A quarter century ago, the presence of any individual from a Japanese racial background in any governmental or cultural role would have been utterly impossible in Canada. Many legal and customary barriers worked to bar Japanese entry to social organizations and cultural events. The reason was simple: the strict racial limitation of the Gentlemen’s Agreement between Canada and Japan disabled the minority’s right to work on a government contract, or crown land, or vote and held public office.
Today, after years of collective resistance towards racism, countless sacrifices, and the country’s gradual move towards tolerance and pacificism, the Japanese-Canadians not only continue serving Canada with hundreds of significant cultural and governmental figures (for more information visit the National Association of Japanese Canadians here) but share their rich religious and cultural traditions every year. Each summer since 1977, Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside’s Powell neighbourhood and Oppenheimer Park is turned into a large-scale arts and culture festival dedicated solely to the celebration of the Japanese art and heritage. Supported by local businesses and the efforts of hundreds of volunteers, the Powell Street Festival is an excuse for the Japanese immigrants to gather together and represent their rich culture to the local audiences from across many ages and ethnicities.
When you enter the area, the floral patterns of ladies in their Yukata costumes and the smell of Manjūs immediately demonstrates the beautiful culture that is being celebrated by the festival. The Yukata, an unlined cotton garment with the traditional T-shape and overlapping lapels of the kimono, represents Japan’s Edo period (1603–1868). Most of the ladies in the festival wear the blue kimonos, honouring an old belief that indigo is one of the most colourfast of all natural dyes and does not require a separate mordanting process. Blue, therefore, is the dominant colour for traditional cotton Yukatas. During the Edo period, blue symbolized coolness and water, welcoming thoughts during the hot Japanese summers.
Each year the festival revolves around crafts, food, and community services. The art booths – which occupied Oppenheimer’s entrance this month – are mostly dedicated to the Japanese art of Origami (paper-fold cards), calligraphy, pottery, handcrafted knitted dolls, authentic kimonos from Japanese fabrics, hand painted Obis (kimono belts) and Nu No Warajis (Japanese slippers). The food booths draw the largest crowds, providing festival-goers with some of the best Ramen in Canada and Japanese pastries and parfaits – from handmade Matcha Ganache chocolates to Tokyo-style crepes!
The most important booths of the festival, however, belong to the Tonari Gumi Japanese Community Association and the Vancouver Japanese Language School & Japanese Hall. The former serves the needs of Japanese-Canadians in the Lower Mainland to lead healthier, more enjoyable lives. The latter plays an important role in the Powell Street festival as it promotes an understanding of Japanese language and culture through educational and event programming to prevent the westernization and gradual loss of the culture. Considering today’s Asian immigrants to North America and the marriages of their offspring to those outside of their racial and ethnic boundaries, this mission is increasingly essential.
Each year, the Powell Festival features traditional dance, show, and music but throughout the last 6 years or so, new and experimental art forms have become a vital aspect of Powell Street’s evolving cultural program. For example, Kokoro Dance – a company that fuses buto (a Japanese avant-garde dance form) with contemporary Western choreography. And while the shops, restaurants, hotels and bath houses of what was once the commercial heart of Vancouver’s Japanese community have moved elsewhere, the hundreds of participants and thousands of visitors the festival attracts are proof that the Japanese-Canadian spirit is alive and well on Powell Street.