This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Japanese Canadian internment — one of the darkest chapters in Canadian and British Columbian history. Declared as “enemy aliens” by the Canadian Government in 1942, approximately 22,000 Japanese Canadians were forcibly uprooted, dispossessed, incarcerated, and exiled from the 100-mile “protected area” on the coast of British Columbia.
Did you know that Mount Pleasant/Fairview was the location of the second-largest Japanese Canadian community in the city outside of Powell Street’s Japantown? Growing steadily in the 1920s and 30s, by the time the 1941 Canada census was taken, 1,400 people of Japanese decent were living in the area, making them the largest non-British ethnic group in Mount Pleasant and Fairview. Though it represents only a small section of the neighbourhood, the plan below illustrates how many Japanese Canadians resided and did business in Mount Pleasant circa 1940.
Many Issei and Nisei came to work in the industries —numerous lumber mills, foundries, and factories — along the south shore of False Creek. During the housing shortage after WWI, cheap tenements and cabins were set up in the area to house the workers. Other Japanese Canadians set up their own businesses, opened shops or restaurants, or provided services to the Mount Pleasant community.
The cultural centre of the Japanese Canadian community in Mount Pleasant was the Japanese Canadian United Church, aka Fairview Japanese Mission, built in 1928. It was located at the corner of W 6th and Columbia. A Japanese kindergarten also ran out of that location. Around the corner, at 154 W 5th Avenue, stood a building that was home to a Japanese Language School and the Mikado Club.
As was the case in the rest of Vancouver in the last century, there were many small family-run grocery or corner stores that dotted the streetscapes in this neighbourhood. Many of them, like I. Ebata Confectionary (161 W 6th) and Hanshichi Marubashi Confectionary (306 W 5th), were owned and operated by Japanese families.
Shigeyuki Tomonaga operated his own sewing factory at 374 West 4th Avenue, and his wife, Takeo, ran a dressmaking business out of the same address. Around the corner at 2016 Yukon Street, Mrs. Nuie Kitagawa operated a barbershop from about 1936 to 1941, according to the City Directories. Some of the workers from the nearby lumber mills, BC Tel Co., and factories probably ate at Motoi Masuda’s restaurant, which was conveniently located close to False Creek at 2000 Yukon St.
Several players from the famous Asahi baseball team also lived in Mount Pleasant/Fairview. For example, Asahi baseball player, Naggie Nishihara (see below) lived at 2109 Alberta St. and in the 1938 City Directory he is listed as a helper at BC Fir & Cedar Lumber Co (897 W. 6th). Another Asahi player, Mike Maruno (see below), also worked at BC Fir and he lived at 161 West 6th.
Though it is hard to tell today, this area of Mount Pleasant North, or Broadway, was once primarily residential and home for a multi-cultural community of families and individuals. My own Italian immigrant family lived in this part of Mount Pleasant from 1926 to 1946. Small pockets of the original dwellings still exist and serve as a tangible reminder of the varied history of this part of the community.
Like this “hold-out” house at 233 West 6th Avenue, which was built ca. 1907, according to historical water service records. From around 1937 to 1941, the Asano family lived there: Masao Asano, who was a drycleaner at Peace Cleaners (3223 Fraser Street), his wife Yae Asano, and his young son Richard Asano. Also living at the house was Masao’s widowed mother Sugi (Suki) Asano, his brother Juichi Asano (who also worked at Peace Cleaners), sisters Emeko (Umeko) and Chiyoko, and his youngest sister Jean (Yukio) Asano. Jean was a student at King Edward High School and was a talented young artist, as evidenced by the drawing she submitted to the Sun Newspaper’s “Sun Ray Club” (children’s section).
According to documents found in the Custodian Case files, on November 7th, 1941 Masao and Juichi Asano bought a house at 125 West 5th Avenue. The timing of this purchase was very unfortunate, as a month later the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour. Like all the assets that Japanese Canadians were forced to leave behind, this house was sold by the Office of the Custodian of enemy property in 1944. In 1942, the Asanos were uprooted from their Mount Pleasant life and were interned in Carmi, BC.
Another Mount Pleasant Japanese Canadian story can be found a little farther south, at 155 East 10th Avenue. Directly adjacent to the alley, at what is now the eastern end of the Federal Building, once stood a two-story wood-frame building that housed Lion Valet (1922-1942), owned and operated by Kozo & Tomeko Arai.
Kozo (Arthur) Arai started his dry cleaning and alterations business in 1922, operating out of rented premises at 151½ East 10th. In 1928, when the building next door at 155 East 10th came up for sale, Kozo bought the property for $3600. Kozo and Tomeko raised their six children in a well-appointed home above the store. His business was so successful that Kozo opened a second dry cleaning business downtown and was able to buy a new family car every two years. The Arai children (Yoshio, Kazuo, Fumiko, Shizuko, Misao, Yukiko) were born between 1922 and 1934 and attended Mount Pleasant Elementary School at Kingsway and Broadway (where Kingsgate Mall is today), and King Edward High School (W12th & Oak). Eldest daughter, Fumiko Arai, was a member of King Edward’s graduating class of 1942. High school graduation usually offers so much hope for the future; I can’t even imagine what was going through the minds of Fumiko and her fellow classmates of Japanese heritage that fateful spring of 1942.
In March of 1942, all Japanese Canadians were ordered to turn over property and belongings to the Custodian of Enemy Alien Property as a “protective measure only.” Japanese Canadians were initially told that their property would be held for protection and would be returned to the owners. However, this proved to be an overwhelming task for the Canadian Government and as a result, in 1943, the government broke their promise and began selling off Japanese Canadian assets – without consent and for far below actual value. Such was the fate of Lion Valet, the business, and belongings of the Arai family. Kozo Arai’s business and property was sold for $2150. The Arais received none of the proceeds.
Fearing they would be separated, the Arai family decided to settle near Grand Forks. For seven years the family laboured on a farm near Grand Forks for 22 cents an hour, while oldest son Yoshio worked first as a logger and later at a sawmill.
In 1950, the Arai family was offered $1,900 for the house and the shop as compensation. Since their total assets were actually worth at least 20 times as much, Kozo felt this amount was an insult and refused the offer on principal. Kozo Arai died in 1957 despondent, with nothing to show for all his years of hard work. His wife, Tome Arai lived a long and full life passing away in 1992 at the age of 92.
In a 1986 Vancouver Sun newspaper article, Yoshio Arai said, “nothing can compensate for his loss of dignity and rights, his lost opportunity for a university education, his seven lost years.” At that time, he still felt the betrayal of the Canadian Government who said they’d give back their property and possessions but broke that promise. I’m sure the cruel irony of the former site of his family’s home and business now being the location of a federal building was not lost on Yoshio.
For further reading:
The Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre has produced a booklet on the subject: FE-A-BYU: Japanese Canadian History in Fairview and Mount Pleasant. It’s a great resource to check out.
Another great resource is the Landscapes of Injustice website, and the Landscapes of Injustice Archive, a digital archive “that presents thousands of records related to Japanese-Canadian history and the dispossession of their property in the 1940s.”