One hopes that by now, most people in the widespread Nikkei/ijusha community must be aware of the ongoing campaign led by the “Save the Legacy Sakura of Oppenheimer Park.” Coalition in response to the City of Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park Development Plan (OPDP).
The plan is part of the City efforts to revitalize the area, known as “Little Tokyo” before the forced internment of Nikkei Canadians during World War II, where for decades now residents, businesses and local institutions including Bukkyokai (Vancouver Buddhist Church, VBC) and Vancouver Japanese Language School and Japanese Hall (VJLS) have been coping with the challenge posed by homeless people and drug addicts. As the OPDP design calls for the uprooting of some sakura trees which are of “tremendous social and historical significance to the Japanese Canadian Community” as the Coalition notes, there’s been an upsurge of sentiments within the community to try and save the trees.
An unusually large number of community group representatives and other interested people gathered at a meeting at the VBC hall next to the park on May 10th to hear from a landscape architect on behalf of the Parks Board, reflecting the deep concern shared by many within the community. After all, the cherry trees were planted in the spring of 1977 by Issei men and women—who pioneered the Nikkei folks’ return to the area after 1949—to commemorate the centennial of Japanese immigration to Canada. The summer of 1977 saw the launch of the annual Powell Street Festival to celebrate Nikkei heritage at the very spot where, among other things, the legendary Asahi baseball club used to play in pre-war years.
The gathering brought together representatives of groups joining the Coalition, including VBC, VJLS, Tonari Gumi (support service for Nikkei seniors, which used to be located in the neighbourhood), Japanese Canadian Citizens Association, National Association of Japanese Canadians, Vancouver Japanese Gardeners Association and other community activists. I was there to serve as interpreter, at the Coalition’s request.
The easy part of the Coalition’s campaign is getting everyone in the community to agree that the sakura trees of such symbolic importance should be spared. The hard part is to sound out the opinions of the various community groups and individuals concerned, to sort them out and arrive at a unified position, to communicate that position to the Parks Board and the City through appropriate channels, to negotiate with them if necessary and, finally, to arrive at some kind of settlement.
Allow me, at this point, to clarify what perspective I’m writing from, as we’re dealing with an issue many community groups and individuals feel strongly about. I was asked by Coalition members to “write something about” the campaign in this and other publications. This monthly column I began writing a few years ago, having been invited by JCCA as an erstwhile full-time journalist and editor. Like most of us involved in community activities, I’m a volunteer.
I’m not in favour of, or against, any particular group, and I have no hidden agenda. I’ll just raise a few points that I think are salient, and make a personal comment or two.
The “social and historical significance” of the commemorative trees cannot be understated. They represent the heritage of the many Japanese Canadians who thrived in the area before their internment during WWII, and the Issei and Nisei who came back to the area after 1949 when Nikkei people were given permission to return to BC, including men and women running VJLS and VBC.
While many groups support the Coalition, the VBC, VJLS and Powell Street Festival organizers are the ones that have practical concerns about the redevelopment plan, on top of their attachment to the symbolic sakura trees and a commemorative rock in the park. The plan calls for the removal of seven cherry trees to make space for a new fieldhouse. Replacing the existing facility on the park’s north side, the facility will be closer to the Jackson Avenue side, its back, with doors to the bathrooms, facing VBC. There is concern about the possibility of more drug addicts and homeless people loitering in its vicinity. The VJLS, only a block away, often uses the park for children’s activities, and Powell Festival takes place in the park, so they would be affected by physical changes to the park.
Those groups receiving government or municipal grants are more likely to wish for some sort of compromise with the City and the Park Board to maintain a good relationship in the future. Those who want to save the sakura trees for the sake of Nikkei heritage and have no direct financial interest might be less willing to compromise.
There might also be a difference in the attitude toward the government between those with traditional Japanese values and those with Canadian/Western values. The former, possibly more among older generations, tend to go along with whatever “the powers that be” (okami) decide. The latter, possibly more among the younger generations, have no qualms about arguing their case even with government agencies. Having said that, it must be noted that this campaign, as with many community activities, are led in large part by those getting on in age. Even at over 60, I felt almost “middle aged” among those attending the meeting.
The City Council approved a Concept Plan on March 10th, which could result in the uprooting and removal of some of the commemorative trees. But to be sure, an area advisory group called “Oppenheimer Park Redevelopment Committee,” made up of representatives of the Parks Board, Oppenheimer Park staff, the Buddhist Temple and the Powell Street Festival Society, has been meeting regularly for the last few years to ensure due process in terms of community feedback.
It must also be noted that, according to the Coalition, the redevelopment project team did not know about the historical and cultural significance of the trees until February 25th when their consultant interviewed Mr Takeo Yamashiro, a key executive of Tonari Gumi at the time the trees were planted, who recently retired but is now active in the Coalition’s campaign.
The landscape architect for the Parks Board, who showed us three design options rearranging the paths, the fieldhouse and a children’s play area in different ways, seemed to convey the sense that they were genuinely interested in taking into consideration the community’s views. But despite our special sense of attachment to the park, Nikkei groups are not the only community groups in this part of downtown East Side. At a certain point, the City might have to make a decision in the interest of “all community groups.”
The sakura trees in question have been examined by an independent consultant at the Coalition’s request, and he has reported back that “All seven trees were found to be in fair health and structural condition.” But as the Coalition notes in its petition, the Parks Board takes the view that “the Legacy Sakura have outlived their lifespan.” The petition, prepared by the Coalition and accessible online, says: “We, the undersigned, support the Coalition to Save the Legacy Sakura of Oppenheimer Park and urge the City of Vancouver Council and Parks Board to revise the Oppenheimer Park Redevelopment Concept so that all Oppenheimer Park Legacy Sakura are saved.”
At the time of this writing, we don’t yet know whether these trees, out of about a dozen or so surviving commemorative trees, will be spared. As I’ve found out, the more you study the issue, the more complex it becomes. The final decision by the City Council will likely come later rather than sooner, according to informed observers. In the meantime, please find out more about the issue through the community groups if you are interested and/or sign the online petition (at the end of this article) if you’re so inclined.
This campaign, quite apart from its goal per se, is also a great opportunity for our young folks to learn about the Nikkei heritage. As mentioned earlier, we always need more young people in community activities (while not forgetting the valuable services of all the “youngsters” who do volunteer for them). While those of us retired or close to retirement might have more time for community activities, those of our children’s and grandchildren’s generations will also probably feel their sense of attachment to the community grow stronger as they grow older. That’s just my personal opinion.
Lastly, some back-biting is, as usual, going on within the Coalition. It’s of the “why-is-so-and-so-doing-such-and-such” kind that is never said directly to the person or party concerned. As infighting has been a constant factor in all Japanese émigré communities from way before WWII, whether in North America, South America, or Southeast Asia, I expected as much when I came to Vancouver 11 years ago. I didn’t know then anything about specific issues or who made up the “cast of leading characters,” but I was sure something must be going on. I am now better informed through my association with various groups, including VJLS where my children once went to Japanese class every Saturday, and obviously the JCCA.
I know that certain groups and individuals in the Save the Legacy Sakura campaign, who have had disagreements in the past over other issues, are dredging up those grudges. As one Coalition members said to me, “It’s childish.” It’s also a waste or time and unproductive, so let’s cut it out if you don’t want to discuss it openly.
If you wish, you can add your name to an online petition at http://www.petitiononline/powell77/petition.html. You can also Email the Coalition at