Kerri Sakamoto is a novelist whose latest book is Floating City.
On Sept. 3, 1993, my mother was fussing over what to wear to a reunion with other Japanese Canadians who had been interned during the Second World War in a camp called Tashme, near Hope, B.C. The reunion was taking place at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre on Wynford Drive in Toronto’s suburban Don Mills neighbourhood. While suffering with a mysterious illness that had caused her to lose weight, my mother wanted to look good, and to show everyone that life had turned out well in spite of her hardships.
The centre was the first building designed by Raymond Moriyama – also an internee – who would become one of Canada’s foremost architects. This important architectural work was erected in 1964 with funds raised from Japanese Canadians. Some mortgaged newly bought homes; others gave from their meagre savings. The 1964 building, which was repurposed into the Noor Cultural Centre after the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre moved into a bigger facility nearby in the 1990s, is now under threat after being sold to a developer. The plan is to build condo towers, which would result in the demolition of much of the original structure.
As with other reunions, the day was marked with the sweet and the bitter: of seeing familiar faces shadowed by the passing years; of sharing memories that would elaborate or contradict one another, and bring some, otherwise unbidden, back to mind.
In 1947, my mother had set out for Toronto from Tashme, where she’d lived for almost five years, having lost one sibling, and gained another. Her brother, Juji, had been injured in the work crew charged with setting up the camp, and died slowly of an infection by the winter of 1943. Not long after, her youngest sister, Sharon, was born. Tashme was the largest of the camps set up by the B.C. government, all financed by the sale of property belonging to the people held there. Almost 22,000 Japanese Canadians were banished from their coastal homes when the War Measures Act was invoked by the federal government, spurred by anti-Asian fervour and wartime hysteria.
My mother’s psyche was marked by the sorrow of Juji’s loss. His portrait sat in our dining room throughout my childhood. I wouldn’t find out where or how he died until I was an adult. When I drove across the country with my parents so that I could finally learn of that unspoken history, we arrived at the Tashme site. At the last moment, my mother made us drive past it without stopping. She couldn’t bear to revisit the place. But in 1993, the reunion brought some lightness, and the company of girlhood friends lifted her out of ruminations of the past and her ill health.
Like many elder children interned during the war, my mother was the first in her family to venture east. She’d had to quit school at 13 to work in the camp canteen as the family’s breadwinner. In Toronto, she found a job as a live-in domestic, then in a garment factory, and eventually earned enough for a down payment on a house for her parents and nine siblings. Before long, she was working to earn a down payment on a home for a family of her own.
The reunion that day was attended by over 250 people. Some travelled from other parts of Canada just to be there. They posed for a group photo amid the greenery behind the centre, which borders on the Don Valley ravine. Now, decades later and a dozen years after my mother’s death, I’m studying the photo, squinting to find her – much as I’d searched for her girlish face in an NFB wartime propaganda film that depicted a falsely idyllic existence amidst Tashme’s rows of tarpaper shacks.
The actual building is not in the photo. But it’s there, nestled in the ravine where the former internees pose, quietly declaring its permanence and intentionality; its deference to the natural slope of the land and what grows on it, balanced with its pride of place.
Earlier this month, I joined an online town hall in which members of our community shared their memories of the centre. It was a reminder of why the building matters so much.
They saw the centre as a precious temple where they could display the treasures that previously had to be hidden or discarded. They remembered joyful activities: traditional odori dancing and taiko drumming in the garden, ikebana flower arranging, sushi making, brush painting and judo classes.
And, tearfully, some said the centre had been a haven, a refuge from the racism that had continued for decades after the war. Leaving the camps, Japanese Canadians had been instructed to settle in assigned cities and towns, to avoid forming any new “Little Tokyos.” The centre was the one place where they could come together, feeling safe to be themselves, recuperating their identity and culture that had been stained with shame and indignity.
In my own childhood memory, driving onto the grounds of the centre in our family Pontiac felt like descending into a sheltered valley. The distinctive rough-hewn rock sculpture poised like a mountain in its midst reflected the rugged B.C. Interior where the camps had been. I remember young girls in flowery kimonos, their shiny black hair upswept, dancing in the back garden to enka music, and the exhilarating beat of taiko drumming that thrummed in my chest.
Like the identity of the community for whom it was built, the centre’s design is neither iconically Japanese nor Canadian, but uniquely Japanese Canadian: hybrid, and rooted in the land. It is modern, suggestively brutalist, yet responsive to its natural setting and imbued with cultural significance.
The motif of shoji – latticed sliding windows, walls and doors that are a feature of traditional Japanese architecture – recurs outside and inside, with nuanced variations in its exquisite concert hall. Unlike the delicate shoji of Japanese interiors, to be slid aside with a mere finger, the shoji on the centre’s front façade is robust and lasting, made to withstand the Canadian elements. It is a declarative fortification against displacement and disappearance. It speaks of “gaman,” the Japanese trait of enduring the seemingly unbearable, attributed to the pioneering issei generation and their children, the nisei, my parents.
The Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre was founded on the remarkably welcoming ethos of “friendship through culture.” We opened our doors wide and outgrew the physical space. But 123 Wynford Dr. remains, and should endure, as a monument to the history and spiritual redemption of our community. As such, its doors should be open to other communities in need who may be inspired by the experience of its original guardians.