers will also talk about environment and gardens
Guest speakers: Commissioner Dave Demers of Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation and Ms. Heather Schamehorn of Perennial Pleasure Landscaping.
Sunday, November 10, 2019
2:00pm – 4:30pm
Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre
6688 Southoaks Crescent
Burnaby, BC V5E 4M7
Bulletin Interview: Shimpei Okada & Morio Kaneda
First, I have to say that every time I visit the Nikkei Centre, I enjoy taking a minute or two to appreciate the beautiful garden that the VJGA built. How long did it take to build?
Okada Thank you, I am glad you enjoy it. It is always our goal to provide pleasure and beauty with our gardens. We began construction of the garden in 1999 and it was finished in time for the grand opening of the Centre in 2000. The concept of the garden is a harmony of Canada and Japan. On the east side of the garden are plants that originated in Japan, and on the west side are mountains of Canada. The pond in the centre represents the Pacific Ocean.
I’m curious, what makes a Japanese garden different than any other garden?
Okada It is very difficult to define a Japanese garden. However it features elements of natural landscape such us mountains, rocks, streams, ponds, trees, and so on. It is meant to make you feel as if you are in a natural landscape so that you feel relaxed or even healed. In some styles of Japanese gardens, only rocks and gravel are used to depict a natural landscape. Compared to western style gardens, less emphasis is put on flowers.
What is the history of Japanese gardening in BC? Did Japanese gardeners exist pre-war?
Kaneda According to Professor Norifumi Kawahara of Ritsumeikan University who has studied Japanese immigrants to Canada, it was confirmed that 144 Japanese gardeners worked in Vancouver in 1941. They did not have any knowledge or skills to make Japanese gardens. They worked as yard boys, maintaining grass and plants. Their status was similar to house keepers. Some gardeners had already used helpers for their own business. They lost everything when they were sent to internment camps.
When Japanese Canadians began to return to the west coast in 1949, some went back or started to work as yard boys. Over time more gardeners began to purchase their own equipment and start their own businesses. By 1959, when we worked for Kannosuke Mori to build the Nintobe Gardens we had 21 gardeners who got together to form the VJGA.
How did the early gardeners learn the skills they needed to go into business for themselves?
Okada I assume they learned the skills to maintain western-style gardens through their predecessors. Those who started working as a helper must have learned from their bosses. Regarding skills and knowledge of Japanese gardens, some went back to Japan to study. Mr. Tomomichi Sumi, the first president of VJGA, was one of them. They hired helpers and the helpers leaned skills from them. After the VJGA was established, the members acquired the skills through study sessions. On some occasions, a prominent landscaper in Japan would be invited to the session. Whether it is about Japanese- or western-style gardens, members of the VJGA shared their knowledge with each other. That was one advantage of having this association. Now of course there is information available on the internet, but back then you had to learn from someone, that was the only way to get information.
The VJGA has existed almost all long as Japanese Canadians we allowed to return to their lives on the coast, or rather, to rebuild their lives. The community has changed a lot since then. Has there been any attempt to collect the history of the association?
Kaneda Professor Kawahara of Ritsumeikan University has already collected a large amount of information of Japanese gardeners in BC and VJGA and has published articles in our annual membership rosters and commemoration books. He is planning to continue his research and publish a book about it in the near future.
The members of the VJGA all have their own businesses, yet you work together on larger projects, starting of course with the Nitobe Gardens. What do you get out of working together like that?
Kaneda An important mission of the VJGA has been to heighten Japanese gardeners’ status. Contributing to the community by building a Japanese garden in a public place is a great opportunity for us. Our members share this ideal, so they donate their labour to work collectively. They are also able to gain skills and knowledge of Japanese gardens through the process of building one.
What else does the VJGA do throughout the year?
Kaneda In April, we build an exhibition garden in VanDusen garden for Sakura Days Japan Fair. We also hold a plant sale in Nikkei Centre. In August, Sumi Garden Tour is held. Study sessions and sessions for well-being are held throughout the year. We also have social events such as a new year party and the mochitsuki at Nikkei Centre.
How has your business changed over the years?
Okada Until the 1950s, there was no powered garden tools available – all work was done manually. One gardener would work on one house all day. They were called yard boys or garden boys. They were not considered skilled workers and their status was low. The appearance of gas-powered machines and tools changed the situation completely. One gardener was be able to take care of many gardens per day. Garden maintenance became a much more profitable business and helpers started their own business after working for a boss for a couple of years. The garden industry was flourishing. Also, various pesticides became available and gardeners used them to keep their gardens “appealing.”
In 2007, Integrated Pest Management was implemented, and many municipalities banned harmful pesticides, so we cannot use those pesticides. Over the last five years, we’ve noticed the summers have been very hot and dry. Sprinklers are allowed to be on only twice a week now, which allows European chafer beetles to infect wide areas of grass rapidly. It is much more difficult to keep the grass “appealing” than before. Some garden equipment manufacturer have started producing battery-powered equipment. They used to be fragile and could not withstand a professional use. However, the batteries and equipment has been improving over the years. More gardeners have started to use them or show strong interest in them.
Speaking of the environment, you’ve invited Dr. David Suzuki to speak at your Anniversary event on November 10. What led you to choose Dr. Suzuki?
Okada As gardeners we are outside all the time, working with our hands in the dirt, touching plants. So we really see and understand how our climate is changing. 18 years ago, I would see a few snakes a day. Now I am lucky to see one a year. That’s just a small example of the changes we see. In our daily work we are making things grow, working with nature. However, by using gas-powered equipment and pesticides, we have been contributors to the current environment crisis. It’s important for us to change our job practices and build a world where our children and grandchildren can grow up with clean air and water. So it seemed natural to invite someone who has so much to say about these matters – not just for Japanese Canadian gardeners, but everybody. After all, we are sharing this world, no matter where we come from originally.
Are your activities open to the public? How can people get involved?
Kaneda Some study sessions as well as activities such as the plant sale and Sumi garden tour are open to the public. Please check our website regularly.
Okada This event is a great opportunity for everyone to learn about what you can do to change the course of the current climate crisis. Please come and join us!