Historic Walking Tour
The Tragedy of Little Tokyo
For Vancouver's first 50 years this neighbourhood was home to thousands of Japanese who immigrated to Canada. They primarily worked at sawmills or on fishing boats, raised families and struggled to gain acceptance in Canadal as a result, Japantown became a small slice of home for the residents located in Vancouver's Downtown East Side. Then in 1942 this vibrant community disappeared. Businesses were shuttered, homes emptied and the land sold off. Almost overnight Vancouver's Little Tokyo permanently ceased to exist. All the Nikkei (Canadians of Japanese descent) were rounded up and sent to internment camps in the Rocky Mountains. After the war, virtually none of the Nikkei shipped further inland returned to Vancouver - hardly a surprise after the racism they encountered - instead, they spread far and wide throughout Canada. In this tour we'll chart the rise of Japantown, the lives of the Nikkei, the community they created and the challenges that they faced. After that, we will see how the entire community suddenly disappeared, exiled to internment camps away from the coast. After the Second World War they were scattered across the country so that no comparable Japantown exists in Canada today.
We'd like to thank the Vancouver Archives for generous use of their historic photo collection.
1. 'Japan Opens Its Doors'
At this time the sight of a Japanese person in Canada was considered a novelty. For centuries under the Tokugawa Shogunate, Japan had succeeded in imposing an extreme form of isolation on itself whose only modern comparison is the hermit nation of North Korea. Save a few enterprising Dutch and Portuguese traders, Europeans were forbidden from making landfall on Japanese shores, while Japanese caught attempting to leave faced the death penalty. It was not until 1867, the same year Gassy Jack opened his bar in Gastown, a seminal moment in Vancouver's history, that the arrival of an American fleet of 'black ships' (The Japanese name for Western vessels) in Tokyo Harbour spurred a Japanese political revolution. The island nation suddenly flung open its doors to the world, embracing the modern era. Japan was a small crowded country, poor in natural resources with an overwhelmingly agrarian economy. For many young Japanese men who faced a life of rural drudgery or military conscription, the opportunities that were suddenly available on foreign shores were too good to pass up.
2. 'Hastings Mill'
The first Japanese immigrant to Canada—Issei as they came to be called—was a fisherman who arrived as a stowaway aboard a British cargo ship in 1877. A steady stream of his countrymen followed; thousands of young men and a few women found work on fishing boats or farms, in canneries and sawmills. Today, it is hard for us to imagine just how difficult life was for these early pioneers. They were paid roughly half as much as their white counterparts, in addition to being given the toughest and most dangerous jobs while working exhausting hours. Unable to speak English, they were frequently exploited by corrupt bureaucrats, bosses and conmen. While many employers were reluctant to take on Issei, the Hastings Mill hired them en masse almost as soon as they'd stepped off the boat as they knew the Japanese would work 60 hours a week without complaint. Issei millworkers congregated together in this rowdy working class neighbourhood of boarding houses and brothels. By the 1890s Vancouver's Japantown was coming into being.
3. 'The Methodist Church'
When Japanese immigrants first set foot in Canada many were shocked by the frosty reception they received from Vancouver's whites. Among the working classes many whites felt that the Japanese were stealing their jobs, while many of the educated upper classes were taken with the recent fad of social Darwinism, which took the concept of the survival of the fittest and extended it to people. "Orientals", as they were called, were denied the right to vote, and barred from a variety of professions including law and pharmacology. White Christian missionaries were the exception to the rude welcome. Many churches, such as the Methodist Church, opened their doors to the exhausted and bewildered new arrivals effectively became the welcome wagon for the Japanese immigrants, assisting them in navigating Canada's seemingly bizarre social customs, instructing them in the laws, and aiding them in putting down roots in their new country. Some missionaries, such as Sister Mary—Omaria-san to the Nikkei—are still remembered fondly today. Japan did not have a long history of religious strife, and unlike many other Canadian immigrants, no Japanese were fleeing religious persecution. Many were indifferent to religion, so the kindness of the Methodists won them many converts. Today more Nikkei follow the United Church (the Methodists merged with the United Church in 1925) than any other religion.xx1
4. 'The Vancouver Asahi'
From the 1910s on the first generation Issei gradually gave way to their Canadian-born children, the Nisei. Despite their Canadian birth, in high school Nisei found themselves ostracized by their white peers, barred from the dating scene and upon graduation, ruthlessly discriminated against in the job market. However, there was one area they could compete on a relatively equal footing with their neighbours: sport. Founded in 1914 the all-Nikkei Asahi baseball team initially struggled to make headway against the bigger Caucasian players. Eventually they pioneered a bunt-heavy, base-stealing, heart-pounding style of play that the press dubbed "brain ball" that soon captured the imagination of the entire province. At a time when baseball was surging in popularity the Asahi were determined to act as ambassadors of the Nikkei community. They upheld high standards of sportsmanship and didn't dispute the often racially motivated pronouncements of the umpires. They won their first Pacific Northwest League championship in 1937 and held the title for five years.xx2
5. 'The Tariku Newspaper'
Few of the first wave of Issei could write English, let alone speak it, making the rising venom in the ongoing immigration debate in the English press opaque to them. Reverend Kaburagi, the first Japanese Christian minister in Canada, could read English and was alarmed by the rising anti-Japanese sentiment splashed on the front pages. To raise his community's political awareness he started Canada's first Japanese language newspaper, the Shimpo, in 1906. The Shimpo had a conservative editorial position, and was soon followed by the centrist Tairiku (headquarters pictured above) and a third paper, which was left-leaning. Kaburagi was on to something as only a year later, in August 1907, a crowd of 4,000 assembled in front of the city hall at Main and Hastings to listen to speeches from the Asiatic Exclusion League, who aimed to halt "Oriental" immigration to Canada. A speech from a clergyman whipped the crowd into a xenophobic frenzy, and they rampaged through Chinatown, smashing windows and looting stores. The mob surged into Japantown next, but the Nikkei had advance warning. Armed with clubs and bottles, and throwing bricks from rooftops; they successfully defended their neighbourhood from the rioters whose numbers had swelled to 8,000.xx3
6. 'Dealing with Racism'
What was the source of the virulent prejudice against the Nikkei? Racism in British Columbia grew from a series of persistent—and inaccurate—myths, widely reported on in the press (one paper of note was the Vancouver Sun). As the historian Pierre Berton observed, they were accused of dominating the fishing industries, and while Japanese carpenters did have a reputation for making the best fishing boats in the Pacific Northwest, they held a mere 14% of fishing licenses. They were accused of breeding like rabbits and threatened to overtake British Columbia's British population, yet in truth each woman had 2.75 children, which at that time was lower than any other ethnic group. By 1941 there were only 13,000 Nisei in the province, less than 2% of the population. They were thought to be prone to crime, yet their incarceration rate was half that of those with British ancestry. They did indeed work for less than their white counterparts, but what choice did they have? These myths permeated the politics of the time. Advertisements for the B.C. Liberal party in 1935 read "A vote for the Liberal candidate in your rising is a vote against the Oriental establishment," and "The Liberal Party is opposed to giving Orientals the vote." The Liberals won that election.xx4
7. 'A Japanese Enclave'
By the 1920s and 1930s Japantown had grown into a completely self-sufficient Japanese neighbourhood, despite many laws aimed at curtailing Japanese and Chinese immigration. As Takata Toyo wrote in Nikkei Legacy, there were Japanese grocers, tobacconists, florists, jewellers, shoe repairers and barbers. Rice mills, factories and manufacturers of soy sauce, tofu and miso paste. There were taxi stands, poolhalls, boarding houses and bathhouses. There were doctors and dentists, masseurs and midwives. Over 500 Japanese businesses crammed into this area, the only ones lacking were doctors and pharmacists, professions that provincial law barred Nikkei from practicing. For the beleaguered Japanese immigrant, the neighbourhood you're now standing in, once cramped and buzzing with activity, had all the sights, sounds and smells of home. In this small slice of Vancouver they could regain a sense of belonging in an otherwise indifferent land. At a population of almost 5,000, Japantown was the largest concentration of Nikkei that has ever existed in Canada.xx6
8. 'Building Families'
The first wave of Japanese immigrants were predominantly men. As they became established in Canada they began arranging 'picture brides' to come over and join them from Japan. Many Japanese women were given a glamourized view of life in Canada and arrived in Vancouver to find the well-off bachelors they had been promised were actually living in cramped and squalid conditions in Powell Street tenements. Life was hard for these women. They were often much younger than their husbands and usually better educated than most other immigrant women, but in those days that counted for little. Many women did find work, in the form of gruelling hours spent on the cold floors of canneries.
9. 'Proving their Loyalty'
The United Kingdom and Japan saw a lot of themselves in each other. Both were small island powers just off the coast of major continental powers. Both were monarchies protected by powerful navies. Thus in 1902 Japan and the British Empire (and therefore Canada) signed an alliance. When the British Empire went to war with Germany, so too did Japan. Japan's entrance into the First World War was met with rapturous applause by the Nikkei. Canadians and Japanese would fight shoulder to shoulder, proving the worth of the Nikkei in the eyes of white Canadians and eroding their prejudice. Or so they thought. The Japanese Association of Canada asked for volunteers to join the Canadian Army and 200 immediately answered the call. But when they went to enlist they were refused. The provincial government feared if Nikkei were allowed to fight, soon after they'd be demanding the right to vote. Alberta had not institutionalized racism as B.C. had, and those 200 succeeded in finding a recruiting station on the prairies that would accept them. They went on to fight at Vimy Ridge, Hill 70, and at the Hundred Days, hallowed names in the roll call of Canadian victories. They suffered over 75% casualties, including 54 dead. Today a cenotaph in Stanley Park marks their sacrifice.xx7
10. 'War Comes to Vancouver'
On the morning of December 7, 1941, Toshiko Kurita heard the news at school that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor and British forces in the Pacific. All Japanese-Canadians knew this was a complete disaster for their ongoing bid to gain acceptance in Canada, but Toshiko didn't have to wait long to see backlash. As she walked home from school an old man spat in her face. Later that day when her mother was getting on a streetcar a white passenger tore off her hat and stomped on it. That night Toshiko knelt beside her bed and, wiping away tears, prayed "Oh God, we didn't want this war. We aren't part of Japan now. We are Canadians. Please help us, God."xx8 Many white businesses immediately fired their Japanese-Canadian employees without notice. All Nikkei-owned fishing vessels were immediately seized and auctioned off. Initially only a few suspected Japanese-born subversives were rounded up by the RCMP. That would soon change.
11. 'The Dark Days of 1942'
In British Columbia the shock and anger that followed December 7, 1941, quickly gave way to nigh hysterical panic as Allied defeat after defeat was announced. On Christmas Day 1941 Hong Kong fell and its Canadian defenders were marched into four years of brutal captivity. The Americans surrendered the Philippines and 250 Japanese aircraft bombed Darwin, Australia, over 6,000 km from Japan, inflicting major damage. On 15 February 1942, the fortress of Singapore surrendered to the Japanese. Churchill called it the greatest disaster in British military history. The uninterrupted string of Japanese victories from December 1941 to June 1942 has no parallel in military history: American, British, Canadian, Dutch and Australian forces were defeated on battlefields separated by thousands of kilometres. In British Columbia people began to believe an attack was imminent and their attention turned to the Nikkei. The Member of the Legislative Assembly for Point Grey said the province would become the "meat in a Japanese sandwich, with landing parties in front and 'quisling fifth columnists and enemy aliens in the rear." The Attorney General Gordon Wismer said all Japanese were dangerous, whether they were born in Canada or not, and wanted them removed from the coast.xx9 Some historians have argued there was some basis for these fears, British Columbia was practically undefended in early 1942 and the Japanese consulate in Vancouver was actively recruiting spies amongst the Nikkei.xx10 Regardless, what happened next stands as one of the most shameful episodes in this country's history.
Prime Minister King had tried to ignore the Nikkei question after Japan's entry into the war, following the advice of his military advisers who believed the threat of Japanese invasion remote. But British Columbia's demands that the Japanese-Canadians in their midst be evacuated rose to a fever pitch. He needed the province's votes in the upcoming election and feared that if the Nikkei weren't put into some kind of protective custody they would be attacked by a mob. This might cause the Japanese to make reprisals on Canadian prisoners of war in Japan. Even though the order for internment of all Japanese-Canadians made a mockery of the values Canada claimed to be fighting for, he relented and ordered the internment of all the Nikkei. First the men were rounded up and sent to the Rockies to build railways, then the women and children were sent to desolate camps in the Kootenays, to live in tarpaper shacks in sub-zero temperatures. They were not told that all their property, their businesses, personal possessions and community buildings--their life's work—was being auctioned off for a fraction its market value. Sergeant Masumi Mitsui of Port Coquitlam was one of those 200 Nikkei who had fought for Canada in the First World War. He had been awarded the Military Medal for his valour at the Battle of Hill 70 after he retrieved a machine gun from its dead operators and brought it back into action, leading his all-Nikkei platoon to repulse repeated German assaults. 30 of his 35 men were killed in the process. After the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 he wrote the Minister of National Defence on behalf of Japanese-Canadian veterans pledging "their unflinching loyalty to Canada as they did in the last war." When the internment orders came he went to the registration office and flung his medals on the official's desk. "I served my country. You've taken everything from me. What are the good of my medals?"xx11 He was sent to a camp in Greenwood, British Columbia. xx11
13. 'Japantown's End'
After the Nikkei were sent to camps in the mountains the Canadian government had the headache of deciding what to do with them next. They opted to blackmail them into resettling around the rest of the country. During the war prejudice against Japanese-Canadians was not just a B.C. phenomenon, and the government struggled to find cities willing to take the Japanese-Canadians. Aside from Winnipeg, where the Winnipeg Free Press took a strong stand against racism, and Montreal, the Nikkei struggled to find acceptance anywhere in Canada. Resettlement began after the frigid winter of 1942-43, and the government tried to spread the Nikkei as thinly as possible across the rest of the country to avoid provoking an outcry. Long after the war ended the ban on allowing the Nikkei to return to their homes on the coast of British Columbia remained in place. When it was finally lifted in 1949 it's hardly surprising few ever returned. The deeply humiliating experience had been imprinted on the memories of all the Nikkei who once called this place home; their homes and businesses had new owners. Most ended up sprinkled across the country. Some scattered places, like the Japanese Hall you are standing in front of, attest to this neighbourhood's rich history. But after the war most of the resold buildings became dilapidated wrecks. Drug abuse, poverty and misery spread their sinister tendrils throughout the once thriving blocks. Japantown had died, never to return. Joy Kogawa was a little girl when she was evacuated to the mountain camps in 1942. Years later she wrote this poem called "What Do I Remember of the Evacuation." I remember my father telling Tim and me About the mountains and the train And the excitment of going on a trip. What do I remember of the evacuation? I remember my mother wrapping A blanket around me and my Pretending to fall asleep so she would be happy Although I was so excited I couldn't sleep (I hear there were people herded Into the Hastings Park like cattle. Families were made to move in two hours Abandoning everything, leaving pets And possessions at gun point. I hear families were broken up Men were forced to work. I heard It whispered late at night That there was suffering) and I missed my dolls. What do I remember of the evacuation? I remember Miss Foster and Miss Tucker Who still live in Vancouver And who did what they could And loved the children and who gave me A puzzle to play with on the train. And I remember the mountains and I was Six years old and I swear I saw a giant Gulliver of Gulliver's Travels scanning the horizon And when I told my mother she believed it too And I remember how careful my parents were Not to bruise us with bitterness And I remember the puzzle of Lorraine Life Who said "Don't insult me" when I Proudly wrote my name in Japanese And Tim flew the Union Jack When the war was over but Lorraine And her friends spat on us anyway and I prayed to the God who loves All the children in his sight That I might be white. - Joy Kogawa
3. The Methodist Church
1. Toyo, Takata. Nikkei Legacy: The Story of Japanese Canadians From Settlement to Today. Toronto: NC Press, 1983.
4. The Vancouver Asahi
2. Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. "Vancouver Asahi." 28 June 2003. Online.
5. The Tariku Newspaper
3. Toyo, 44.
6. Dealing with Racism
4. Berton, Pierre. Marching As To War: Canada's Turbulent Years, 1899-1953. Toronto: Anchor Canada, 2002, 355.
7. A Japanese Enclave
5. Vancouver Heritage Foundation. "Historic Map-Guide: Japantown, Vancouver." 2009. Online.
6. Toyo, 53.
9. Proving their Loyalty
7. Daubs, Katie. "Walking the Western Front – from war hero to enemy alien and back again." Toronto Star. 12 May 2014. Online.
10. War Comes to Vancouver
8. Berton, 355.
11. The Dark Days of 1942
9. Berton, 343.
10. Granatstein, J.L. & Johnson, G. "The Evacuation of the Japanese Canadians, 1942: A Realist Critique of the Received Version." Ottawa: Canadian Committee for the History of the Second World War, 1988.
11. Dick, Lyle. "Sergeant Masumi Mitsui and the Japanese Canadian War Memorial." The Canadian Historical Review 91 (3): 435-463.