The Vancouver Japanese Language School and Japanese Hall (VJLS-JH) has the unique distinction of being the only example of confiscated property, including cars, boats, homes, and businesses, that was returned to the Japanese Canadian community at the end of the Internment period during and after World War II.
As one of the only physical links between the land and the community, this building “symbolized courage, perseverance, and resilient spirit of the Japanese-Canadian community” and it continues to represent the same to this day.
The original building was established in 1906 at 438 Alexander Street as a regular school. In 1919, the Japanese community recognized that its growing population meant that it needed an established school to focus on teaching their children the Japanese language. The same year, the school switched from teaching a comprehensive curriculum to focusing on only the Japanese language and culture. It was later destroyed in a fire but soon was rebuilt where it currently stands, at 475 Alexander Street, in 1928.
After the fire, VJLS-JH moved into the building it currently occupies. 475 Alexander Street is a Spanish-Mission Revival building, an architectural style that was popularized in the late 19th century, designed and built by the Sharp and Thompson Architects. Other buildings designed and built by Sharp and Thompson include the Vancouver Club, the Sciences Building at UBC, and the university’s Main Library.
The Internment period faced by Japanese Canadians
The school, like the community that built it, suffered during World War II. Early in 1942 shortly after Canada declared war on Japan, the government decided to intern all people of Japanese descent most of whom lived in British Columbia. In the name of national security, approximately 22,000 Japanese Canadians were sent into exile in the British Columbia interior 100 miles east of the coast. The Canadian government stripped the Japanese Canadians of their properties including cars, homes, and businesses, and many were deported.
As a result, from 1942 to 1947, the school, with 1000 students enrolled, was shut. The Canadian Armed Forces occupied half of the building for planning and administration; the other half was sold to pay for war expenses. From 1947 to 1952, the Army and Navy Department Store rented the army-owned building.
In 1953, thanks to the efforts of the community, the building was returned to the Japanese community and the school was reopened.
Vancouver Japanese Language School and Japanese Hall today
The school may have started out with only students from the members of the Japanese Canadian community who came to the school to hear about their own heritage, but things are different today.
The space doubles as a school and a cultural center. Children attend the institution after their regular English schools or on weekends to learn more about their heritage. To this day, the VJLS-JH is dedicated to teaching the art, culture, language, and history of Japan.
Now, the school believes that its role in society is to act as a bridge between Canada and Japan. At a more international level, with students from at least 12 different countries, the school spreads the art, culture, and history of Japan to people who come to learn from all over the. The VJLS currently offer classes and programs for all age groups, from toddlers to adults. For the adults, they offer private and group lessons and programs including beginner to advance level courses.
After 100 years of proudly sharing the Japanese heritage with people of Japanese descent and others, the school hopes to continue doing the same, spreading its wings wider in the next 100 years.
Find out more about the school and cultural centre at www.vjls-jh.com