Vancouver fest offers a warm (but not humid!) welcome

by Hillel Wright

Special To The Japan Times

Summers in Tokyo, indeed in most of Japan except for Hokkaido or Okinawa, are often unbearably hot and humid, with temperatures in the mid to high 30s and humidity reaching as high as 90 percent. This summer, in the wake of last year’s Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown, use of air conditioning will again be restricted against a threat of blackouts, so those with summer vacation time are likely looking for a good place to beat the heat.

I can think of no better place than British Columbia, the west-coast province of Canada, where the North Pacific high brings the summer Westerlies — cool, steady winds from Alaska — to moderate temperature and humidity over the long sunny days and short, cool and clear nights of the northern latitudes.

While nature of course abounds on the British Columbia coast, on the mainland, the islands in the Gulf of Georgia (western Canada’s inland sea) and Vancouver Island, there are also many summer attractions in Vancouver, Canada’s third-largest city (after Toronto and Montreal).

One of particular interest is the Powell Street Festival, which takes place this year on Aug. 4 and 5 along Powell Street, the main drag of Vancouver’s historic Japantown. This celebration of all things Japan brings the Vancouver streets alive with taiko drumming, butoh performances, and all the authentic Japanese cuisine you can eat.

The history of Vancouver’s Japanese community goes a long way back. Just 10 years after Canada became an independent nation in 1867, rather than remaining a colony in the British Empire, the first Japanese immigrant arrived in Vancouver. In the 1880s immigration increased, and the new arrivals began to build Little Tokyo along Powell Street, just north of the city’s already thriving Chinatown. Working on the Canadian Pacific Railway, farming in the Fraser Valley and on the Gulf Islands, fishing for salmon all up and down the coast, the issei and nisei (first- and second-generation Japanese-Canadians) created a strong sense of community and a strong structure to go with it.

In 1906 the Vancouver Japanese Language School was founded in Japantown, as the community came to be known, and taught math, history and science to the children of the immigrants as well as courses aimed at keeping the Japanese language alive in the new world. In 1919 the school dropped general subjects, since Japanese-Canadian children were attending regular Canadian public schools, and concentrated on Japanese language classes. It also expanded its role as a community and cultural organization and was renamed the Vancouver Japanese Language School and Japanese Hall. The school itself grew to more than 1,000 students.

In the 1930s the community produced the Asahi Japanese baseball team, which had its home ground at Oppenheimer Park on Powell Street. The small but talented local players used hustle, strategy and plain old baseball smarts to defeat opponents from various minor-league and semi-pro teams made up of much physically larger players of British, Scottish/Irish, Scandinavian or American descent and were Pacific Northwest Champions for five straight years, from 1937-1941.

All this abruptly came to a halt, however, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941. In July of 1942 the Vancouver Japanese Language School was occupied by the Canadian Armed Forces, the Asahi Baseball Team was broken up, and all Japanese-Canadians were sent to internment camps in the interior of British Columbia, 160 km or more from the Pacific coast.

Although the baseball players were deliberately sent to different camps, individual team members recruited new players in each camp and arranged to play games against amateur teams from surrounding local communities. These games provided the only opportunity for internees to leave the camps and so each team had an extremely loyal fan base, bolstered by the fact that they won most of their games. In 2003 the National Film Board of Canada produced a documentary history of the team called “Sleeping Tigers: The Asahi Baseball Story.”

It wasn’t until April 1949 that Japanese-Canadians were allowed to return to the west coast, and even those who did were unable to reclaim the land, buildings or boats that were confiscated during the war. In fact the VJLS building at 439 Alexander Street, in the heart of Japantown, restored to the community in 1953, was the only property returned to its original owners after the war.

Because of the lack of redress by the Canadian government, the Japantown community never fully regained its prewar vitality, while its neighbor Chinatown grew to become the second-largest in North America, bigger than New York’s Chinatown and slightly smaller than San Francisco’s. In fact it was Leslie Joe, a Chinese immigrant from Guangzhou, who played a major role in revitalizing Japantown when he opened the Sunrise Market at the corner of Powell Street and Gore Avenue, a major street that runs through the center of Chinatown, in 1979.

A couple of years earlier, to celebrate 100 years of Japanese immigration to Canada, the Japanese Community Volunteers Association (Tonari Gumi), in an effort to create an event similar to the summer festivals in Japan, held the first Powell Street Festival in 1977. The initial Festival was successful in drawing Japanese-Canadians from Vancouver suburbs such as Burnaby, Steveston and North Vancouver, where many had relocated in the 1950s, back to Japantown. Joe, who had opened a tofu shop as a 20-year-old in 1955 and a small grocery store in 1964, sensed an opportunity and Sunrise Market, with its highly favorable location, became a well-known emporium for Japanese and other Asian foods in the Vancouver area.

The Powell Street Festival, now in its 36th year, has grown into a major arts and culture festival. Its organizers boast that it is the largest ethnic cultural event “of its kind” in Canada and the longest-running community arts festival in the Vancouver area.

Through the years the festival has brought many taiko drumming troupes to Japantown including Katari Taiko, Canada’s first taiko group; Sawagi Taiko, Canada’s first all-female, all-Asian taiko group; and Yuaikai Ryukyu Taiko, a drum and dance ensemble from Okinawa. The festival also features theater, comedy — including traditional rakugo storytelling — poetry, film, martial arts such as karate and sumo, children’s activities and of course many kinds of delicious Japanese foods.

The stage at Powell Street’s Oppenheimer Park venue has been graced by local Japanese-Canadians such as poets Roy Kiyooka and Roy Miki, winner of the 2002 Governor General’s Award — similar to the Pulitzer Prize in the United States or the Naoki Prize in Japan — as well as guests from Japan, like electronic musicians Noriko Tujiko and Nobukazu Takemura, and butoh dancer Kei Takei.

In 2008 the Festival premiered the performance of “Ghosts” by Kokoro Dance, Vancouver’s resident butoh company, which featured not only 12 dancers but three bagpipers and a drummer as well. The performance commemorated the 20th anniversary of the redress movement, in which Japanese-Canadians won both an apology and compensation from the Canadian government for loss of liberty and property during World War II internments. The festival is also a pioneer in the city’s Zero Waste Challenge, to make its events as environmentally friendly as possible.

The Powell Street Festival, along with the Vancouver Japanese Language School, Sunrise Market and other Powell Street shops such as Kay’s Seafood, have all contributed to keeping Vancouver’s Japantown alive. The festival is also expanding its participation in the Downtown Eastside neighborhood in which Powell Street is located and where many First Nations people reside. In 2011, the festival presented a cross-cultural collaboration between Chibi Taiko, Canada’s first children’s taiko troupe, and the Canadian Aboriginal youth-drumming group Spakwus Slulum.

Highlights this year include the launching of Project Rebuild by Governor General’s Award finalist poet Sachiko Murakami; new work for Katari Taiko composed by Tiffany Tamaribuchi; and a Saturday night concert featuring folk singer Ana Miura from Ontario, Japanese-American jazz musician Emi Meyer, Vancouver actor Maiko Yamamoto and local musician Veda Hille in a performance called “Karate Theatre of Earth.”

So if you’re in a position to drop everything and travel across the ocean to get away from Japan’s summer swelter, just know that there’s a taste of home waiting for you in Vancouver.

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In line with the nationwide state of emergency declared on April 16, the government is strongly requesting that residents stay at home whenever possible and refrain from visiting bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.
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