British Columbia

After decades of war-torn history, Vancouver's Japanese Hall turns 90

For the Japanese-Canadian community, the hall is a symbol of resilience, says Deb Saimoto.

'It has gone through a lot of change since the war'

The Japanese Hall at 487 Alexander Street has quietly existed in Vancouver for 90 years. On Saturday, it's having a birthday party. (Google Street View)

This year, the Japanese Hall at 487 Alexander Street in Vancouver turns 90.

For the Japanese-Canadian community, the hall is a symbol of resilience, says Deb Saimoto.

"I actually used to come here for my own Japanese school classes, way back in the 80s," said Saimoto, remembering how dilapidated the building was back then.

Saimoto chairs the board of directors for the Vancouver Japanese Language School and Japanese Hall. Over her life, she's seen the hall transform from a rundown building into a Canadian hub of Japanese culture.

"It has gone through a lot of change since the war. It was vacated and started up again after the war. It was a tough time," said Saimoto.

"No one had the funds or time to make it into a nice place, like it is now."

On Saturday, as part of the Heart of the City Festival, the hall is hosting the Emerging Heritage Fair to celebrate the nine decades of the building's existence.

The fair's itinerary is full of cultural seminars and and musical performances. Saimoto says the hall's rich history will be front and centre at the event.

Why it's significant

The hall's story begins in 1906 when early Japanese immigrants to Canada founded the Vancouver Japanese Language School. The initial school house was built in historic Japantown, which is centred around Powell Street.

As the Japanese community grew larger in Vancouver, it needed a bigger space to teach Japanese language and culture. The community raised $40,000 and used the money to build what is today the Japanese Hall on Alexander Street in 1928.

On Dec. 7, 1941 the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service attacked a United States naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. This began the conflict between Imperial Japan and the Allies of World War Two — one of which was Canada. At this point, the hall was forced to close down.

"There were over a thousand students at that time," said Saimoto.

Crowds of Japanese-Canadians were forcibly interned by the Canadian government during and after the war and much of their property was seized.

"This property, itself, is extremely significant to the community, because it was the only property that was restored to its ownership after the internment ended in 1949," said Saimoto.

The hall was allowed to begin operations again in 1953, and Japanese language and culture courses have been offered there ever since.

The festivities at the hall kick off on Oct. 27 at 1 p.m. and will go into the evening.

With files from The Early Edition