Joji Kumagai: standing at the crossroads of community
Growing up in Port Moody BC in the early eighties, Joji Kumagai wasn’t particularly interested in his Japanese heritage. The son of Tatsuya and Akiko Kumagai, he saw himself as a typical Canadian kid—playing sports and hanging with his friends. After graduating from Port Moody Senior Secondary School he attended Simon Fraser University, where he majored in ecology with a minor in toxicology. In the summer of 2001 Kumagai travelled to Japan where he was able to get to know many relatives for first time, including his maternal grandmother, to whom he grew attached. He spent six weeks exploring the country of his parents’ birth, gaining a deeper appreciation of his cultural and ethnic roots.
Wanting to connect more with his culture after returning to Vancouver in the fall of 2001, Kumagai began volunteering at Tonari Gumi, the seniors drop-in centre on East Broadway. He taught a weekly ESL class as well as helping with special events. In the summer of 2003 he returned to Japan, this time on the JET program. He spent two years teaching English in the town of Shichinohe in northeastern Aomori Prefecture.
On his return to Vancouver in 2005, Kumagai went back to volunteering at TG until taking on the job of Administrator in July 2006. He became Executive Director of TG in February 2007, a position he held until recently.
This past summer, Kumagai took on the job of acting Executive Director of the Strathcona Business Improvement Association (SBIA). The second largest Business Improvement Association in the Greater Vancouver area, the SBIA represents over 850 business and commercial property owners within the boundaries of Gore Avenue, Clark Drive, Railway Street, and Venables Street.
At the SBIA, Kumagai has been able to combine his long-time interest in ecology with a newer interest in accounting, getting heavily involved in the SBIA’s Strathcona Green Zone initiative. The initiative, intended to reduce the environmental impact of Strathcona as a whole, includes plans to increase green space and features, among other things, a resource exchange, where members can exchange surplus items, keeping them out of the landfill.
Tying together Kumagai’s involvement at Tonari Gumi (where he remains on the Board) and the SBIA is his involvement with the Legacy Sakura Coalition, an ad hoc group that came together to save the sakura trees in Oppenheimer Park that were slated for destruction during the renovation of the Park.
Joji Kumagai sat down with The Bulletin (arriving by bike of course!) to talk about the path he has taken from Port Moody to Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood.
by John Endo Greenaway
In His Own Words
Interview with Joji Kumagai
You’re one of the few Vancouver people I’ve met who doesn’t think Port Moody is situated at the end of the known universe . . . I don’t imagine there were a lot of Japanese families there back when you were a kid.
My parents came to Vancouver from Sapporo in the late 60s and eventually settled in Port Moody. My dad’s side of the family originated in Kyushu while my maternal grandmother grew up in Sendai. My parents were close friends with so many of those that immigrated from Japan to Canada in the 1960s and 70s; however, growing up, I really didn’t see myself as Japanese Canadian. None of my friends in the neighbourhood were JC and I was more interested in playing hockey and soccer and trying to find out what my older brother and sister were learning about in school. Teachers and classmates would ask me things about Japanese food and culture but to be honest, I was quite clueless. My mom in particular tried her best to try and teach me Japanese but I didn’t show much interest and felt writing to relatives I hardly knew or reading Japanese books about rabbits was a chore no different from helping with laundry.
I first met you when you were serving as executive director at Tonari Gumi. How did you come to be involved in the organization?
For two reasons. I started to explore my ethnic roots after visiting Japan during the tail end of university. After arriving back home, I wanted to continue learning about Japanese culture and saw a Tonari Gumi ad in one of the local publications and thought I’d start volunteering there. I was “strongly encouraged” by Kikko Tasaka, who was the program coordinator there at the time, to be the ESL teacher despite the fact I had no such experience. The second reason was I wanted to work with seniors as I enjoyed the opportunity to connect with my frail grandmother when I saw her during my trip but I realized I wouldn’t be able to help her being in Canada so I figured I would try and help seniors in Vancouver instead. It’s hard to believe I’ve been involved with TG in some capacity or another for 10 years already but I’ve still got a ways to go to catch up to some who have been helping for 30-plus years.
So your interest in JC culture really was sparked by your trip . . .
I had little interest at all until I realized from my trip that I truly enjoyed learning about this cultural aspect I didn’t know much about. I began to understand more about myself and about my parents as well and things went from there.
So many people in the community have cut their teeth either working or volunteering at Tonari Gumi over the years. What have you taken away from your involvement with TG?
It’s quite an amazing organization. There are so many truly caring, dedicated and selfless people who contribute so much for little tangible personal gain. I’ve obviously had a tremendous opportunity to learn more about the history of the JC community and through that, learned more about the history of Vancouver. I’ve also gained insight into the quiet strength of immigrants and how through their struggles, they’ve created more comfortable opportunities for generations like mine. I’ve gained so much in terms of confidence, leadership and experience that I truly feel eternally indebted to TG.
You met your wife Yuka through TG I believe?
Yuka was visiting Vancouver in 2002 on a working holiday visa and was reporting for the Vancouver Shinpo on a TG event. Kikko encouraged her to volunteer at TG and also encouraged her to join the ESL class that I happened to be teaching. We didn’t spend much time together in Vancouver but around the same time in late 2002 and in 2003, she was heading back to Japan and I was accepted into the JET Programme. We met a number of times in Japan, despite the fact she lived in Kobe and I was situated in Aomori. Things progressed nicely and we eventually got married in Kobe in 2005. Kikko was the key in this whole process!
We had our first child, Reika, in 2008. She’s so much fun and her grasp of Japanese is frightening. I think my Japanese has greatly improved over the last five years but I fully concede she has surpassed me and she knows it; she mercilessly corrects me these days.
I was surprised to open the paper one day and see a piece about you in your new job as acting head of the Strathcona Business Improvement Association (SBIA). It’s an interesting step following your departure from TG. How did you end up there?
I’m very interested in sustainability and the environment and decided it was time for a different challenge. The SBIA position came up and I thought it would be a great opportunity to continue building relationships with the people I had met through TG, interact with for-profit organizations to supplement my not-for-profit background, and get involved in the SBIA’s Green Zone Initiative. Fortunately, things worked out and I got the position.
Who are your bosses?
I report to the SBIA’s board of directors but there are many stakeholders in the community so there is always someone willing to provide feedback, both good and bad!
Strathcona encompasses a truly diverse neighbourhood. There must be many challenges inherent in working there, but also many rewards.
It is an incredibly diverse neighbourhood, from highly successful artists to those just starting up, businesses that have been operating for several decades to new ones in emerging IT and social media industries. Add to that the heritage aspects and the many long-time residents and it’s a pretty special community.
There are obviously many complex social issues the community has to deal with and because of the scope of some of these, it can be a challenge to wrap your head around how to make a dent to try and make things better, especially when some of the issues are dealt with at the provincial or federal level. That being said, I’m told things are slowly getting better, but it can be heartbreaking to see the despair in the lives of some of the folks wandering the streets.
All in all, the best part of working in the neighbourhood is the honesty and passion people have to building a better community. Whether you agree or disagree with what they might have to say, there is always a good point brought to the discussion and it’s exciting working with that sort of energy.
The SBIA is spearheading a drive to create 30 community gardens in the neighbourhood. What is the impetus behind this?
We wanted to develop a project that would help build community in a respectful way that also aligns with the SBIA’s Green Zone Initiative. The project would entail the SBIA partnering with a local social enterprise to create green jobs for people with job readiness barriers and youth, bring more green spaces to reduce the amount of concrete and neglected spaces, create community pride and reduce crime. Unfortunately, the source of funding we were initially seeking didn’t come to fruition so we’ll be looking at other options to make this project work.
What is the Green Zone Initiative?
It’s one of the SBIA’s initiatives to create a community of green businesses and also use sustainability to bring about greater social change. We do things like resource reviews (waste audits) and have started a resource exchange whereby businesses partner with other organizations or artists to find outlets for materials that would otherwise be discarded.
BIAs are mostly seen as business-driven, but it seems to me that there is a real social-responsibility aspect to your work . . .
There are a number of social issues that are more apparent in Strathcona than many other neighbourhoods in Vancouver so it’s important we take an inclusive approach to try and make a stronger community, as that benefits everyone, not just businesses. We’d like to see a safer community and a more vibrant business district but not at the expense of displacing locals who call the area home.
Strathcona was once home to many Japanese Canadians, and many attended Strathcona Elementary School before the war. I don’t know if Oppenheimer Park is technically in Strathcona, but it’s definitely part of the neighbourhood. You’ve been involved in various aspects of the recent (and ongoing) renovation of the park, including the saving of most of the historic sakura trees that were planted during the Japanese Canadian Centennial and the commemorative aspects of the redesign. Can you talk about what is being planned in the way of commemorative projects in the park . . .
Through extensive community outreach processes, four commemorative themes were decided on: First Nations presence; Japanese Canadian settlement, which will include commemoration of the Legacy Sakura and Asahi; resilience of the community against social exclusion; and the community as gathering place. There will be First Nations house posts installed in 2011 and also a First Nations greeting on the new fieldhouse building. For the Legacy Sakura, a fritting design will be installed by the spring onto the some of the windows of the fieldhouse that will be comprised of the silhouette of the Akebono Legacy Sakura that was moved in 2009 as well as the poem that was on the memorial rock that was placed in the park during the Centennial celebrations. The City in particular has really stepped up to make this happen. These commemorative projects are first up on the task force’s to-do list and once completed, we’ll move on to the Asahi and other commemorative projects. It’s been a long and at times, intense process, up to this point but I’m certainly looking forward to seeing the Legacy Sakura fritting completed and it’s been great seeing so many people from all backgrounds come together for this.
You’re filling a temporary, maternity-leave, position at the SBIA. What are your plans for the future?
I have a degree in ecology but realized in university that I could contribute more for a better environment, which is critical not only for the health of the natural world but for society in general, if I started looking into the business and financial side. In the last couple of years, I’ve been working on an accounting designation and will be pursuing a position with an organization that has an environmentally-related mandate. I hope that bringing more financial skills to such organizations can help them stretch their resources a little better and further its mandate. We’ll see how it goes!