Of a time . . .
This is the story of two windows. And a door.
In the late seventies I was living with my parents in a small housing co-op on Union Street. Many of the families living there were Japanese, so there was a sense of cozy community within the seven units. On warm days I used to hear the sound of a strangely beautiful, breathy flute wafting from the open window of one of the other units. My mother told me it was called a shakuhachi. What did I know? I myself would sit in my bedroom for hours on end, practicing my guitar and writing songs. One day I was approached by one of the other co-op members, Takeo Yamashiro, who turned out to be the shakuhachi player. He told me he had heard me through my window and invited me to perform solo at a coffeehouse that Tonari Gumi was running out of the DERA building on Cordova Street. At the urging of my parents, I somewhat reluctantly agreed. After all, I didn’t know any of these people.
In retrospect, walking through the door that night on Cordova Street, guitar in hand, changed the trajectory of my life. Following my performance, I was approached by a group of folks who invited me to join their band, Kokuho Rose. And just like that, I was part of a community. Takeo, Rick Shiomi, Linda Uyehara Hoffman, Joyce Chong, and Sean Gunn welcomed me with open arms. Rick, who had coordinated the first Powell Street Festival, became a mentor of sorts and I spent hours in his kitchen listening carefully as he introduced me to the history of the community (my mother had never talked much about her experience as a Japanese Canadian, not that I ever asked, being young and self-involved).
And there was the music of course. Incredibly, the band played the same music I loved: American and British folk and blues augmented with several songs from an album released in the US called A Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle by Asians in America by Chris Iijima, Nobuko Miyamoto and “Charlie” Chin. I began writing songs for the group as well and we spent several years as a tight unit, performing at political events and various coffeehouses.
Eventually, folk music gave way to something new (and old) as we collectively discovered taiko at the 1979 Powell Street Festival. When we formed Katari Taiko as Canada’s first taiko group, my dreams of becoming the next Bob Dylan gave way to more esoteric ambitions. In taiko, I found an art form that linked back directly to my Japanese heritage, yet was modern in its approach and attitude. On a larger scale, taiko, North American-style, became in some ways emblematic of the rebirth of the Japanese Canadian community. When I left Katari Taiko In 1988 to form Uzume Taiko and pursue taiko full-time it was another step in the progression that began with that coffeehouse.
My life took another turn in 1993 when I took over as editor of The Bulletin. What was meant to be a short stint at the editor’s desk has turned into a long-term assignment and I am now in my 15th year. As I have said before on these pages, I continue to learn on the job, always amazed by the many facets of the community. Calling it cohesive would be stretch, but there’s always something going on.
Last week I learned the meaning of Japanese Canadian determination as I witnessed the moving of one of the Legacy Sakura at Oppenheimer Park to make way for the renovation that will remake the park this spring. Moving the tree was a monumental task, but it is matched, maybe even exceeded, by the perseverance of the ad hoc committee that formed quickly to save the trees from their planned demise.
Standing in the park as we watched the city workers undertake the challenge of moving a 32-year-old tree several hundred feet from where it was originally planted, I looked around at a sea of familiar faces including Gordon Kadota and Tamio Wakayama, a former Bulletin editor and wonderful photographer who has spent years documenting the community. He photographed the planting of the original trees in 1977. Special guest of the day was Mrs. Tokuko Inouye who was present at the ceremony 32 years ago.
I watched the various small groups talking amongst themselves as we waited for the ceremony to begin, and it struck me that my whole connection to the Japanese Canadian community was launched 30 years ago, just a few short blocks away on Cordova Street. It is a connection that has, if anything, gotten stronger over the years and infuses much of my life. The Bulletin remains one of my major work commitments and hours are spent every month researching stories and following up on leads. Even many of my non-Nikkei clients are connected one way or another through my time as a taiko player. Every Sunday morning my two daughters and I head to Nikkei Place to practice with Chibi Taiko. And of course I met my wife Amy when we were recording Uzume Taiko’s first CD and we needed a sax player for one song.
This is my story—illustrating how a chance meeting can change the trajectory of a life. But it is only one small example of how communities are formed, shaped, and reformed over time. By choosing to take paths that branch off from the road we are following, we can be fins the unexpected. Sometimes they can be dead ends, other times we can find ourselves in unexpected and wondrous places. And sometimes, even trees can move . . .
In this issue we hear the voices of three artists who have taken the path less travelled in pursuit of their own kind of truth. Jay Hirabyashi, along with his wife Barbara Bourget, formed Kokoro Dance to create a vehicle for their unique vision of dance and choreography. On page 9, Jay writes about his experience and understanding of butoh, the post-war dance form that stood dance convention on its head and created a new vocabulary of movement.
On page 4 I interview Terry Hunter and Savannah Walling, founders of Vancouver Moving Theatre, a company based in Strathcona, a few blocks on the other side of Hastings Street from Oppenheimer Park. Like Kokoro Dance, Vancouver Moving Theatre makes choices not based on commercial viability but on a commitment to a set of values.
Both companies are linked closely with the Downtown Eastside and so there is a nice symmetry in this month’s issue. I hope you enjoy these stories and have the opportunity to participate in some of the many events and performances taking place this month. They range from the provocative and boundary-defying (Vancouver International Dance Festival) to the contemplative (Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival) to the grassroots-based (Japantown Multicultural Neighbourhood Celebration) to the historical (Nikkei Fishermen book launch). To use an overused and probably inaccurate phrase: there’s something for everyone.