Seeking Nominations: Japanese Canadian Historical Sites
In 2015, the BC Government launched a pilot program to identify places of historic significance to Chinese Canadians, resultng in the addition of 21 provincially recognized places in to the BC Register of Historic Places, the official provincial list of historic places in British Columbia. The register includes heritage sites protected directly by the Province as well as many places recognized and protected by local governments, and has over 3,400 historic places listed to date.
Given the success of the Chinese Canadian pilot, on July 7th the Government launched the Japanese Canadian Historic Places Recognition Project, with a deadline of September 9th, 2016. Following the objections raised by individuals and representatives from Japanese Canadian community organizations, the deadline is expected to be extended to allow for community information sessions and input.
As JCCA President Lorene Oikawa says, “The history of Japanese Canadians is the history of BC, telling the Canadian immigrant story of overcoming a barrage of challenges to being acknowledged and celebrated as a vibrant part of the multicultural fabric of British Columbia society today.”
British Columbians now have the opportunity to nominate places or sites that tell the history of Japanese Canadians in BC. It is hoped that this provincial registry will become a stepping stone to create a digital interactive educational mapping tool to teach the lessons of Japanese Canadian history.
Laura Saimoto of the Vancouver Japanese Language School & and Japanese Hall points out that sites do not have to be grand, or even very old. They can range from buildings, monuments, cemeteries and parks to entire neighborhoods or districts, and abandoned sites that once stood, but have now been reclaimed by nature.
Do you know a historic place associated with the history of the Japanese Canadian community in British Columbia that is important to you or your community? Now is your chance to have it considered for formal recognition by the Province of its heritage value. Nominations can be made on the Heritage BC form (heritagebc.ca/japanese-historic-places). Individuals and representatives of Japanese Canadian community organizations have set up a Japanese Canadian community Facebook page, JC Sites BC (http://bit.ly/2ba36Lz). The group is encouraging people to make nominations, and to share places they are nominating on the Facebook page. In this way, people can see the sites being nominated and under which categories, such as internment camps, cemetery sites etc. This real-time posting is intended to help identify any gaps, missing places, and it’s also a place where people can connect and support each other.
Nominated historic places will be evaluated against specific criteria by a team that includes community and academic expertise to establish heritage significance. Historic places of the highest significance will be considered for official recognition by the Government of British Columbia and placed on the BC Register of Historic Places and the Canadian Register of Historic Places: www.historicplaces.ca
Heritage BC, a not-for-profit, charitable organization, is contracted to administer the nomination process. Its mandate is to support heritage conservation throughout British Columbia through advocacy, training and skills development, capacity building in heritage planning and funding through the Heritage Legacy Fund. The Canadian Register of Historic Places currently includes at least 30 records for historic places in British Columbia with Japanese Canadian heritage values.
“As the first Canadian of Japanese descent to be elected to the BC government, I am thrilled to see the Japanese Canadian Historic places project get underway.”
– Naomi Yamamoto, MLA for North Vancouver-Lonsdale
The history of the Japanese in Canada is indelibly etched on the landscape of British Columbia. From 1877, when Manzo Nagano is widely acknowledged as the first Japanese to immigrate to Canada, to December, 1942, when all Canadians of Japanese ancestry where forcibly removed from the coast, Japanese Canadians made their mark across the province. While many were concentrated in the Powell Street area and Steveston, others followed the salmon and the canneries up the west coast to the Skeena and even further north. Some took up farming in the Fraser Valley, or settled in Victoria and the Gulf Islands, where the remains of charcoal pit kilns have been found in recent years. Still others went into logging and other labour-intensive industries, forbidden as they were from most professional occupations.
Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the landscape shifted forever, as a hundred-mile exclusion zone was established around the entire west coast. After being processed though Hastings Park, the majority of men, women and children were shipped by rail and truck to interment camps in the interior of the province. The names of these camps are now iconic – Tashme, Greenwood, New Denver, Slocan, Sandon, Bay Farm, Lemon Creek. A sizeable minority chose to voluntarily relocate to so-called self-supporting camps in places like East Lillooet, Bridge River, Minto, Blind Bay and others.
Once the camps were closed, the community scattered across the country, forbidden from returning back to the west coast for another four years after the war ended. Time, dust and fading memories have covered over many of the places where lives were once lived, where babies born, and people died. Empty fields sit were tents and shacks sprang up overnight; little tangible evidence remains of a once vibrant community and the great uprooting that changed the shape of the community forever.
In recognition of the Japanese Canadian Historical Sites project, and in the hopes of jumpstarting conversations between families, we have collected some stories related to the places that contain the memories of our community. Our thanks to those who took the time to share their memories with us. To get involved, submit your nominations to heritagebc.ca/japanese-historic-places and visit the Japanese Canadian community Facebook page.
Salt Spring Island: Mary Kitagawa
There were 77 people of Japanese descent on Salt Spring Island before our exile. In total, the JCs owned 1000 acres, the largest being the Torazo Iwasaki farm of 640 acres and the Kumanosuke Okano estate of 200 acres. The Iwasaki property had three miles of the most sought-after waterfront today. The Okano property consisted of virgin timber forest, the valley, which was farmed, and waterfront. The other properties were of varied sizes from five acres to 25 acres. No one owning these properties had any intentions of selling any part of them. In fact, they were all planning to buy more land to increase their holdings. All of the land owners were farmers; some were fishers earlier until the fishing licenses were taken away. All land-owning families lived in beautiful homes that they built themselves or with help from other JCs. Their success as farmers contributed to the well-being of the social fabric of the Island. Each family donated labour or money to the building of the Anglican Church and to the new school, which was opened in 1941.
Since the Japanese community was not allowed to bury their dead in the white section of the cemetery, a man named Mr. Alder kindly donated some land near the main cemetery for the JCs. Every Sunday, the community gathered there to clean the gravesite and to place flowers on each grave. During the war years, the markers were destroyed and the site was used as a garbage dump. When we returned to the Island in 1954, my family restored the site and replaced the markers at first with cedar posts and later with granite stones.
The Japanese Canadian Community on the Island was a cohesive group that made sure that everyone was looked after. During the depression, they even provided food and clothing to the destitute white Islanders who came begging for sustenance. The JCs were community-minded, generous and law abiding people. Tragically, not one of them returned to Salt Spring after their exile to stay except the Murakamis who continue to suffer racism to this day.
Murakami house – Steveston: Linda Ohama
Murakami Visitors Centre, Britannia Heritage Shipyards (Steveston)
As I’m writing this about my grandparents first home in Canada (now the Murakami Visitors Centre in Richmond), I am sitting here in my grandmother’s hometown of Onomichi, Hiroshima-ken. It makes me think that our lives and history have come full circle once again and I have learned that ways of ‘connecting the generations’ can be a very important part of people’s lives.
In 1923, Asayo Murakami left Onomichi through the picture bride system like many other Japanese women of her time. On her arrival and not liking her ‘picture bride husband,’ she did something brave for a woman on her own in a foreign country, without any English or work skills: she broke her picture bride contract that had brought her to Canada.
She eventually met and married my grandfather, a boatbuilder/fisherman named Otokichi Murakami and settled in the fishing village of Steveston.
Her friends and neighbours remember a happy woman who sang, danced and nurtured a colourful flower garden beside their home along the Fraser River.
They were part of a vital Japanese Canadian community that was a big part of the fishing industry along this river. There were many Japanese homes and gardens, but it was only fate that my grandparents’ house was the one that withstood time, fires, and the elements.
The Murakami home was restored to represent the many Japanese homes in this community prior to the wartime removal of all Japanese Canadians from the West Coast in 1942.
In 1992, the Murakami house and Britannia Heritage Shipyards Site were designated a national historic to reflecting the history of this fishing community along the Fraser River.
Before my grandmother died at the age of 103, she was able to instruct us how to replant the flower garden she once had. Today, this garden beside the Murakami Centre still blooms full of colour and her energy.
For me it symbolizes the personal history of my grandparents as immigrants to Canada and an important part of my Canadian heritage as well as my Japanese heritage.
Our family now extends to five generations who’s history began here.
In 2015, my youngest daughter Caitlin, chose to celebrate her wedding on the docks of Britannia, where her great-grandparents began their lives as Canadians.
Paueru Gai – Vancouver: Grace Eiko Thomson
Q: What historic places in B.C.’s Japanese Canadian history do you feel should be recognized as significant for future generations?
A: Of more than 22,000 Japanese Canadians who were uprooted from their homes in the West Coast, I would imagine each and every one, given the opportunity, could name several places loaded with precious memories, perhaps largely negative.
I am such one, a child of seven years, in 1942, when the future that my parents had planned for me in Vancouver was suddenly no more.
My parents began their married life in Canada in 1930, my father after some ten years in Canada, having returned home to marry in 1929. So they were, relatively speaking, very young in 1942 when forced to abandon their home in Vancouver, my poor father, uprooted from a job he was so proud of, as a bilingual treasurer/buyer of Codfish Cooperative, one of the earliest cooperative formed by Aboriginal, Caucasian, and Japanese Canadian fishers, the office located on one of the docks in the City of Vancouver.
What remains within me even to this day are memories of my short life in Vancouver, before internment, when lives were predictable, day to day, year to year, living in Paueru Gai (Powell town), our home at 510 Alexander Street, with dreams of fulfillment held by our parents of a better future for us in this ‘new world.’ Perhaps this is due to the fact that it was my first home, but also because questions of why we had to leave are still unresolved in my mind. But ‘home’ is where the family is, the support system which remains unquestioned in our daily lives. Home is where we gather at the end of the day, or at mealtimes, sharing memories of each day.
My Paueru Gai memories are . . . of interacting with classmates at the Vancouver Japanese United Church kindergarten, on Jackson and Powell Street, where I was first introduced to English language; of learning iroha ni hoheto, to read and write in my parents’ language, as names and faces of Motomochi-sensei and Morino-sensei still appear before me, grades one and two teachers at Vancouver Japanese Language School; of crossing Hastings, guided by a friendly policeman, to get to Lord Strathcona Elementary School, often on foggy days; of weekly visits to Carnegie Library on Hastings and Main with my mother who, though she could not speak English herself, encouraged reading as important to my development as a Canadian. My favorite was the Elsie Dinsmore series I read at bedtime, often crying myself to sleep. A special visit to Woolworth’s with mother where she bought me a glittery brooch, which in time I lost and remember reporting this to the School’s Lost and Found, saying it was a very valuable pin, and of course it was. And frequent trips to Maikawa Department Store, where mother bought fabric and wool to make our clothing, once purchasing for me a doll; also Sunday trips to my father’s workplace near the docks in Vancouver, where my brother and I would be placed on a fish scale to see how much we had grown, while the gulls squawked over us. And, of course, holding my father’s hand, walking to Powell Ground (Oppenheimer Park), to watch the Asahi team practice or play . . . or to a public bath on Powell Street.
Also, I recall a wedding reception at, I think, Fuji Chop Suey restaurant, attending as a flower girl, wearing a pink frilly gown, holding a basket of flowers. A black and white photograph taken by a Japanese Photo Studio, of which there were many, remains.
So these are my memories . . . that refuse erasure . . . of places and activities rooted in our home life at Paueru Gai, in Downtown East Side (as it is called today), terminated by the War Measures Act’s horrific orders-in-council beginning in 1942.
My question is, how will naming of historic places by JCs result in recognition of significance for future generations? What will be the follow-up to this project, invested by the Provincial government (and the City)?
Are these to be used for educational purposes?
Next year is, unbelievably, already the 75th anniversary of Japanese Canadian internment. However, it is well known that this history of injustice is still not appropriately taught in the public school system. The ‘future generations’ are, to date, kept largely in ignorance of this dark history. Undoubtedly, it is important to look at historic places as significant to the present. However, it is also important that we observe present places, as significant to the future. As an aside, I would like to mention that current residents of DTES, many having lived there for generations, are experiencing economic displacement, a matter not of insignificance for future generations.
Powell Street – Vancouver: Jean Kamimura
Jean Kamimura, who lived briefly on Powell Street in 1942, shares her snapshot memories:
My mother, baby brother and I were uprooted on February 19th from Ocean Falls. We were on the boat heading for Vancouver with the first batch of JC’s. [Japanese Canadians] My brother observed his first birthday on the ship – now homeless. We found a place to stay in a family friend’s parents’ rooming house in the 200 block of Powell Street. That block was demolished to make way for the Police Station.
This hot weather reminds me of the farmer’s horse-drawn wagon parked right by the Powell Street Grounds (on the south side) and they would be selling corn and watermelon. My mother would buy one and I would have to carry this whole watermelon on the street car to Hastings Park to hand over to friends in the Park.
In the Powell Street area, I remember the Yama Taxi, ofuroba [Japanese bath], a grocery store, a dry cleaner pick-up, a tofuya [tofu- & age-making establishment], and a restaurant. I also remember a shoe store, bakery, Maikawa [store], Furuya [store], King Rooms, and SunPeking. Armstrong Funeral Home used to be on the corner of Dunlevy and Cordova. There were also rooming houses on Alexander Street, Firehall on 200 block Cordova, Machida box factory on 200 block Alexander Street, one garage on Alexander and Dunlevy, and a barbershop on 300 block Powell Street.
Hastings Park, Popoff, Bayfarm: Mae Oikawa (née Doi)
I was so young so I don’t remember everything. I remember pieces. We were kids. We played.
Then the RCMP came to our home [Royston on Vancouver Island] and took our cameras and even my brother George’s toy gun. Mother said it was just a toy, but they took it and never gave it back. I had 13 dolls and I couldn’t take them with me, not even one. Someone said we would be back in a few weeks.
We were in Hastings Park from March to September. It was horrible conditions. The smell in the barns where we stayed was terrible. We would have to line up outside for food. I remember the people on the outside of the fence would stare at us. For breakfast, we would get cold, lumpy cereal on a tin plate. I wouldn’t eat it so my mother would buy us a doughnut and orange to eat for breakfast. The floors were concrete and one day, my baby sister fell from the bunk bed onto the floor. She was crying, but she was okay. I remember my mom was mad. All the mothers were so worried about their children.
When we went to Popoff the conditions did not improve. We, my mother, father, and six children, had to live in a tent. I remember we didn’t have a mattress and we had two blankets. They gave us two grey blankets and we used it as a mattress. We put it on the ground. Mother said to put all of our coats and jackets on top of us to try to keep warm, but it was still cold. Ice would form on the inside of the tent. We ran up to the Harada’s [relatives] in the morning. They had a house, and we used their bathroom. Afterwards, we ran back to the tent.
We had to walk to Slocan City for our meals. We had to stay in that tent for about a month, and then we went to Bay Farm. Eight of us had to live in a shack. We shared a bathroom, it was an outhouse, with the Uyeno family. No one had a bath tub. We had to walk a few blocks from First Avenue where we lived to use a Japanese-style public bath. There wasn’t any water inside the house. We would take a bucket and go outside to a tap to get water. If you wanted hot water, you had to heat up the water. To wash clothes, my mom would heat up the water and scrub the clothes using a washboard.
My mom did so much for our family and for others. She used to make tofu and she taught a lot of people how to make it. She had a garden and grew vegetables. I remember her making tsukemono (pickled vegetables), manju, and mochi. Bota-mochi when there was a birthday or something to celebrate. She made futomaki (rolled sushi) and inari-sushi. She was also skilled at sewing, and even though she did buy us clothes, she also sewed a lot. She even made futons (comforters) and cleaned and prepared the wool that would go in the futons. I don’t know where she got the wool. I would go with her to the stores in the camps to buy groceries.
The house was cold. There were large cracks between the wood. Somehow, my dad got some paper to try to stop the cold draft from getting through the large cracks, but it was still cold and we had ice on the inside of the house. We had to live in the shack for about four years.
There would never be anything like this again if people knew. It was really cruel. Maybe if they had to experience what we had to go through, it would have never happened. If I had been older, I would have told them. Little kids couldn’t do much.
East Lillooet: Ritsu Saimoto
My family evacuated to Bridge River first for about three years before we moved to East Lillooet. East Lilloet, was the ‘Japanese section’ and was separate from the town of Lillooet, which was about five miles away. We lived in the ‘Vancouver’ section (row of houses). Below us was the Haney section where people from Haney lived (row of houses). Both Bridge River and Lillooet were, “self-supporting towns,” so my family did not receive financial help from the government. My parents, who had a drycleaning shop on Main Street in Vancouver before the War, lived off their savings. I was about nine years old when we first evacuated, and my brother, Denny Enjo, was about three years old.
As a kid, life was life. We lived in House #120, which was one of the smallest houses in the Vancouver section. Our house was about 20′ x 20’ in size, with two beds – my parents slept in one bed, and my brother and I slept in the other bed. There was an oval tin wood stove which heated the space, and then we had a cooking wood stove. A hanging blanket divided the room. In the very cold winters, which went down to -20 to -25 degrees C., you could see the icicles and frost inside our house. We used to heat up a big stone in the stove and then wrap in a blanket to keep us warm during the cold nights. We also used to all huddle around the stove to warm up in a circle, then gradually, turn a little to heat up all sides and our back-sides. We also brought my mom’s sewing machine from Vancouver, so this was in the middle of our house.
There were about 15 houses in one row. There was no plumbing. Drinking water was delivered by truck to a barrel in front of the house. We used this for cooking and drinking. There was also a communal water trough, which got gray water pumped up directly from the Fraser River. After a few days, the silt would settle and the water became clear. We all had to go down and fill our buckets and bring them back to the house to use. This water was used for washing and laundry. In the summer as kids, it was so hot, we used to get really thirsty. We were suppose to boil this water, but we were so thirsty, we just used to drink it. Later in life, it really amazes me that no one ever got sick from drinking the water from the Fraser.
We used to mostly do sponge baths with the bucket water and then in the end, we’d wash our feet in the bucket. On our row, there was a communal outhouse, but because it was far, we used to keep a covered bucket in the house, and the next day, my parents would dig a hole, and bury the contents on the hill. Many healthy trees must have grown up there in future years. My parents brought a lot of bar soap like Palmolive, in their suitcase from Vancouver, so we used to use the bar soap to wash our clothes.
We grew most of our food except for rice and bread. There was a common garden where we grew lots of vegetables – carrots, peas, beans, peppers, lots of tomatoes, corn, gobo, lettuce, eggplant, daikon, corn. And fruit like watermelon, cantaloupe, and strawberries. In August/September we’d get matsutake from the forest, and we’d say, “konban-ha gochisou!!”. It was such a treat. We also used to make ketchup and rootbeer from scratch. We used to have six to ten chickens, so we’d have fresh eggs, and also my dad would kill the chickens to eat. We bought rice from the store. I used to make and take egg sandwiches for lunch to school or whatever we had, bread, cucumber, chicken, or eggs. I used to wrap the sandwich in paper.
To help out the family, I used to take grocery orders for the three stores in town. I would walk door to door to each house and collect their food orders. It wasn’t very much because no one had much money. Then the stores would deliver the groceries in a box to each house.
My dad bought me a bike for $10, so I used to ride my bike to first the Japanese child-only school, then from Grade 6, I attended the mixed school with white children. I don’t remember any trouble or ill feelings. We also played hopscotch a lot with all the girls who lived in our area because all you needed were rocks to throw. Our mom was a seamstress so she used to sew our clothes, like underwear, from the old cotton flour bags because this material was so strong. We never wasted anything.
We had absolutely nothing, so it was up to us to do something to get through it. Even though I was a child, I got the feeling that really, anything could happen to us, but we could overcome it.
JC Sites BC is a community collaboration trying to get the word out about Heritage BC’s call for Japanese Canadian historic sites. We are waiting to hear about a new date to extend the September 9 deadline. The provincial government said they would extend the call to the fall, but we haven’t received a date. We encourage submissions as soon as possible.
This is a grassroots community effort, because we are very concerned that the short timeframe means the voices of Japanese Canadians are not being heard and the history of BC will be missing a key component – the stories and places of Japanese Canadians who have made BC their home since the 1800s.