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It was an epic, once-in-a-lifetime speech, and it took nearly an hour to deliver. Raymond Moriyama, one of Canada's greatest architects and the creative force behind the Toronto Reference Library, the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa and nearly 50 university buildings, spoke slowly and deliberately about the critical chapters in his life, his words carefully weighed, the paragraphs alternating between pain, comic relief and enlightenment.

The master architect recalled his life's torments - being badly burned as a little boy and then being interned in Western Canada during the Second World War for being a "yellow Jap" - but also his reconciliation with Canada. Moriyama gave the speech before a rapt audience of hundreds at Toronto's second annual Sakura Ball last Saturday night as the recipient of the prestigious Sakura Award for contributions to Japanese culture in Canada and abroad. (Brian Mulroney, who in 1988 as Canadian prime minister formally apologized for the internment of Japanese-Canadians, received the first Sakura Award.)

With grace and raw honesty, Moriyama charted memories that made me feel deeply ashamed for that time - just 65 short years ago - when Japanese Canadians were cast as enemy dogs. But what was spoken by Moriyama, a man with a noble brow and generous smile, still beautiful at age 80, revealed a luminous forgiveness and a life lived according to the challenge of a poem written by his father as a high-school graduation present: "Into God's temple, drive a nail of gold."

Clarity of purpose - extraordinarily sustained - sets Moriyama's life apart from most: As a little boy of 4, Moriyama burned himself badly by overturning a pot of stew while trying to chase after his balsa-wood airplane. His father laid him down in the family hardware store next to a small window while he lay "stiff as a wooden puppet" for eight months. Visual relief came from the view of the construction site across the street where Moriyama could spy an important-looking man who appeared every morning with a bundle of drawings under his arm. That's when Moriyama decided he would become an architect. More clarity came to him at the age of 8, when he declared to his father that he would marry the girl, Sachi, who lived down the street in the Japanese ghetto on Vancouver's Cordova Street West. "She used to call me 'Bozo' and 'Yancha,' but I knew she liked me," he said. "When I saw her perform a tap [dance]when she was 6, she was not only my best friend, but she became my Shirley Temple." (Moriyama and his wife Sachi now have five grown children and 10 grandchildren.)

At a young age, in the middle of the Depression, his parents sacrificed everything to send their badly burned son from Canada to Tokyo to a doctor who was a close family friend. Moriyama learned much from his Tokyo grandfather during this time, including the lessons of looking at a full moon, and then, two nights later, a waning moon. "In every endeavour, you must try for perfection like the full moon," instructed his grandfather. "But realize that for a mortal being, magical imperfection is more meaningful, more humane, more beautiful."

In December, 1941, following the attack by the Japanese air force on the U.S. base at Pearl Harbor, Japanese-Canadians on the West Coast were placed in internment camps. At the time, Moriyama's mother was pregnant, and Moriyama's father decided to resist being sent to an all-male labour camp. "He called me into his workshop to have our first man-to-man talk" Moriyama told me a few days after the ball. "He said: 'I want you to know why I'm resisting. Canada has gone into war to fight for democracy, but at home is a disastrous contradiction. I have to fight this contradiction.'" A few days after his father refused to abandon his family, three Mounties came to the door. "Dad had on his suit," says Moriyama. "And I watched them arrest him and he walked out the door with them." One RCMP officer stayed behind, warning the children and their mother that if they were ever found on the street after dark they would be shot. Shortly afterwards, Moriyama, then 12, his mother and sisters were interned in Slocan, B.C., for two years.

Though it was forbidden at the internment camp, the young Raymond scavenged an axe, some nails and some scrap wood and built a rough, rhomboid-shaped tree house at the edge of the Slocan River. It was a place of quiet refuge and healing. "The view of nature from the tree house was absolutely astonishing," he recalled in his speech Saturday night. "The mountains, green and silver, around the river; the whisper of the river and the sounds of night; the crisp night sky and the stars so close."

When Moriyama, in his 70s, designed Ottawa's Canadian War Museum (2005), his most powerful Canadian work of architecture, those sounds inspired him to create a monumental black steel structure called Regeneration Hall for the museum. The fin-like structure points east toward the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill, and is subtly perforated to allow the sound of the wind to whistle eerily through its skin.

Moriyama's journey through life has been guided by a deep humility, and always, a quest to drive the golden nail - even outside his architecture career. At the age of 47, for example, the Ontario Science Centre and Toronto Reference Library completed, Moriyama decided to take a year off. He helped make lunches for his five children and washed the floors at home. Then, encouraged by his wife Sachi, he went on a three-month pilgrimage to retrace the Buddha's footsteps, flying into Kathmandu, walking the plains of India, carrying a heavy tape recorder in his knapsack to record the sounds - and the silence - of Mount Everest. "I walked at least 600 miles and nearly got killed twice."

Long before his departure from his firm, Moriyama's sons, Ajon and Jason, were groomed to become Moriyama + Teshima's new principals, along with Diarmuid Nash and Daniel Teramura. (Moriyama retired in 2003, along with his long-time business partner, Ted Teshima.)

The firm has grown to 70 people in the past few years, and new architectural triumphs have emerged: the delicately scaled School of Continuing Studies and the cerebral though modest design for the Multi-Faith Centre, both at the University of Toronto; and, just completed, the decade-long revitalization of a 120-kilometre stretch of the nearly dead Wadi Hanifah River in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Moriyama + Teshima are also architects of record on three major new buildings commissioned by the Aga Khan, including his Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat in Ottawa and the Aga Khan Museum, both designed by Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki, and the Ismaili Centre by Charles Correa of India. (The latter two Toronto projects start construction next month.)

Recently, Moriyama and Sachi returned from a month in Japan with 25 family members and friends. Moriyama organized most of the trip - the temples to visit, the places to stay and, of course, where to eat. It was a celebration of "life over material goods," he says, another piece of clarity that resonated deeply after their Prince Arthur condo in Toronto was destroyed in 2008 due to an appliance fire that caused severe smoke damage. A small oversight - forgetting to renew their insurance policy - meant the cost of replacing their possessions and much of their art collection was never covered.

What's left to do? There's a book of memoirs, printed just for his family. And, most importantly, keeping his wife, Sachi, happy. She gave him hell, he says, for the length of his speech at the Sakura Ball: "It was so long. Sometimes I think I should speak faster." He pauses, before adding: "I guess it's not my nature."