Justin & Lea Ault . . . eat, play, live: raising a family @ the interracial divide
When Justin Ault was 18 years old, he spent a year in Japan courtesy of the Rotary Youth Exchange program. As a hapa yonsei born and raised in Port Alberni on the west coast of Vancouver Island, his knowledge of Japanese culture up to that point was whatever he had picked up from his extended family on his mother’s side. His grandfather, Harold Kimoto, was born in Steveston and his grandmother Mary (nee Shishido) was born in Vancouver. His uncle George played baseball for the Asahi baseball team. Mom Sharon was born in New Denver in 1943 and lived in Montreal until about 1950 when “Grampa” and his brothers brought their families back to the west coast. Harold and his family settled in Port Alberni while his brothers, all commercial fishermen, settled in Ucluelet.
While in Japan, Justin picked some of the language, More importantly, he says, the experience, set him on a course he has been following for the past 20 or so years. “If I hadn’t got a rotary club scholarship in high school to go to Japan for a year I wouldn’t be talking to you now. I have no idea what I’d be doing. I could be a real estate agent, I could be a member of the police department. That year in Japan got me interested in Japan and in my heritage, so that a month after returning home I’m picking up garbage at the Powell Street Festival, which I’d read about in The Bulletin growing up as a kid.”
After graduating from UBC in 1994, Justin moved to Tokyo with the aim of immersing himself in Japanese language and culture. He spent the next eight years there, working at various jobs including as a stockbroker.
In 2001, while back home in Vancouver for a visit, Justin met Lea through mutual friends. It was, they say, love at first sight. Like Justin, Lea was a half Japanese yonsei. Having been brought up in Vancouver, though, she had more experience with the Japanese Canadian community, attending O-bon and Powell Street Festivals and even going to Sunday school at the Japanese United Church when she was young.
Justin returned to Tokyo, but the two kept up in touch, with Lea visiting him several times. While they discussed living in Tokyo together, Lea had been previously married, following her husband from country to country for his work and didn’t want to continue that pattern. For his part, Justin was tired of the stock broking world, so the couple decided to set up a home in Vancouver.
Justin had developed a fondness for the many izakaya (eating and drinking establishments) that he frequented while living in Tokyo and Lea also enjoyed the food and the atmosphere. With Justin’s people skills and Lea’s love of good food, the idea of starting an izakaya in Vancouver seemed like a good fit.
The decision made, the two worked at a Tokyo izakaya for two months, learning the ropes and getting a sense of what it took to run successful restaurant.
By 2002 the couple were married and by 2003 had opened the first Hapa Izakaya on Robson Street. A success almost from the beginning, Hapa Izakaya soon became one of Vancouver’s most popular Japanese restaurants, separating itself from the competition with its sense of style and its approach to Japanese cuisine, eschewing California rolls and chicken teriyaki for more adventurous fare.
Today, seven years after opening Hapa Izakaya, Justin and Lea have two daughters, Hana and Mio (named after the town in Wakayama-ken where many early Japanese emigrated from) and have expanded the business to include three restaurants including an expanded version of the original on Robson Street, one in Kitsilano near their home, and a newly opened location in Yaletown.
Life is good, but constantly challenging, as anyone who has worked in the restaurant business can attest. While Lea works from home, managing the books and business end of things, Justin remains the face of the business, putting in long hours at the various locations, ensuring that things run smoothly and dealing with problems as they crop up.
Wanting to give something back to the community, Justin joined the board of directors of the National Nikkei Museum and Heritage Centre a year and a half ago and has been involved in the planning of the Tenth Anniversary gala events coming up this month. He doesn’t have a lot of spare time, he says, but gets a real sense of satisfaction though connecting more deeply with the community and helping out in any way he can..
Justin and Lea spent an afternoon talking to The Bulletin about the challenges of balancing life and work and the joys (and challenges) of raising two young daughters.
Interview – Justin & Lea Ault
When we last talked in the summer of 2003, you had just opened the first Hapa Izakaya on Robson Street. The restaurant was doing well, but you were talking about the challenges of juggling family and work and making everything balance . . . you were about to start a family and were saying the restaurant world is hard on couples and relationships. It’s now seven years later . . .
Justin Ault (laughing) . . . and we are still struggling to balance things and it’s still hard.
Lea Ault We’re at the point now, though, where we have such great people working with us. They run their kitchen and the front of house. So our presence there isn’t as necessary, and Justin is actually around more than most fathers are. He takes the kids to school in the morning. Sometimes that’s the only time he’ll see them, but he’s making that effort to get up in the morning even though he’s on Japan time, so to speak, because of his late hours. He’s kind of constantly jetlagged because he’s trying to get up early several days a week to take them, knowing that he’s going to be working till late that night. He doesn’t get to bed till like four, five in the morning four nights a week, so it’s kind of hard.
It sounds like shift work.
LA It is like shift work. But he makes the effort to be around for as many family dinners as possible and doing things with the kids. Sometimes he’ll pick them up after school and he’ll take them with him to the restaurant to go and drop stuff off and pick stuff up. We make a point of going on family holidays every year, one in the winter, one in the summer.
JA It’s not all negative either. There’s not many dads to who get to take their kids to school if they have traditional 9 to 5 jobs. There’s that traditional family dinner at home and the after-dinner bath, bedtime thing that I can only participate in a couple times a week, but still . . .
Your daughters are attending a Japanese preschool. Why did you make that decision?
JA We figured, if they were going to be going to a preschool for a couple years before they started kindergarten, then why not get some language benefit out of it. I wouldn’t have been unhappy if they took Mandarin even. It’s not like it’s an effort for the kids. I know that I got a real economic boost in my life from having a second language. While I was going to UBC, I worked as a bellman at the Waterfront Centre Hotel. I would have never got that job if I didn’t speak the basic Japanese I did at the time—there were just too many other nice, personable guys out there. It was a great job and I’d never have got it if I didn’t have that language component.
Is it a challenge, having kids in Japanese pre-school, given that you don’t speak Japanese at home?
JA We’re one of the few families at the preschool that doesn’t have a native speaker in the house. I try to speak with the kids in my Japanese but they know my Japanese isn’t great, the kids can tell . . .
LA They’ll answer him in English anyways. We use Japanese sitters to bolster the Japanese language thing. We’ve been lucky about finding people who speak Japanese and are great with the kids . . . So we’ve got Miho, who looks after Mio and Hana at home; that way they have most of the day speaking Japanese. Otherwise they’d be at a real disadvantage. The other kids go home and they’re hearing Japanese from their mothers, so we try to do this at least four days a week. It’s funny, because if it wasn’t for the Japanese language component, I would actually rather have a housekeeper. It’s hard to be working in the house and hear them all having a great time, and knowing that I’m paying for it! I wish it could be me. But she’s there to speak Japanese to them because I can’t do that.
JA Instead of plunking the kids in front of the TV while we’re doing office work, we’ll have someone playing games with them and engaging them in Japanese.
It’s interesting that you’re putting so much emphasis on the Japanese language for your kids.
LA It’s partly about developing that part of the brain that enables them to acquire language more easily later on. I only had English, English, English through my childhood, and for me, acquiring a second language is impossible. I have a lot of Japanese vocabulary, and I’ve got a certain amount of French vocabulary too. I can speak more French than I can Japanese, but it’s still something that’s a real struggle for me and I really wanted them to have that advantage, you know. If the kids can speak two languages, then they can pick up three or four more.
Are they conscious yet, do you think, that it’s kind of strange that they’re taking Japanese, given that most kids aren’t?
LA Most of their friends speak Japanese.
JA I would say Mio’s caught on though. She’s starting to get a little shy about speaking Japanese in public, and I’ll be like, hey, it’s our secret language . . . One thing that we had hoped to do this past May was to take a family trip to Japan. Lea or I haven’t been back since we left in the spring of 2002. One of the major reasons I think we should do it, besides the fact Lea and I would love to see Japan again, is if we don’t go soon, Mio will be almost finished grade one and I want Japan to mean something to them other than this mysterious country that a lot of their classmates visit to see their grandparents in the summer. Lea and I feel kind of bad for the girls that they haven’t had that opportunity to be immersed in the language and the culture. . . I found it amazing when I was there as a student. So for a six-year-old, I think it would be good to experience.
LA We’re thinking we could go every few years to Japan. There’s other places that we want them to travel to, but that will have to wait until they’re older—places like southeast Asia or Europe, that’s definitely for when they’re older. Japan is more where we feel it’s safe and relatively easy to travel with children. We can bring them there and they will have a certain amount of comfort and we’ll have a certain amount of comfort. It’s easier for us to travel there.
Is it important for you to visit Japan to keep up with what’s going on in the restaurant business there?
LA Not really, it’s not like a rapid evolution. The cooks have enough leeway to innovate independently. And a lot of the kitchen guys go back to Japan periodically anyway, and I think that they keep up with what’s going on. But you know, it gives me a chill to see your average sushi restaurant here. They’ve got the blond wood, they’ve got the red lantern and it’s like, when they left Japan this was the image of a sushi bar, so they just put it in, but it’s frozen in time, like a lot of Japanese Canadians language and habits and things . . .
Back in the Edo period . . .
JA (laughs) Yeah, our great-grandparents time: Taisho era Japanese from the Wakayama countryside . . .
LA It gets kind of fossilized. We don’t want to be frozen in time. Izakaya used to be rough around the edges and it did evolve so we picked up on this concept when it was in this more evolved state, but I want to see, is there a further refinement, are there more changes, more innovations? Because I’d like to try to stay abreast of things.
JA We do have some amazing people working with us. We’ve got a few staff that have been with us since day one, we’ve got a few that have been here six years, a good chunk, five years, four years, so they shoulder a lot of the burden. But I guess the danger is as you grow, you lose time to look at the little things and the details, and that’s something that you have to keep coming back to. It’s kind of like you let your eyes go unfocused for a bit and you realize that you’ve got to blink and take a look at something again because you look around and yeah, this hallway is getting a little beat up, it needs to get painted or whatnot.
Justin, you recently joined the board of the National Nikkei Museum and Heritage Centre. I was wondering if that was sort of an inevitable move for you, if you feel some responsibility towards the community . . .
JA I had been thinking about getting back involved in the community for the last couple years, but I wasn’t quite sure how. One thing I knew was that I never seem to have enough time for myself, my family and my business, and I didn’t want to go volunteer for something and then let other people down. There’s one guy on the NNM&HC board, who I knew through friends, and he called me up and says, hey, we’re trying to get some younger people involved who come from different backgrounds, and a few people mentioned your name . . . would you be interested? And I voiced the same concern—that I didn’t know how much time I could devote to it—and it was explained to me that there’s over 20 board members and not everybody can make every third Wednesday in the month for a board meeting . . . So when that was explained to me, I thought yeah, this is something I could do. And it definitely it is a way to contribute somehow to the community, beyond donating the odd gift certificate. And so far it’s been interesting and fun. The first year was definitely a feeling-out process too. You’ve got some people in that room who have been involved in the community for 30, 40 years—guys who were presidents of companies—and then normal guys like me. So you don’t want to say a lot at first, you just kind of watch what’s going on and then slowly start feeling confident about giving your views and opinions. I guess that’s one of the reasons they want someone like me there, a guy who’s almost 40 and has a different view. I for one felt very strongly that for the 10th anniversary gala, we should do it big, do it right. Not that there’s anything wrong with doing it at the Nikkei Centre, but just to get some more people involved and have it say at a downtown hotel and make it something where it’s a focal point of the community and not just necessarily a Nikkei Centre event. I was just one of many voices that felt that way, and ultimately, as you know, it will be at the Fairmont Pacific Rim this year, so that’s something a little different.
It’s an ongoing issue, and it probably goes on within all ethnic sub-communities: the issue facing the leadership is how do you get young people involved, how do you bring younger people in.
JA Yeah, it is, it’s tough. Back in the early nineties, someone tried to get a Japanese Canadian youth group going: barbecues and volleyball and things like that, and it worked for a while but it comes down to the fact that we’re in a big city and by the second and third generation, people want to hang out with people with similar interests, not just because they necessarily happen to have a similar heritage. To solely base your relationships on the fact that your grandparents or great-grandparents or, in our kids’ case, great-great-grandparents, came from Japan . . . there needs to be more than that . . . I think if it’s encouraged and you know there are things happening like the Powell Street Festival, which get the community out and the Japanese language schools bazaars and the Nikkei Centre functions, as long as there’s enough things out there to keep people involved, you can keep people interested and engaged . . . and I think involving the new immigrant community and their children will help keep the community energized and involved. I see it with a lot of our staff who are the children of immigrants and they speak English without any accent—they were either born here or came when they were three or four, but their Japanese is still pretty good because it was the language they heard in their house, unlike me and Lea. And, you know, those guys I think can be very huge in helping keep the community alive . . . and whether you’re Buddhist or not, going to the Steveston Buddhist Temple, Obon Matsuri, which we’ve done the last couple of years, it’s just a great event to take the kids to and they enjoy it and the dancing and the food booths . . .
So you have second generation people working for you at the restaurant?
JA Quite a few, yeah. I mean, these kids are in their mid-twenties on down . . . Most of our Hapa kids have a parent who’s from Japan. They’re not like us, you know, who are third, fourth generation. They actually had a Canadian father that lived in Japan. They’re part of that wave of Canadians who went to teach English in Japan, it probably started happening about 30 years ago. But yeah, most our Hapa staff speak Japanese reasonably well.
Do you think having kids has changed your view of community and what it means to be Japanese Canadian, what it means to be part of the community?
JA My mom sent an e-mail about two weeks ago saying it’s been 17 years since Nana, her mother, passed away. I hadn’t thought about that at all, but I wrote to her and I said it would have been really nice if she had lived—she’d be 95, which is close to Lea’s grandmother’s age—and for her to see her granddaughters and great-granddaughters, and to have a conversation in Japanese with them that her own daughter couldn’t have with her. That would be quite amazing. It’s like honouring your grandparents and great-grandparents, and the struggles they went through in some small way, whether it’s being involved in the Nikkei Centre or the language . . .
LA My grandmother belonged to the Japanese United Church on Victoria Drive and she brought me along when I was little, and my mom would take us to things like O-bon and the Powell Street Festival, but that was about it. We had Japanese homestay students and we absorbed more culture from them, but there’s a difference between Japanese culture and Japanese Canadian culture. And now Justin and I foster our interest in our culture and heritage in each other. I think it brings me closer to my mother and grandmother. And with the children involved in Japanese school and language, it’s a real multi-generational thing now.
Do you guys cook at home?
JA Lea’s really, really good. I’ve kind of fallen by the wayside. I was good in university but when there’s someone who can cook as well as Lea can, it kind of takes the incentive away. And none of our kids would eat my food anyway.
LA Well, they might eat it but they wouldn’t eat till like nine o’clock at night. He’s one of those really slow cooks. The one thing is, I don’t make a lot of Japanese food because we eat at the restaurant and we get enough Japanese food there.
You’re probably finding, I would think, that customers are becoming more cosmopolitan now and can tell good food from mediocre food, including Japanese food.
JA You would hope.
LA But all the kind of so-so Japanese restaurants are still doing just fine because even if it’s not great, it’s still good enough, it still tastes pretty good. I mean, dashi (Japanese soup stock) goes a long way, you can do a lot with that, and it’s delicious. But there are certainly lots of people who have travelled and there are so many foodies in Vancouver, and they really embrace new concepts, and get really excited about new food.
JA We have seen over the years—and I throw this number out with absolutely no supporting research—I’d say 80 percent of our guests are regulars. Some as much as once a week, some we see every once a month, every couple months. So the difficulty in the first couple of years was when someone would say, “Can I have a sake please?” And you’d ask, what kind? And they’d say, “You know, the hot stuff.” Or, “Can I get a California roll?” “We actually don’t have sushi.” “What? It’s a Japanese restaurant isn’t it?” But with time, people figured out what we were doing and really got on board.
Restaurants like yours are expanding the concept of what Japanese food is.
LA Well, Japanese food is big territory! It’s interesting because we’ve been moving in the direction of organic and sustainable food and we are part of the Ocean Wise program. We felt we should be doing this, because we’ve been reading books about the oceans and sustainable fisheries, and it’s been interesting seeing the kitchen evolving in that direction because they’ve had to sort of figure out what they were doing, but some of them have really, really embraced it. It’s interesting because the whole concept of sustainable fishing is not very Japanese in general.
I’m not familiar with Ocean Wise. Can you explain what it is?
LA It’s a program the Vancouver aquarium has been promoting to advance the sustainable use of sea food products. If you want to belong to the program you have to be always moving towards taking more and more things off your menu that are not so desirable and not within the range of acceptable, sustainable sea food. We went to a Japanese restaurant where the big selling point of the sashimi feature was that it was from Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, so it was 60 bucks for eight pieces of sashimi. We sell the same amount of sustainable sashimi for less than 20 bucks, probably more like 12. So we ordered it because we were with one of our chefs and we were curious, but it’s very interesting that that was a selling point. Is Tsukiji fish market sustainably supplied? No, it’s definitely not. It’s like the antithesis of sustainable fishing.
JA I don’t think you’re going to see the Ocean Wise program take off in somewhere like Japan any time soon.
LA I mean Asia in general is not really interested in that kind of thing. In China it’s more like, “It’s almost extinct? I’ll pay a lot of money for it!”
JA “If it’s got four legs and isn’t a table we’ll eat it.”
LA You can’t say “this is now a rare species” because then that animal becomes more desirable and you have more people hunting these poor things. But it’s interesting that we’re seeing more and more films like Sharkwater or The Cove that raise awareness, so I’m interested in seeing how that goes. North America is one thing—people want to see Ocean Wise, they want to know they’re doing the responsible thing—but I always wonder what our Japanese staff really think.
I guess it’s an education for your Japanese chefs too, to be working here and to experience a different way of approaching things.
JA Oh yeah, they are getting on board, they realize that some things are hard to get here, not only from a cost point of view, but also because Canadians have different views on the environment. I think that they’re realizing that you can cook and eat well and sustainably at the same time.