My Vancouver: Old Japantown

Oppenheimer Park, 2012. Courtesy of the author.

Vancouver is a living, evolving and always-changing city.  New people are coming to this city every day, from all over the world – making it their home, bringing something of themselves but also working their way into the amazing story that this collective community continues to write day after day, year after year, in an ever-flowing river of time.  Along the way, the “old” Vancouver slowly fades into memory, built-upon, painted-over, put away like a photo album that holds the images of the past, but is never looked at.

Or does it?  As a teacher, and life-long student, of local history, I have come to appreciate the living history that is all around us in this city of ours, if we can see it.  We are surrounded, every day of our lives, with physical evidence of our fascinating past – in an old, Victorian building facade that has been incorporated into a new office building, in that Harold Lloyd movie ad from the 1920s painted on the side of a downtown hotel, even in the names of our streets.  We need only to open our eyes, and see this history that is right in front of us.

And perhaps, no Vancouver neighbourhood exemplifies this idea better than the Oppenheimer Park community of the Downtown Eastside.   Oh, I know what is going through your head.  Just the mention of this part of town brings forth images of drug addiction, poverty, and homelessness.  And that is, pretty much, correct, unfortunately – today’s Oppenheimer Park is the centre of what has been famously dubbed “Canada’s Poorest Postal Code.”  Many of us may live our lives having never visited this part of Vancouver – indeed, when I do come here, there is scant evidence of outsiders – but if we did, and we paid attention to what this area’s buildings were telling us, we would learn something very valuable about our city’s, and our country’s, histories.

The Vancouver Buddhist Church, formerly the Vancouver Methodist Church.

Take a drive down to this area sometime, if you have the opportunity.  Stand in front of what is, currently, the Vancouver Buddhist Church, at Powell and Jackson.  This is one of the only buildings left that remains of what was, before World War II, a vibrant and growing Japanese-Canadian neighbourhood – Japantown, or “Little Tokyo,”  as it was called back then.  Before World War II, this was the Methodist Church, and it was essentially the “Community Centre” for the Japanese-Canadian community in Canada, with Judo and English classes, as well as the religious services that are needed by any community.  It was the centre of a Japanese community in Vancouver that spread for many blocks from the epicentre of Oppenheimer Park, located between the four streets of Cordova, Powell, Jackson, and Dunleavy Streets.  Japanese immigrants came to this area from Japan originally during the late 1800s, looking for work in what were then booming fishing and lumber industries.  Originally, only men were allowed by the Government, and they looked for work mostly in the flourishing lumber industry at the foot of Dunleavy St., which had a sawmill to process timber – after all, this area, at the time, was a densely-forested wilderness.

Back then, Japanese and Chinese immigrants stayed close together in this new city, probably recognizing a common interest in how they were treated by both the government, and the European Canadians.  Asian immigration was strictly limited by the Federal Government at that time, and men were usually forbidden from bringing their wives and family to Canada – this was all part of the fear that Asian immigrants would overwhelm the British majority.  Japantown grew-up side-by-side with Chinatown, as newly-arrived workers from Japan saw a commonality with their Chinese counterparts.

Turn around and look to the left, and you will see Oppenheimer Park, a small square of green that today serves as a quiet meeting place for local residents.  But close your eyes, and imagine yourself back in the 1930s, when this was a baseball diamond, and picture the hundreds of local Japanese-Canadian residents who came to see the Asahi Baseball team dominate Pacific Northwest Baseball from 1937 to 1942.  Yes, this park was the playing grounds for a team that was considered so important, they were inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2003. Nowadays, there is little evidence of the Asahi legacy – the bleachers are gone, and the crowds of cheering fans have been replaced by transient residents.  But, amazing as it is to believe, this part of Vancouver was once a baseball mecca.

Maikawa Department Store, 2012. Courtesy of the Author.

Keep walking down Powell Street, and stop at 369 Powell Street.  If possible, look at 369 Powell from across the street.  This may seem like an abandoned storage building from street-level – but look up.  Yes, what you see is more physical proof that this neighbourhood has an amazing and unappreciated history.  What you see at the top of this building at 369 Powell is proof that this building once was home to the Maikawa Department Store, a successful business in 1930s Vancouver.  Back when this was the thriving Japantown community of Vancouver, the Maikawa brothers owned and operated a string of successful businesses in this area, and the jewel in their corporate crown was the Maikawa Department Store, which was the rival of Woodwards and other major chains in its day.  The Maikawa brothers were a powerful family in this period, owning a number of businesses including an automotive garage that still exists today on Gore Avenue – today, this garage still stands, but its abandoned shell is a sad echo of the mini-empire that the Maikawa brothers once controlled.

Tamura Hotel, 2012. Courtesy of the Author.

Other traces of the Japanese-Canadian community abound:  at the corner of Dunleavy and Powell, look in the doorway, and you will see a sign that says “Tamura Hotel.”  Yes, this is the Tamura World Hotel, built by a Japanese entrepreneur back in the 1920s to accommodate visiting Japanese businessmen, and, at the time, the only building in Canada to be Earthquake –proof.  It was one of the few high-class hotels in Vancouver before World War II, and of course, before it fell on hard times.  Keep walking, and you will see proof that this was once a Japanese-Canadian neighbourhood.  Look into the portico of a building, and you will see “Morimoto” spelled out in tiles.  Look down at the floor of that deli, and you will see “Komura” still embedded in the original mosaic.  This neighbourhood’s history is still here, incorporated into the current buildings, but you have to look at what is in front of you.

Yes, this part of Vancouver, so associated in our time with homelessness and poverty, was once one of the city’s most prosperous and dynamic neighbourhoods.  So what happened?  On December 7, 1941, Japanese aircraft attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  The American and Canadian governments took advantage of this event to arrest and relocate Japanese-Canadians and Americans, most of whom had never been to Japan and did not speak a word of Japanese. Those governments were urged-on by a Canadian and American populace looking for a way to strike-back at what they saw was the “Yellow Peril” – the threat that Japanese and Chinese workers would take away their livelihoods.  Japanese-Canadians in Vancouver’s Japantown were forcibly relocated to internment camps in BC’s interior in 1942, leaving their thriving businesses behind.  Despite being Canadians in every way, and showing loyalty by volunteering to fight in huge numbers for our armed forces in World War II, Japanese Canadians were treated as “Enemy Aliens” by our Federal government, and had their homes and businesses confiscated without compensation.  Those businesses and homes were bought by speculators, who still hold onto them, hoping to cash in if the land-values increase.

So, that is where we find ourselves today.  This once economically-successful part of the city was destroyed by government policy in the 1940s.  Since the War, the legacy of confiscation, internment and injustice has been a direct cause of the area`s current malaise.  Today, the group of speculators who own those confiscated Japanese buildings continue to sit on them hoping for a `Gastown`-style government buyout.  Until then, the area will continue its slow spiral into poverty.  So, as you walk down Powell Street today, think about the way history not only affects, but shapes, influences, and even changes your Vancouver.  Past intolerance can shape our current reality – but we can all make sure that Our Vancouver, the Vancouver of the Future, can learn from its past and make the future a better place to be.

Each week, local historian Patrick Anderson looks at the history of Vancouver’s greatest Landmarks and Neighbourhoods.