Our story begins with the growth of a thriving congregation, who engaged in community and outreach work. Then came the difficult years for Japanese Canadians of the Second World War, with internment and subsequent loss of the church building. Which brings us to today: a time of recognition of the experience of those in the Japanese United Church, apology, and redress.
Building a Congregation
Japanese arrive on the west coast…and a faith community takes seed
A Japanese community began forming in Vancouver in the 1880s and ‘90s, in part due to the modernization period in Japan that opened it up to Western trade and influence. Young Japanese men began leaving their homes to seek adventure or to find work and a better life. One of the many places along the west coast of Canada and the US they came to was Vancouver. Because many were employed at Vancouver’s Hastings Mill along the south shore of Burrard Inlet, the community formed along the waterfront and Powell Street became the main hub.
The earliest Christian mission activity among the Japanese community in Vancouver came from within the community itself. What grew into the Japanese Methodist Mission began in 1892.
Woman’s Missionary Society (WMS)
Support helped women and children integrate into the wider community
According to a 1935 interview with Etta DeWolfe, the WMS felt that Japanese children needed to be taught English and Christian tradition and culture, so that they could enjoy Canadian life and become an integral part of it.
The WMS appointed Miss A.E. Preston in 1908 to work with the congregation. Miss Preston had been a missionary to Japan during the previous 15 years. As part of the congregation’s outreach, she began a kindergarten and mission band for preschool children, and the WMS supported the kindergarten financially. Over the years, this work provided two essential services to the community: childcare and lessons in English as a second language, helping ready children for entry into the public school system by grade one.
The Japanese community rallies to treat and care for their own
One of the more celebrated members of the Powell Street Church was Kozo Shimotakahara. A student of the Sunday school, he put himself through post-secondary school at Columbian Methodist College (New Westminster), then attended Chicago University and studied medicine. After he graduated with a medical degree in 1915, he returned to Vancouver and stayed at the dormitory in the Powell Street Church. Dr. Shimotakahara opened his own practice at the corner of Powell and Main. He and Nobu Kusama of the WMS were married.
The Powell Street Church began providing medical services at the end of the First World War, when the Spanish influenza hit. Hospitals in Vancouver were filled with Caucasian flu patients, and those who were ill in the Japanese community were unable to receive treatment.
The Fairview Mission
The faith community expands in Vancouver
A Japanese community began to form in the Fairview neighbourhood in the early decades of the twentieth century. Many had found work in the sawmills in the area.
In response, the Woman’s Missionary Society began running a kindergarten out of a rented building in Fairview on West 5th Avenue. In 1921, the Powell Street Church board agreed to set up a second mission in Fairview, and rented part of a grocery store at Yukon and West 4th Avenue. The space was used for English night school and a church sanctuary, under the supervision of Rev. Yoshimitsu Akagawa.
In 1928, the United Church purchased property at the corner of West 6th Avenue and Columbia Street for the mission.
Through injustice, humiliation and loss, the community keeps its faith
After the bombing of Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941, Canada declared war on Japan. This resulted in the federal government’s mass uprooting of all people of Japanese descent living within 100 miles of the BC coast. The vast majority were sent to internment camps in the interior of BC, or to agricultural communities in Alberta and Manitoba. Men between the ages of 18 and 25 were sent to road work camps. All people of Japanese descent were registered as “enemy aliens.”
Until internment was completed, all people of Japanese descent were subject to a curfew, secular organizations of the Japanese community were disbanded, Japanese language publications were banned and language schools were closed. Only religious services were allowed to continue.
Sale of the Powell St Church
With no say, the Japanese United congregation loses its home
In early 1953, Welfare Industries made an offer of $16,000 on the Powell Street property, which had been valued at $25,000. Dr. Percy Bunt, in a letter to Dr. George Dorey of Home Missions in Toronto, advised:
“I think that the offer should be accepted without delay, for several reasons, one of which is that it will clear the air as far as its use by the Japanese groups are concerned. They can make other arrangements for their school, etc., as at May 1st. Their presence in the building this winter has not been an unmixed blessing.”
On April 24, 1953, the Board of Home Missions agreed to sell the Powell Street property to Welfare Industries for $16,000 and had the title transferred.
The Postwar Congregation
Pulling together, the community struggles to adapt to a new reality
Over the years, the Vancouver Japanese United Church moved from First United Church to the Columbia Street Mission (1959), Renfrew United Church (1962) and St. Luke’s United Church (1972-1973).
Rev. McWilliams (“Rev. Mac”) retired in 1956. The Board of Home Missions decided to recruit a new minister from Japan. Tadashi (“Tad”) Mitsui, a recent graduate of Tokyo Union Theological Seminary, arrived with his wife in September 1957 to serve as pastor for the Vancouver Japanese-speaking congregation. After some courses at Union College in Vancouver, he was ordained as a United Church minister in 1958. As Rev. Mitsui recalls, most of the members of the postwar congregation had not been members of the pre-war congregation; very few had even known Rev. Kosaburo Shimizu.
Recognition, Apology and Redress
A building to call their own…and an apology for mistreatment
In 1975, the official boards of the Japanese- and English-speaking congregations wrote to the Metropolitan Council of the United Church in the Lower Mainland, by then occupying part of the former Fairview Japanese church building. Administration and property were among the responsibilities of the Metropolitan Council at that time. In its letter, the Vancouver Japanese United Church outlined the history of the Powell Street property, its sale to Welfare Industries, and the fact that the Vancouver Japanese church had never benefited from the sale of the property. Proceeds from the sales of other Japanese United Church buildings in BC had been put into a special trust fund held in Toronto and used to help new Japanese churches across the rest of Canada.