Ancient school helps Vancouver retain and celebrate Japanese culture

It doesn’t take long to remember the morning of Dec. 7, 1941. Japanese fighters, bombers and torpedo planes filled the skies as the seemingly impenetrable golden gates of Pearl Harbour collapsed into the Pacific Ocean. Most will argue that this served as the beginning of the Second World War for North America. That same morning, the Vancouver Japanese Language School had celebrated its 35th anniversary, and was forced into a war of its own.

Established in 1906, the Vancouver Japanese Language School and Japanese Hall (VJLS-JH) has served the Japanese Canadian community for over 100 years. Created as a learning centre for early Japanese immigrants, the school has successfully continued to sustain and preserve Japanese culture here in Vancouver.

“A great accomplishment,” says school Principal Mari Homma. “But one that has seen its fair share of heartache.”

In 1941, as war spread across the Pacific, the school was forced to shut its doors.

As a product of the physical internment of all Japanese Canadians on the West Coast, the Canadian Government confiscated all private, commercial and community properties owned by Japanese Canadians. From 1942 to 1947, the school’s facilities were occupied by the Canadian Armed Forces, throwing out a handful of teachers along with over a thousand students. An event, according to Homma, that stripped many Japanese immigrants of their pride.

“You no longer wanted to be known as Japanese Canadian,” says Homma. “Many called themselves Canadian Japanese instead. They wanted to be Canadian first, Japanese second. It was a difficult time.” In April of 1949, Japanese Canadians were given back the freedom of resettlement, and began to move back to Vancouver.

Despite the hardships and turmoil of the war, many Japanese Canadians still believed in cultural preservation and took it upon themselves to rebuild their shattered community.

Thanks to the courageous efforts of many Japanese Canadians, the full property of the school was given back in 1953. Out of all the confiscated Japanese Canadian properties, cars, homes and businesses, the VJLS-JH stands alone as the only property retained after the war.

Today, it has become more than just a school, but a symbol of pride and a reminder of the resilience that so many Japanese Canadians showed in rescuing their culture from a most certain death.

Professor Henry Davis, a current member of the UBC Linguistics Department, encourages Canadians to understand how important this traumatic event is to our history as a country. Most importantly, he says, it exposes an ugly truth.

“The treatment of Japanese Canadians, particularly here on the West Coast, is a reminder that Canada has an unenviable history of racial discrimination and persecution,” Davis says.

“The survival of a distinctly Canadian Japanese-speaking minority shows that we have learned a little from the uglier episodes in our history. This is one way of ensuring that events such as this will never happen again.”

A bloody Chris Lightfoot in Okinawa

A bloody Chris Lightfoot in Okinawa - Photo courtesy of Christopher Lightfoot

“It’s very important,” says Chris Lightfoot, a resident of Vancouver, who has spent time in Japan. “Immigrants of all language backgrounds struggle to maintain their original languages past their children’s generation.”

“I believe encouraging multiculturalism eventually encourages mutual understanding. Any efforts to this end should be supported.”

Despite past suffering, Homma believes that the events that happened to her people are a blessing in disguise. Beneath every struggle, she says, lies an important lesson for the future.

“It’s important for us to understand where we came from,” she says. “It helps us discover where we are headed. We learn from our past mistakes and strive to become better the next time,” she continues. “That is what we try to teach our students.”

The VJLS-JH currently caters to students of all ages, providing a variety of classes in Japanese language and cultural education. In the year 2000, the VJLS-JH built a new spacious facility, leaving the original 1928 building as a designated heritage center.

Now 12 years later, the VJLS-JH continues to operate with the same respect and dignity that its founders established over a century ago. Above all, their mission is, and always will be, geared towards keeping Canada a multicultural nation.

“Canada is a great place to continue to work and learn,” says Homma. “Despite the past struggles, our school has flourished in this community and has brought life to Japanese culture in the hearts of not just the Japanese people themselves, but all Canadians in general,” she says.

“Our ultimate objective is to enrich inter-cultural communication and understanding among our students. If we can do that, then we have done our job as Japanese Canadians.”