The Right to REMAIN in Vancouver’s Nihonmachi/Downtown Eastside
By Jeff Masuda with Aaron Franks
What’s in a name? This is a question being posed by a team of Vancouver-based community leaders and university researchers that has been actively engaged in conversations with Downtown Eastside (DTES) residents, both past and present, about their experiences of human rights in the neighbourhood.
Many readers of The Bulletin will have heard that low-income residents in this area are being evicted and displaced from the neighbourhood at an increasing pace as rising land values have prompted developers to upgrade the many affordable, if often derelict, buildings into condominiums. Most readers will also know that this neighbourhood includes the area that Japanese Canadians have called Powell Street, Powell Grounds, Nihonmachi, or Poweru gai – names going all the way back to the beginning of the 20th century. Our purpose is to try to understand and to harness the power of names and naming as a way to support the right of DTES inhabitants to remain in their neighbourhood. The point here is that no matter what name this neighbourhood is referred to by, there are powerful emotions and histories that are brought to mind.
So, why do we think that names are an important topic for research? It is easy to understand that to name something is to say that one has a relationship with it. Parents name their children out of love and often commemoration of ancestors. We also name things that we revile – we call a person a crook if they have cheated us of things we value. We can perhaps think of names that are not fit to print for those who have offended us or treated us unfairly.
Places can also have names, and these names are often thick with history and meaning. Streets and buildings, or whole neighbourhoods can be named for famous people or for important events that have taken place in the past. By naming a place, you say, “I have an interest in that place.” But these interests can sometimes have positive or negative effects.
Japanese Canadians call the Downtown Eastside “Powell Street” because that is what their ancestors knew the neighbourhood by. Residents today call the neighbourhood the “Downtown Eastside” (or the “East End”) because decades ago when most people called the area “Skid Road” (or worse) people who lived there thought it deserved a better name.
Today, we continue to see negative names given to the Downtown Eastside. For example, just two months ago, Rex Murphy called this neighbourhood “Vancouver’s most squalid and threatening area.” Imagine how you would feel if someone described your home as “squalid.” This type of labeling denies this place a name, and is a way of saying, “this place has no value,” or perhaps more ominously, “this place needs value.” It erases or ignores any value that the place has for the people who actually live there.
Sometimes, names are given to a place to add economic value, perhaps to generate profit by attracting customers. In academia, this has been called “place branding.” For example, the name “JapaGasRailtown,” found in the promotional material of the new restaurant Cuchillo (located on Powell Street) makes people think of this neighbourhood as trendy, cool, and a place they want to go. It helps businesses to thrive by importing or inventing a new identity, but perhaps at the risk of losing the place identity that is already there.
What is worse, it has recently been shown by University of Victoria researcher Katherine Burnett that many people are attracted to these restaurants to participate in a phenomenon called “adventure dining.” They want to see the ‘authentic’ grit of the poor people from the window while they dine on their tapas – close, but not too close. Known as “poverty tourism,” such practices are at best an insult to people’s dignity and at worst can be directly harmful to their community.
This is because when branding is successful it encourages landlords to drive up people’s rents, forcing people out of their homes as lower-income housing gets replaced with higher-income apartments and condos. The rate at which property values are increasing and low-income residents are being literally evicted from the neighbourhood is accelerating each day, with little to no foresight on the part of governments at any level as to the consequences of such displacements. One long-time Downtown Eastsider we interviewed expressed the dire situation:
They’d be putting them in Surrey, in Richmond, you know all these different places, but they don’t have the help that you get down here so a lot of them come back, but then they’re homeless!
In the views of many, such instances are an infringement of people’s right to housing, which is embodied in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Putting people out of a home because they are poor is also a violation of their right to be protected from discrimination, a right that is supposed to be upheld by the City of Vancouver as a signatory to the Canadian Coalition of Municipalities Against Racism and Discrimination. These rights are fought for daily in many cities around the world by activist groups, through organizations like UN Habitat and gatherings like the World Urban Forum.
As another case in point, take the name “Japantown.” The City, developers, and many Vancouverites are becoming very interested in this name, because, like Gastown, Railtown, and Chinatown – other ‘branded’ neighbourhoods in Vancouver – this name gives the Downtown Eastside a certain kind of value. In fact, the idea of Japantown goes all the way back to the early 1980s, when the City of Vancouver, in its 1981 Downtown Eastside/Oppenheimer policy plan, set out to create a “Japanese Village” Powell Street with “Japanese-theme decorative treatment,” complete with “lantern-style pedestrian lighting, Japanese banners, street signs, and some plantings.”
Proponents of “Japantown” may think they are acknowledging the history and heritage of this neighbourhood as the Japanese-Canadian community that lived here in the first half of the 20th century. Giving this neighbourhood a different name than the “notorious Downtown Eastside” will, in the views of many planners and politicians, bring more affluent people to the neighbourhood who will “mix” with the locals and help them to find employment, opportunity, and a higher quality of life. But for many Japanese Canadians, “Japantown” means something more than just heritage. It reminds them of the fact that City Council once supported the sale of their properties after their forced removal from the West Coast. Governments at all levels at the time used the War as an excuse to rid the West Coast of the “Oriental Menace,” a reflection of strong racist attitudes toward working class Asian Canadians held by many powerful people in BC.
It goes without saying how ill conceived the idea is of re-decorating “Japanese Village” with faux-Japanese lanterns, Japanese gates, rising sun banners, and other references to a foreign “other.” Such a scheme would in no way resemble the very Canadian working class neighbourhood, replete with Coca Cola ads and art deco architecture, built from the ground up by a community that in many ways was trying to “out Canada” their fellow Canadians (although minus the vote and other benefits of citizenship).
Such misrepresentation borders on outright prejudice and is not unlike the many discriminatory attitudes placed upon people in the DTES today, many of whom deal with mental health, addictions, or other health issues resulting from childhood traumas, homophobia, racism, and other life experiences. It seems quite ironic that many of these properties that Japanese Canadians lost 70 years ago, properties that have profited landlords since, are now the same properties in which people are once again being evicted from in the name of another coming “Japanification” of the Downtown Eastside.
For Japanese Canadians, the liquidation was nothing less than an act of state sanctioned cultural genocide that led to the witting vandalism of a neighbourhood that has never quite recovered, even 70 years later. For its part, the Federal Government apologized for its treatment of Japanese Canadians in 1988. In its agreement with the National Association of Japanese Canadians, those who lived through the experience were awarded $300 million in individual and collective redress compensation. This apology also led to the creation of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, an organization that is committed to the elimination of racism and protecting the human rights of Canadian Citizens. Notably, the BC Government didn’t apologize until 2012, and the City didn’t until just last fall, and neither of these governments has yet provided any compensation for participating in the acts from which they have benefited politically and financially.
It is also interesting to note that in its own apology to Japanese Canadians, the City pledged “to do all it can to ensure such injustices will not happen again to any of its residents, thereby upholding the principles of human rights, justice and equality now and in the future.”
Yet, just two months later, released this last December, the City released its draft report of the Local Area Planning Process (LAPP) – a process that is supposed to usher in a new, community-centred approach to planning in the DTES. While there is much to be lauded in the report in terms of ambitious plans for the future, there is not a single mention of racism and discrimination in its many other forms that are well known to infringe on the health and wellbeing – and rights – of Downtown Eastside residents every day. It is all the more ironic then that throughout the draft report, “Japantown” is mentioned no less than 22 times.
But the real problem is not just how many times the name Japantown is used, but how such a name has come to be largely detached from the historical contexts (i.e. traumas) of the people whose lives it signifies. In all of the public communications coming out of LAPP to-date, plans for “Japantown” amount to little more than an effort to reclaim the bricks and mortar once built by a community that is no longer there. They refer to this as heritage “assets.” This is certainly a measure of improvement over the stereotypical “Japanese Village” of previous designs. But it falls a good deal short of a meaningful acknowledgement of the history of dispossession that is held in the memories of former residents and generations of their descendents. In this sense, the DTES is not just a local phenomenon, it is a critical component of our national psyche.
But the LAPP document is completely silent about this important legacy. Yet the singular act of liquidation was a direct antecent to the marginalization of the neighbourhood that has only deepened over the ensuing decades – the very phenomenon that LAPP seeks to resolve. It seems logical to us that efforts to resolve a problem should at the very least acknowledge the conditions that have led to the problem in the first place – including, and especially the role of the City of Vancouver (and governments at all levels) in creating that problem.
The potential hypocrisy of the rush to Japanify the Downtown Eastside, both within and beyond LAPP is not going unnoticed by many Japanese Canadians who see similarities between what happened to them or their ancestors, and what is happening today amidst the rush to revitalize this neighbourhood in the latest wave of urban gentrification. One prominent Japanese Canadian elder we interviewed emphasized how the annual Powell Street Festival not only memorialized her own experiences as a child who once lived on Powell Street, but also reminded her of her responsibilities to the community that occupies the area today:
We don’t live there anymore but we are coming to have our festival, commemorate our lives there but at the same time remembering that there are people living there and that they must be brought into our community.
Bringing Downtown Eastsiders into our community – this is a profound departure from the prevailing agenda to impose ourselves in their community. Yet, we are witnessing this happening everyday as more and more individual researchers, artists, activists, and leaders of Japanese Canadian organizations are joining up with local efforts to demand more of government and supporting those organizations that are committed to protecting the rights of DTES inhabitants.
To them, the legacy of their history is not something that can be found in a trendy restaurant or preserved in a piece of old tile or stone. Their priority is to work alongside the inhabitants of the Downtown Eastside as an assertion and celebration of human rights for all Canadians. The liquidation and internment was the grist for the landmark redress settlement of the first generation of Japanese Canadian human rights activists 25 years ago. To Japanese Canadian activists today, fighting for the rights of today’s DTES inhabitants honours this legacy.
Just take the Powell Street Festival as an example. Every year, this festival is a celebration of the value of this neighbourhood – many attend to remember and celebrate what it once was – the cultural hearth of all Japanese Canadians. For others, the festival is also a celebration of what the DTES continues to be – a place where people of all ancestries and relations who have been targeted by an often hostile and uncaring society have always come to find refuge, protection, support, and community.
For us, the task ahead is to unify the efforst of our partners to make the case for a better recognition of the importance of the DTES in achieving human rights in Canada, ever since the creation of Vancouver over a century ago. Our aim is to mobilize the rich and living history of the neighbourhood in order to compel governments not just to propose solutions for the neighbourhood (as they have been doing for years), but to put into practice their responsibilities – in this case not just as human rights champions, but also as perpetrators of the ‘causes’ of the many hardships that affect people’s lives in the DTES today.
Japanese Canadians working in the DTES– like many in the wider community – see the neighbourhood as a sacred space. The local allegiances they are forming are one reflection of their own responsibilities as Canadian human rights leaders, a legacy that itself was forged in part in the crucible of DTES neighbourhood activism going back to the 1970s and the first Powell Street Festival.
In the last year, our research team has been contributing to this effort by documenting the rich history of human rights in the Downtown Eastside, as well as collecting stories of people’s human rights experiences in relation to housing, food, health care, and other social rights. By showcasing the power of names and naming, we hope to point others, including Japanese Canadians, Chinese Canadians, First Nations organizations, and others human rights leaders locally and Canada-wide to assert their own names for this nationally significant neighbourhood as an intervention to proclaim people’s right to remain in the DTES. In this way, human rights can be a Canadian story that can continue to be lived in the real world, not just a relic to be placed on a museum shelf.
If you would like to learn more about this project or contribute to our partnership, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jeff Masuda, PhD is Canada Research Chair in Environmental Health Equity, Associate Professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen’s University and Director of the Centre for Environmental Health Equity.
Aaron Franks, PhD is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the Cultural Studies Program, Queen’s University.
Revitalizing Japantown? Toward a unifying exploration of human rights, branding, and place is a three-year Partnership Development Grant funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Current partners include Gallery Gachet, the Japanese Canadian Citizens’ Association Human Rights Committee, the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre, Potluck Café Society, the Powell Street Festival Society, the Vancouver Japanese Language School and Japanese Hall, and the Strathcona Business Improvement Association
 Murphy, Rex. (2014) “The callousness of protest on display in Vancouver (with a happy ending)”; http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2014/01/11/rex-murphy-the-callousness-of-protest-on-display-in-vancouver-with-a-happy-ending/; accessed 17 January 2014
 see Adachi, K. (1976). The Enemy that Never was: A History of the Japanese Canadians. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.
 see the LAPP draft plan as of January 2014 at http://vancouver.ca/home-property-development/dtes-local-area-plan.aspx; accessed 17 January 2014
 Several Japanese-Canadian organizations insisted that a clause committing the City to ensure “such injustices will not happen again to any of its residents, thereby upholding the principles of human rights, justice and equality now and in the future” was added to the original proposed apology. See also for example Grace Eiko Thomson’s comments on the City of Vancouver’s apology in local media coverage in The Georgia Straight (http://www.straight.com/news/430736/vancouver-formally-apologizes-japanese-canadians; accessed 17 January 2014)