The Japanese without a Community?
Sustaining Japanese Canadian Community in Vancouver for Nikkei, Immigrants, and Sojourners
by Etsuko Kato
Senior Associate Professor of Anthropology, International Christian University, Japan
“Community” is a difficult word to translate into Japanese. Unlike its approximate translation in Japanese, “kyodotai,” which presupposes homogeneous and congenial people, “community” can mean an invented unit of strangers. The word, therefore, seems to be especially emphasized in societies that value individualism like North America, and in societies that value multiculturalism like Canada. A brochure of a “community centre” in downtown Vancouver, for example, proudly emphasizes the diversity of its members, introducing a teenaged girl who has immigrated from Southern Europe several years ago and a native Vancouverite man in his 60s, who are both the centre’s volunteer workers.
Active and constant community building is vital for the Japanese in Vancouver too. Here I use the word “Japanese” most inclusively; it includes all generations of Nikkei people, so-called postwar immigrants (ijusha), retirement immigrants, family-class immigrants, other recent immigrants, and sojourners (students, Working Holiday makers and so forth) from Japan. Here I include sojourners because they have been the major source of Japanese residents to Canada since 1990s.
As a researcher of young Japanese sojourners, and a frequent visitor to Vancouver myself since 2001, I have realized there are three characteristics of the Japanese Canadian “community” in Vancouver. First, there seems no singular Japanese Canadian “community.” Not only that the community of English-speaking Nikkei and that of Japanese-speaking postwar ijusha are basically separated, but many of the more recent immigrants and sojourners are outside of either community, being fragmented into small interest groups, including those on the internet. Some may not have any Japanese “community” around them, but just some loose and temporary ties with people which should rather be called network(s).
Second, there is no visible geographic centre like Japan Town that embodies Japanese Canadian life in Vancouver. Although institutions like Nikkei Place and Tonari Gumi are there, they are away from each other and do not make a scenery together. They are not surrounded by a Japanese Canadian business area or residential area that can be called a “town” either.
Third, strangely enough, most ijusha do not seem to be interested in community building. When they talk about “community (komyuniti),” it is almost always as the job of somebody else, notably non-profit organizations like Tonari Gumi and Ijusha no Kai or non-profit-making individuals like Mr. Takeo Yamashiro or Mr. Tatsuo Kage. In other words, profit-making organizations (businesses) are absent in community building, except for some mass media which constantly use the word “community.”
Most ijusha, especially business people, seem not only indifferent to “community” building, but also to the history of Nikkei. To my regret, their indifference is transmitted to young Japanese sojourners, as Japanese-speaking business people are on the forefront of introducing Vancouver to people coming from Japan. Symbolically enough, in popular, free Japanese maps of Vancouver distributed downtown, where many Japanese-run restaurants, school information centres and other businesses are located, the former Japan Town area is hidden by the map’s banner as if it does not exist or was unimportant. Tonari Gumi and Nikkei Place are represented by two tiny dots without any explanation. It is no wonder that most of my interviewees do not know the Japanese Language School and Japanese Hall, Tonari Gumi or Nikkei Heritage Centre, even if they are willing to do some volunteer work.
Having discussed all these episodes, what can one suggest to build and sustain a Japanese Canadian “community”? In my belief, besides the discourses that constantly emphasize “community,” at least two things are necessary for a “community” to exist: common space and common history. Therefore I have a special request to ijusha business people to get more interested in the history of Nikkei, co-operate with Nikkei people, and make a long-term plan to re-build Japan Town in the former Japan Town area. The area is a blessing to the Japanese in Vancouver, considering that not all the cities around the world populated by Japanese immigrants have prewar history.
What if both Nikkei and ijusha business owners offer humble donations to build, for example, a self-guided historic path around Powell and Alexander Streets, a monument to Asahi Baseball Team in Oppenheimer Park, a small museum that exhibits the history of Japanese Canadian (including most recent immigrants) in the Japanese Hall, art and performance space, food court or mobile carts selling sushi, ramen or crepes, small boutiques of “Cool Japan” and “kawaii (cute)” goods, ceramics, books, used clothes and kimono, altogether in one area?
The area, even if small, will be a complex of education, cultural attraction and business. It will educate children and youth with Japanese heritage on what it means to be Japanese Canadian. Those without Japanese heritage will also learn respect for their neighbours. The area will also enable Canadians and tourists to meet “Japan” without flying all the way to Japan. And business will be easier if combined with education and cultural attraction. The physically visible, active Japanese business area will also inspire young Japanese sojourners on their future business plans, and encourage their immigration to Vancouver.
The complex will also be an excellent meeting place for the Japanese in the broadest sense: for Japan-born Japanese to meet the cultural heritage of Nikkei, and Nikkei to meet the latest trends of Japan. Art, music and food, which cross the language barriers, will make Nikkei and Japan-born Japanese youth closer together, while an English-Japanese language exchange program will benefit the both sides. The unity would make “Japanese Canadians,” a relatively small ethnic group, more visible, and make it easier to get governmental funds. The city will also welcome the revitalization project of former Japan Town area, both for beautification purposes and in respect to multiculturalism.
To talk more personally, the discussions above are inspired by my own encounter with a Nikkei couple originally from Vancouver. I met the late Ken and Mieko Kutsukake in 1995 in Toronto during my first year as an international student. Treating me to warm rice, miso soup and a big slice of teriyaki salmon in their house several times, Ken, a proud former regular catcher of the Asahi Baseball Team, and Mieko, who had an excellent memory in every detail, told me about the hardships they went through before, during and after World War II. Impressed, I said, “Thanks to all your endurance, now the Japanese are well respected in Canada. I heard they are called good immigrants (imin no yutosei) because they do not stick together or make a big voice.” Ken replied with a sad smile, “The Japanese have lost guts (Nihonjin wa ikuji ga nakunacchimatta no sa).” His unexpected answer stays in my mind to this day.
The encounter with Ken and Mieko gave me courage and pride as a student from Japan, while giving me a deeper, more complex understanding of Canada. I do hope that more sojourners and new immigrants, along with younger generations of Nikkei, will follow the spirit and courage of the Nikkei people to build a visible, active, and inclusive community.
This article is partly based on the author’s lecture given at the 25th anniversary meeting of Kiyukai, the Vancouver Japanese Business Association, at Hotel Listel on March 8, 2012.