Revitalizing Japantown?

Revitalizing Japantown? Toward a unifying exploration of human rights, branding, and place (2012-2015)
vancouver-historical-recordsI first became interested in the Downtown Eastside when I moved to Vancouver in 2007. Living in the city for the first time motivated me to learn more about my own family’s history in the area of the area formerly known as Japantown. My great grandfather came to Canada in the early 20th century to find work as a skilled carpenter. He lived on Powell Street during and after the First World War and, from what my family tells me, he worked at the Hastings Mill. His son followed soon after, and not long after that, returned to Japan to marry and bring over his wife. By the 1920s, my father’s family was among a large and bustling Japanese Canadian Community, living in the vibrant, but highly racialized neighbourhood that would decades later come to be known as the Downtown Eastside. By the 1930s, after two decades in the neighbourhood, my own family had moved on, first seeking new opportunities on Vancouver Island, and then after their forced removal from the west coast in 1942, seeking a new start in post-war Southern Alberta.

But while my familial sentiments have inspired me to pursue research to help better understand the roots and present-day realities of this vibrant and complex neighbourhood, I have never lived in the DTES myself. My interests and claims, like so many others, are rather pedantic, far removed from the day-to-day realities of Downtown Eastsiders. This distance from the community is the cause of what I see as a “deficit-oriented perspective” of the DTES – a focus its problems rather than its strengths, its need for ‘help’ above its capacity for self-determination. This is why it is crucial that research be driven “from below,” so that the priorities of the community are front and centre in the research process, with any findings and interpretations in their own words.

My own work with members of the Downtown Eastside community began as a research project focused on urban environmental justice. Over four years we looked at how the conditions of the neighbourhood compared to more affluent neighbourhoods in the city. We found many differences that were unfair – not just in terms of what the neighbourhoods “looked like,” but also in how they were “talked about.” DTES residents who were researchers in the project recognized how people from outside of the neighbourhood tended to see the city through “privileged eyes,” which resulted in neighbourhoods being built around a culture of individual consumerism. They felt that this culture of individualism was not consistent with the priorities of the people who actually live in the DTES. In other words, they felt the DTES should not be meant to “look” like other neighbourhoods. We published this research in academic journals, describing the DTES as a “therapeutic landscape,” and stressing the importance of ensuring the community’s voice could be heard in efforts to improve the neighbourhood without being obscured by other people’s interpretations. But more importantly, we returned the research to the community in the form of a final report, plain language posters, presentations, and workshops. You can find this report on the internet at or by emailing or calling me (see below).

Another observation I had while working in the DTES was the extent to which sentiments of old Japantown have started to be used more frequently to celebrate the neighbourhood’s history. Japantown, or Nihonmachi, was the term used to describe the neighbourhood before the Japanese Canadians were forcibly removed from the neighbourhood (and the whole west coast) during World War II. While this history, including that of the internment, has been acknowledged in present-day accounts of Japantown, I have also noticed how this history seems to be “stuck” in the past, with very little regard for its relevance to present-day issues.

Through many conversations, I began to realize that there was a direct connection between the way that the Japanese Canadian community was treated, and the way the neighbourhood’s residents are being treated today. The same sorts of human rights violations from the past – stemming from racism, ignorance and profit motivations – created a neighbourhood that was transient, tenuous, and ghettoized. The removal of the Japanese Canadians paved the way for the creation of a neighbourhood in which similar human rights violations are being repeated, but under a different name. Back then, the rhetoric was to keep the city “safe” from supposedly dangerous enemy spies and agitators, when the real perpetrators were racists, xenophobes, and land grabbing profiteers. Now, the rhetoric is to keep the city “safe” from supposedly dangerous drug dealers, addicts, and sex workers, when the real perpetrators are the next generation of racists, xenophobes, homophobes, and land grabbing profiteers. What was then justified in the name of war is now justified in the name of free market growth.

Colonized, racialized, stigmatized, gentrified – DTES residents, both past and present, have continuously resisted these human rights violations by rallying for social justice. These histories are not well known, but could be very helpful in reminding those who seek to revitalize the neighbourhood that the DTES is not just a space occupied by buildings, streets, and parks in need of an aesthetic facelift. The DTES is its people, and the people of the DTES do not need to be “revitalized” because they are already “vital.”

RJ-Logo“Revitalizing Japantown?” is a research project being undertaken by community organizations, artists and researchers who are working to recover and re-enliven the human rights history of the DTES and ensure that the rights of present-day inhabitants are prioritized amidst rapid social and environmental change. Over the next three years, we hope to engage with the five founding communities of the DTES, including Coast Salish people, Chinese Canadians, Japanese Canadians, African Canadians, and the resilient survivors of our society’s abrogation of care for the mentally ill. Our aim is to use the research process to enable these communities to work together to celebrate their human rights past and ensure that history does not repeat itself in yet another round of dispossession.