The Vancouver Japanese Language School and Japanese Hall

Vancouver Japanese Language School, 1928. © Vancouver Japanese Language School and Japanese Hall
The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada plaque unveiling ceremony in 2019. © Parks Canada
For the Week of May 2, 2022.

On May 2, 1953, the Vancouver Japanese Language School and Japanese Hall reopened in British Columbia. The only interwar Japanese language school that survived expropriation and reopened after the Second World War, it exemplified the resilience and strength of the Japanese Canadian community.

The Vancouver Japanese Language School (Vancouver Nippon Kyoritsu Go Gakko) was the first and largest Japanese language school in Canada. Opened in 1906, it was originally located at 439 Alexander Street in the Powell Street neighbourhood, where many people of Japanese descent had lived since the late 19th century. A working understanding of the Japanese language was greatly valued within the neighbourhood, as a means of retaining a sense of shared cultural heritage and as the working language for many businesses within the community. The school initially offered full-day courses on a wide range of subjects, modelled after Japanese examples, but in 1919 focused on after-school classes as a supplement, rather than an alternative, to public school education. It also served as a forum for the nurturing and celebration of Japanese culture, with a separate hall that became an important community-wide gathering place. Both the school and hall flourished and, in 1928, overcrowding led to the construction of a new building at 475 Alexander Street.

The school, the hall, and the community they served faced an uncertain future during the Second World War. In 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor inflamed anti-Asian racism and fears that Japanese Canadians might support enemy attacks on the West Coast of British Columbia. The school closed before ordered to do so by the Department of Education on December 9. Then, beginning in early 1942, the government ordered the removal of 22,000 Japanese Canadians from coastal communities, forcing them into internment camps and dispersing them across the country. Teaching or learning Japanese was forbidden in the camps. Finally, in 1943, the government seized and sold millions of dollars’ worth of property owned by Japanese Canadians, removing the most visible traces of the Powell Street Community from the streetscape.

Between 1942 and 1952, the government leased the school, first to the Canadian Armed Forces and then to the Army and Navy Department Store, but the board of directors managed to prevent the legal transfer of the property. Still, the government sold half of the property and facilities in 1947, despite their lack of legal ownership. In 1953, after years of petitioning, local community efforts, and fundraising, the building became one of the few properties to be returned to the Japanese Canadian community after the war. The community raised money to restore the building, that same year, to help rebuild the neighbourhood and its sense of identity. Today, the school still teaches the Japanese language and operates a licensed childcare centre, allowing students to engage in traditional art forms and martial arts, and continues to stand as an important centre for community and communal events and celebrations.

The Vancouver Japanese Language School is a designated national historic site. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) advises the Government of Canada on the commemoration of national historic sites, which can include a wide range of historic places such as gardens, complexes of buildings, and cultural landscapes.

The National Program of Historical Commemoration relies on the participation of Canadians in the identification of places, events, and persons of national historic significance. Any member of the public can nominate a topic for consideration by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. Learn how to participate in the process.

Related links

Learn more about Parks Canada’s approach to public history by checking out the Framework for History and Commemoration (2019) on our website.

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