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The Powell Street Festival

Julia Aoki

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The Powell Street Festival, 1977

The designation of Japanese Canadians as enemy aliens, and their subsequent dispossession and internment during the Second World War, was a violent disruption of community, removing people from their homes, neighbourhoods, social networks, and ways of life on the west coast of British Columbia. It was a devastating and thorough rupture, but in the decades following, Japanese Canadian associations emerged across the country, and in the 1970s the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver was a meaningful site for constituting and articulating the community once again.

As all histories are when looked at through the perspective of the entanglement of people, social context, and infrastructure that bring momentum to an event, the formation of the Powell Street Festival is not simple or clear. A convergence of things made the first festival possible in 1977, but two in particular stand out: the establishment of the seniors drop-in centre, Tonari Gumi, and the development of the touring exhibition, A Dream of Riches: The Japanese Canadians, 1877–1977.1

Tonari Gumi, a passion project of Jun Hamada, developed at the intersection of communities. Nisei, sansei and shin-issei2 who were working or volunteering with social service non-profits and churches sought to create new supports for Japanese Canadian issei who had returned to the Powell Street area after wartime prohibitions were lifted. Many of those seniors were socially and linguistically isolated and Hamada envisioned a centre that could meet the needs of aging issei, whatever they might have been.

After a brief time sharing space with Language Aid, a translation service non-profit founded by Michiko Sakata, then the Downtown Eastside Residents’ Association, an organization serving low-income people in the area, Tonari Gumi secured its own location at 573 East Hastings in 1975. Tonari Gumi offered language, food, culture, and social programs on-site, and organized outreach to seniors at home or in hospital. Tonari Gumi became a hub amongst a scattering of spaces serving Japanese Canadians in historic Nihonmachi, or Japantown.

The story of Tonari Gumi is suggestive of the possibilities that arise when people assemble, share ideas and excite personal and collective ambitions. Networks for mobilizing resources were amassed and could be applied to emerging needs and projects. As the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the first documented Japanese immigrant to the west coast approached, Sakata was struck with the notion of a photo exhibition that would illustrate the stories she would hear from her senior clients. She and Tonari Gumi staff and associates invited photographer and civil rights activist Tamio Wakayama to curate an exhibition of images, and began to organize under the banner of the Japanese Canadian Centennial Project. The resulting collection was titled A Dream of Riches: The Japanese Canadians, 1877–1977, which was first exhibited in Vancouver in June of 1976, and would go on to tour in Canada, the US and Japan.

The exhibition, which brought together images contextualized by oral histories and summaries of historical events, would be a monumental undertaking. Over 4,000 images were collected, catalogued and curated to represent a hundred-year history. The collection celebrated a pioneering early history, in spite of political and social opposition to the community’s formation; documented the dismantling of Japanese Canadian communities through detention and dispossession; and demonstrated the vibrant reconstitution of the community in the post-war years. The undeniable subtext to the project was that Japanese Canadians were claiming and illustrating their own history.

Reading about the flurry of activity that occurred in those years, it’s clear that energy for community organizing was building in the lead-up to the 1977 Centennial, and it was in this context that the idea for a festival emerged. Shakuhachi musician Takeo Yamashiro, who was among the first generation of staff at Tonari Gumi and became a decades-serving executive director, is often credited with the idea for a festival showcasing community arts and crafts as part of the anniversary celebrations. Members of Tonari Gumi began a new organization, the BC Japanese Canadian Centennial Arts Workshop, which hired a team to mount the first annual festival. Working out of 382 Powell Street alongside the organizers of the photo exhibit, ten people, led by Rick Shiomi as coordinator, with programming by Noriko Hirota, brought the first festival to life.

By all accounts, it was a difficult first year. For some, nisei and sansei organizers were perceived as rabble rousers without a clear understanding of the pre-war community, while shin-issei organizers were interlopers with no business being involved in a Japanese Canadian event. But Shiomi and his team persisted, and on a balmy day in June 1977, the first festival took place. In Spirit of the Issei, Hanako Masutani describes that first event:

The morning of the Powell Street Festival broke warm and light. The night before a large team of volunteers had set up a main stage, a teahouse, several booths constructed of 2
×4s, and various fluttering Centennial banners. By 11:00 AM, the time of the opening ceremonies, all structures thronged with festival goers. It had been decades since Powell Grounds had been host to such a crowd. Many Japanese descendents and other interested visitors wore yukata. Children, too, were dressed in traditional summer kimono, livening up the park as they darted through adult limbs. The issei were there, the older ones escorted by Tonari Gumi volunteers. All came, saw and ate their fill.3

The first Powell Street Festival was a convergence of people across generations and experiences, and a juncture in the longer history of Japanese Canadians that would continue to be carved along many paths. One of these paths would be the growing calls for restitution and compensation for the injustices committed during the Second World War. The Japanese Canadian Centennial Project would become the Redress Committee, and as Roy Miki writes in Redress: Inside the Japanese Canadian Call for Justice, the group, “joined by others with similar concerns, began to meet over potluck dinners to think through—in fundamental and often emotionally charged ways—the prospect of redress.”4

Jun Hamada’s ambition to be in service to community in a shared space, and the reclamation of history through self-determined expression, made tangible in A Dream of Riches, were among the energetic filaments that constituted the Powell Street Festival and would continue through its annual return. Wakayama describes the impact of the first Powell Street Festival in Kikyō: Coming Home to Powell Street:

The surging crosscurrents of our awakening finally came together in the bright sun of a summer’s weekend when the taiko drumbeats of the first Powell Street Festival echoed across Oppenheimer Park. For the first time since the war years, the dispersed Nikkei community was reunited on the grounds where an older generation had once gathered to enact its rituals and acclaim its heroes. We came not as victims but as celebrants of our victory over a vicious racism that had sought our removal from these lands. In the 100th year since the arrival of the first Japanese immigrant to Canada, we had come home to Powell Street.

The Festival is approaching its 47th iteration, and in my experience it continues to be an eruption of cultural enthusiasm that looks back at the long legacy of Japanese Canadians on the west coast of British Columbia, and celebrates the complex formation of a community today and going forward. It’s a space that is alive with convivial contestation. Whatever defining notions of the Japanese Canadian community one might hold may be expressed at the Powell Street Festival, and will give way to many others.

Julia Aoki

Julia Aoki (shin-nisei) is an administrator, writer, researcher, and advocate. Currently the Program Manager with SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement, Julia has served as the Executive Director of Megaphone magazine, General Manager of VIVO Media Arts Centre and General Manager and Programming Director of the Powell Street Festival. Julia is currently an advisor to the board of 221A Artist Run Centre Society, and has volunteered with advocacy organizations such as the Pacific Association of Artist Run Centres and DTES SRO Collaborative. Her writing on cultural expressions and community formations that are overlooked and underserved by commercial and political mechanisms and practices can be found in TOPIA, Space and Culture and a collection by Lexington Books.


1 “A Dream of Riches: The Japanese Canadians, 1877-1977” (cat.), The Japanese Canadian Centennial Project, Vancouver, 1978. 

2 In the Canadian context, these terms refer to pre-war second generation, pre-war third generation, and post-war first generation Japanese people in Canada. As many nisei were compelled to assimilate to “Canadian” culture, it was common for nisei and sansei to not possess strong Japanese language skills. The relationship between pre- and post-war Japanese Canadians was indispensable to providing support to Japanese speaking elders at Tonari Gumi. 

3 Tonari Gumi History Project, Spirit of the Issei: The Story of Tonari Gumi, Ti-Jean Press, Victoria, BC, 2010, p. 31.

4 Roy Miki, Redress : Inside the Japanese Canadian Call for Justice, Raincoast Books, Vancouver, 2004, p. 144.

5 Tamio Wakayama, Kikyō: Coming Home to Powell Street, Harbour Publishing, Madeira Park, BC, 1992, p.12.