British Columbia

'It's a miracle story': Vancouver's Japanese Hall designated a national historic site

The Vancouver Japanese Language School and Japanese Hall, located in the city's Downtown Eastside, has been designated a national historic site by Parks Canada.

Historic building has been the heart of Vancouver's Japanese-Canadian community since 1906

Laura Saimoto, far left, at the Vancouver Japanese Language School and Japanese Hall on Nov. 13, 2019, announcing the building's national historic site designation by Parks Canada. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

The Vancouver Japanese Language School and Japanese Hall, located in the city's Downtown Eastside, has been designated a national historic site by Parks Canada.

Since 1906, the building has been the heart of the Japanese-Canadian community in Vancouver, according to Laura Saimoto, a board director of the hall. It survived the dispossession and internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War.

The historic designation is a great step forward for the Vancouver Japanese community, says Saimoto. 

"It's a stepping stone for us to commemorate the history of the Powell Street area and of Japanese Canadians in British Columbia and all of Canada," Saimoto told Stephen Quinn, host of CBC's The Early Edition

Internment period 

At the beginning, the building was a school that taught Japanese subjects in Japanese to youth all the way to Grade 12. Due to an increasing number of Japanese people moving to the area near Powell Street, then known as Japantown, the Japanese Hall became a second language school in 1919.

"It needed to expand its role in the community, and so it became a community centre," Saimoto said. 

Minagi Halverson, left, Hanako Amaya, centre, and Kaito Halverson stand in front of the Japanese Language School and Hall. Minagi, 7, and Kaito, 9, take Japanese classes at the school. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Children transferred to the nearby Strathcona Elementary School to take classes in English and took Japanese classes outside of regular school hours at the Japanese Language School.

Mary Kawamoto, 92, attended the school before the Second World War. 

"We didn't play that much games there," Kawamoto recalled. "All I remember are the people you used to sit with or the kid behind you who would be digging at you or whatever."

During the Second World War, thousands of Canadians and Americans of Japanese descent were forced from their homes by their countries' governments, rounded up into camps and locked inside for years.

Kawamoto said her father sent the family to Vernon before the evacuation started in Vancouver.

"I remember I was so sick on the bus," she said, adding she did not return back home to Vancouver until 1950. 

Japanese-Canadians were sent to internment camps in B.C. and Alberta. 

When the war broke out in December 1941, the Japanese Language School and Japanese Hall was forced to shut down, as were 50 other Japanese language schools operating in B.C., says Saimoto.

Strathcona Elementary had 1,200 elementary school students and 630 of them were Japanese-Canadian, says Saimoto. Those students were told not to show up to school when the war began.

Mary Kawamoto, a Japanese senior living in Vancouver, flips through old photos of the Vancouver Japanese Language School and Japanese Hall. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Japanese-Canadians were also stripped of their property. But the school and hall managed to survive the internment years. 

"It's a miracle story," Saimoto said.

The school was and still is a grassroots community non-profit organization run and led by volunteers.

"Because it was a non-profit association, the government really didn't know what to do with the selling of the property because of the question of ownership. It basically was owned by the community. It wasn't owned by an individual."

While the building's directors were interned in various different camps, the government delayed selling the property. Meanwhile, the directors' lawyer helped to delay and prevent the selling of the building, according to Saimoto. 

In 1952, the directors were able to reclaim ownership, and the school and hall was reopened in 1953. 

Kawamoto, who was widowed at a young age with two young children, said her life was a tough one. When asked how she felt about the Japanese Language School being recognized in this way today, her voice breaks.

"[It means] everything. It brought tears to my eyes today. It's a real honour."

Mary Kawamoto, a Japanese senior living in Vancouver, attended classes at the Japanese Language School and Japanese Hall when she was young. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Remembering Japantown

The Vancouver Japanese Language School and Japanese Hall is the only historic building in the historic Powell Street area run by a Japanese-Canadian organization, according to Saimoto.

In the 1920s, Vancouver's Japanese community got together to raise $40,000 to build the art deco heritage building still in operation today. 

In 2012, the community did a full heritage rehabilitation of the 1928 building. Now, the Children's World Childcare Centre operates in the heritage building, running Japanese immersion programs. The school and hall also offers language programs for all ages. 

Saimoto says the current building's board of directors hopes to get Japantown recognized as a historic district.

Listen to the full interview here:

With files from Rohit Joseph

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