‘The lessons learned are not lessons relegated to history. They are very, very much appropriate to today.’
Canada’s first Buddhist temple was founded by 14 Japanese immigrants in Vancouver just 18 years after the city was incorporated, and saw destruction and revival in the century that followed. But the temple survived, and this weekend marked a milestone.
The Vancouver Buddhist Temple celebrated its 115th anniversary with a ceremony Sunday in its current home on the corner of Jackson Avenue and Powell Street, the heart of what was once the thriving Japantown neighbourhood and is now the Downtown Eastside.
Not many Vancouver institutions can boast a 115-year history. And the temple’s milestone is especially remarkable considering what the community overcame in those years. And some community members see, in the headlines of 2019, sad echoes of dark parts of that history.
Around 200 people of all ages attended Sunday’s service, including representatives from temples in Toronto, Seattle, and Calgary. It was a festive occasion, but while speakers addressed the crowd about Vancouver Buddhist Temple’s history, more than one raised a chapter that was devastating for both the temple and the broader community: what one speaker referred to “the shadow of the war.”
In 1942, with Canada and its allies at war with Japan, the Canadian government detained and dispossessed most people of Japanese descent living in B.C., supposedly in the interest of “national security.”
Trains carried Japanese detainees to camps in B.C.’s Interior. With Japanese Canadians suddenly declared “enemy aliens,” the government confiscated their property, estimated to be worth more than $800 million in today’s dollars. The government sold their homes and businesses to pay for their detention.
The Canadian Encyclopedia quotes Canadian Major-General Kenneth Stuart: “From the army point of view, I cannot see that Japanese Canadians constitute the slightest menace to national security.”
But B.C.’s talked about Japanese Canadians “in the way that the Nazis would have spoken about Jewish Germans,” Canadian wartime diplomat Escott Reid was quoted as saying, adding: “When they spoke I felt … the physical presence of evil.”
The government didn’t allow uprooted Japanese families to return to coastal cities like Vancouver until 1949.
Sitting in the quiet temple after Sunday’s ceremony, Mary Kawamoto, 92, shared memories of roller-skating down Powell Street as a 14-year-old in 1941, when Vancouver’s vibrant Japantown was filled with cafes, shops and friends.
The following year, Kawamoto’s family had to leave Vancouver, and when they finally returned to Powell Street in 1950, she said, the neighbourhood was unrecognizable. The street upon which she had roller-skated as a teenager felt unsafe eight years later.
“It was definitely not Japantown anymore,” she said. “When I came back, I was scared to walk down the street.”
Through the 1950s, some Japanese families returned to Vancouver, and some reopened businesses on Powell Street. A few institutions were revived, including the Vancouver Buddhist Temple. But the neighbourhood would never return to what it was before the war.
The government targeted everyone of Japanese descent, even those whose families had been in Canada for generations, such as Dr. Bob Akune, a “sensei,” or teacher, at the temple. Akune, 80, was a toddler when his family left B.C. during the war, and the government seized his family’s home and his father’s fishing boat.
Many Japanese Canadians who lived through the wartime displacement did not want to spend much time dwelling on the past, said Akune, invoking the Japanese phrase “shikata ga nai,” which roughly means “nothing can be done about it.”
“It’s done, it’s in the past,” Akune said. “We are still moving forward and not reflecting on some of the trials and tribulations of the past.”
But the stories of the past can hold lessons for the present, said Sherri Kajiwara, director-curator of the Nikkei National Museum, which is dedicated to Japanese Canadian history.
Canadian society has not entirely left behind the kind of racism that Japanese people endured in Canada not only during internment, but in the decades before and after the Second World War, Kajiwara said recently.
“We have not moved past that,” she said. “These are uncomfortable discussions to have, but it’s not gone. I think the biggest take-away from the community, is they do not want this to happen again. And if you do not remember the history, it can very easily happen again.””The lessons learned are not lessons relegated to history. They are very, very much appropriate to today.”
Kajiwara pointed to U.S. President Donald Trump’s move to ban migration from some Muslim-majority countries, saying news coverage of Trump’s ban used “frighteningly similar” language to what was written in the 1940s about Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians. Trump didn’t shy away from the comparison. During his eventually victorious presidential campaign, Trump cited the U.S. government’s internment of Japanese Americans as a precedent for his own proposal to ban Muslim migration to the U.S.
“We like to think of ourselves as altruistic, democratic Canadians, and we like to point a finger at our neighbours to the south and blame everything on Trump, but Canada is no better,” Kajiwara said.
Heated, emotional debates about immigration broke out in this year’s byelection in Burnaby South, the federal riding that happens to be home to the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre. February’s byelection included the first candidate seeking office with the People’s Party of Canada, a new party formed by former Conservative MP Maxime Bernier, and candidate Laura-Lynn Tyler Thompson campaigned on a “Canadians-first” message, stoking fears about immigration.
Just before the byelection, Star Metro Vancouver reported a debate had “descended into chaos when the topic of immigration arose, leading to finger-pointing and shrieking in the audience.”
“Each time Tyler Thompson said ‘Canadians first,’ — which occurred multiple times at every debate — the crowd would swell into visceral cheers,” Star Metro reported. “Thompson directly appealed to prevalent anxieties in the riding about public safety as she repeatedly brought up the case of Marissa Shen, a 13-year-old Burnaby South girl who was murdered in the region. A Syrian refugee, who was employed in Canada and had family here, is the accused.”
Thompson lost, finishing fourth. But the fact she finished with almost 11 per cent of the vote means thousands of Burnaby residents voted for a candidate despite her anti-immigration rhetoric, or explicitly because of it. Vancouver Mayor and former Burnaby South MP Kennedy Stewart described that result as “deeply disturbing.”
“We know there are parts of the population that are inclined toward racism or homophobia,” Stewart told reporters the day after the byelection. “But what I find especially disturbing is that the People’s Party has been specifically formed to bring that to the surface.”
Earlier this month, EKOS Research Associates reported finding a significant increase in the number of respondents who think Canada has too many non-white immigrants, and, for the first time in the 25 years EKOS has been polling on the issue, opposition to visible minority immigration was higher than opposition to immigration in general.
EKOS president Frank Graves posted the results on Twitter and noted that political parties doing well in polls right now are the ones with a high incidence of supporters who oppose visible minority immigration.
“Time for a good hard look in the mirror Canada,” Graves wrote.
Commenting on EKOS’ findings of opposition to non-white immigration, BuzzFeed News editor Elamin Abdelmahmoud wrote on Twitter: “Immigrants of colour could’ve told you the air feels different. Now, the numbers say it, too.”
Just last month, after Vancouver Coun. Pete Fry sought to introduce a motion involving, of all things, a proposed interim land zoning policy, one Vancouverite registered his displeasure with Fry, the only non-white member of Vancouver’s 11-person council, sending him an email instructing him to “get out of Canada,” and “take your mom (Trinidadian-born Liberal Member of Parliament Hedy Fry) with you.”
Still, despite the uglier elements still present in Canadian society, Kajiwara struck a somewhat optimistic tone for the future, saying: “In Canada, at least, I think the potential opportunity to be better does exist here. And that’s really the challenge that all of us face: how do we do that?”
Albeit in a different context, the Vancouver Buddhist Temple’s minister, Reverend Tatsuya Aoki, quoted a proverb during Sunday’s service.
“If you just want to go fast, go alone,” Aoki said. “But if you want to go far, let us go together.”