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.”
“I wanted to lose my faith, but I wanted to hang onto it…”
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. Mitsui, 219.
The BC Security Commission was created in 1942 to manage the process of internment and set up camps in the interior of the province. The commission set up a central assembly at Hastings Park, surrounded by barbed wire and police guard, where the Japanese Canadians—now “enemy aliens”—stayed until they were sent to the interior.
“It was uprooting time so we had to move to Vancouver before my father was sent to road camp. We found a rooming house on Powell Street. This is why I went to the United Church under Rev. Shimizu. My father knew Rev. Shimizu since 1921 and had a connection with him. Father felt safe leaving us in Vancouver.”
whose family was intered at Tashme
There was an initial understanding among the uprooted that each religious denomination would be kept together in one location (United Church in Kaslo, Roman Catholics in Greenwood, Anglicans in Slocan Valley, and Buddhists in Sandon). However, the church communities were split up among the internment camps.
At Hastings Park, members of the Powell Street and Fairview congregations would have come to know Rev. W.R. McWilliams (“Rev. Mac”), a United Church clergyperson from the New Westminster Japanese congregation. He stayed in Vancouver to minister to those not yet sent to the interior. Rev. McWilliams and his wife, Bessie, had been missionaries to Japan and were fluent in Japanese.
United Church clergy and WMS workers served at the following internment camps:
Greenwood and Grand Forks: From Victoria, Rev. Yutaka Ogura (1942-1951); WMS workers were Grace Namba and Madeleine Bock
Kaslo: From Powell Street Church, Rev. Kosaburo Shimizu (1942-1944); WMS workers were Neta Sadler and Sadie Tait. Dr. Shimotakahara, also from Powell Street Church, served as medical doctor for this centre.
Lillooet: From Fraser Valley Japanese Church, Rev. Olivia Lindsay
New Denver and Rosebery: Rev. Kyuichi Nomoto (1942-1944); Rev. Takashi Komiyama (1944-1946); WMS workers were Gwen Suttie, Margaret James, Ella Lediard, and Helen Lawson
“Living in the relocation camps we had to survive a lot of cold, harsh winters without heat and it was a kind of communal bath.”
Margaret Eto, whose family was interned at Rosebery
South Slocan (Lemon Creek, Popoff, Bayfarm, Slocan City): From Powell Street Church, Rev. Takashi Komiyama (1942-1944); WMS workers were Helen Hurd and Gertrude Hamilton
Tashme: From New Westminster Japanese United Church, Rev. W.R. McWilliams (1942-1946); WMS workers were May McLachlan and Esther Ryan. From the Anglican Japanese Church of the Ascension in Vancouver, Rev. William Gale and three Anglican missionaries: Frances Hawkins, May Walker, and Helen Bailey. Rev. McWilliams (“Rev. Mac”) was also appointed by the Board of Home Missions to work as a missionary at large among the evacuated Japanese communities. Rev. Mac and his wife, Bessie, lived in Crescent Beach (Surrey), and Rev. Mac traveled back and forth from home to camp.
Raymond (South Alberta): From Ocean Falls, Rev. Jun Kabayama (1942-1952)
Manitoba: From Fraser Valley Japanese Church, Rev. Yoshimitsu Akagawa (1942-1954)
“I think my work was, as I look back on it, as I saw it then, it was to be a friend to the people who didn’t have any friends.”
Rev. R.W. McWilliams, 1970
WMS workers went with the communities to the internment camps. There, they carried on teaching kindergarten, leading youth groups and prayer groups, mothers’ groups, Sunday school, mission band, Explorers, CGIT, Trail Rangers, young people’s groups and so on. They tried to replicate the United Church communities and groups that had thrived on the coast, even though the communities had been split up.
The five major Christian churches (Roman Catholic, Salvation Army, Baptist, Anglican and United Church) had formed the Inter-Church Advisory Committee on Japanese Canadians early on in the internment process. The committee helped people at Hastings Park during 1942, providing education and pastoral care. Because the BC Security Commission provided elementary school only (i.e. grades one through eight), the Inter-Church Advisory Committee took responsibility for coordinating the provision of high school education at the internment centres.
From September 1943 to the end of the school year in 1946, the Roman Catholics ran high schools in New Denver, Sandon, Slocan, Monte Lake and Greenwood. The United Church took responsibility for high school education in New Denver, Lemon Creek, Roseberry and Tashme. The Anglicans looked after Slocan.
In 1944, the Government of Canada declared a policy regarding those of Japanese descent living in Canada: they should either disperse throughout eastern Canada or return to Japan. The United Church, along with the other major denominations, supported the government’s policy of dispersal. The RCMP visited each internment camp and gave them the choice; nearly half chose to return to Japan by 1945. Rev. Tad Mitsui observes that most Christian Japanese did not apply for “repatriation”. Those who had been sent to sugar beet farms in Alberta and Manitoba tended to settle permanently there. Most from centres in British Columbia moved to eastern provinces.
“I know there are, even today, still some old-timers in their 90s who won’t talk about the war. And so their descendants have no idea… I’m one of those that want to keep that story going. To let people know what had happened.”
Pastor George Takashima,
who attended the Powell Street Church as a child, and Turner Memorial United Church in New Denver during the internment
On March 31, 1949, restrictions were lifted and Japanese Canadians were allowed to return to the west coast. George Dorey, “Memo Regarding Japanese in the Interior,” March 1943, PMRC Archives, Superintendent of Home Missions fonds, Box 468, file 1.  Ibid., 277-278.  Ibid., 303.
The Komiyamas… inspiring leaders and tireless workers for their faith community
Takashi (“Tak”) Komiyama was born in Vancouver in 1915. His parents were members of the Powell Street Church. He attended the University of British Columbia and received a Bachelor of Arts in 1935. He was a founding member of the Junior Church (English-speaking congregation) in 1936, serving on its Session and as president of its Young People’s Society. The official board of the Powell Street Church was proud to recommend him as a candidate for the ministry. He attended Union College from 1939 to 1942.
Rev. Komiyama was ordained by BC Conference on May 15, 1942 at St. Giles United Church in Vancouver. Because the ceremony took place outside the hours permitted by the curfew, he had to apply to the BC Security Commission for permission to attend his own ordination. He was accompanied to and from the service by two RCMP officers. Rev. K. Shimizu, minister at the Powell Street Church, had been sent to Kaslo abruptly on May 11, so Rev. Komiyama was left in charge of that congregation until it closed in late September 1942.
Rev. Komiyama served in the internment camps at Lemon Creek, New Denver and the Slocan Valley. When he arrived at Lemon Creek (a former mining town in the West Kootenays), he was single and therefore lived with his parents in the standard hut. The United Church congregation at Lemon Creek was small because the community was largely Buddhist. Services alternated each Sunday between the English and Japanese languages. Although fluent in both Japanese and English, Rev. Komiyama gave the English service and Rev. Kyuichi Nomoto from New Denver alternated with him to provide the Japanese service. By 1945, Rev. Komiyama had moved to New Denver, but continued to hold services every other Sunday at Lemon Creek.
“When I went to Kaslo, I was really pretty broken in spirit. But my father, bless his heart, he just kept saying, ‘God’s looking after you. Don’t worry. It’ll all work out alright.'”
May Komiyama (nee Yamazaki)
Following the war, in 1951, Rev. Komiyama and May Yamazaki were married. May was born in 1922, also in Vancouver. The Komiyama and Yamazaki families had long been friends so the couple had known each other prior to the war. May’s nursing studies had been interrupted in Vancouver because of the internment, but she was able to complete the nursing program at Guelph General Hospital. After graduation, she married and joined her husband in Montreal, where he was serving at the Japanese United Church.Following pastoral charges in Montreal (1946-1956) and Hamilton (1956-1968), Rev. Komiyama was called to the Vancouver Japanese United Church. Some in the congregation could remember him as a boy. He was enthusiastic about restarting an English-speaking congregation. But tragically, he died of a heart attack on September 21, 1968, just two months into his pastorate. His untimely death shocked the congregation. His memorial in the reports of BC Conference states that, “Mr. Komiyama was a gracious personality, a keen-minded minister with boundless enthusiasm.”
May continued to be a strong member of the Vancouver Japanese United congregation. She served at every level of the church, including Conference and National Ethnic Ministry Committees, General Council Executive, and for a year as president of BC Conference (1992-1993).
The common thread of her leadership was her work for inclusiveness and diversity within the United Church. For this, she received an honorary doctorate from the Vancouver School of Theology in 1991. May died in 2014 at the age of 92. Ibid., 218.
On September 15, 1942, the official board of the Powell Street Church met with the Superintendent of Home Missions, Dr. Percy Bunt, and the convenor of the Home Missions Committee for Vancouver Presbytery. The purpose of the meeting was to make decisions related to closing down the church during the internment.
The group decided to:
- Close the church officially on September 30, 1942
- Donate $100 to the United Church Debt Liquidation Fund; place the balance of church funds in the superintendent’s trust account, to be distributed when United Church congregations were organized in the interior
- Have a caretaker live in the church building (rent free) to protect and look after the building
- Entrust First United Church with the use, care and upkeep of the gymnasium
- Send all Powell Street and Fairview church records to Union College for storage in the vault (Note: These records are now with the Pacific Mountain Regional Council Archives)
- Assign oversight of church properties (e.g. pianos and organs) to Percy Bunt and the Home Missions Committee of Vancouver Presbytery
Rev. K. Shimizu, Rev. T. Komiyama, and Esther Ryan brought some of the church property to the internment camps at Kaslo, Tashme and Lemon Creek.
Several families stored personal belongings at the Powell Street and Fairview buildings. Dr. Percy Bunt’s Home Mission files reveal that he corresponded frequently with the Custodian of Alien Property and other government officials to make it clear that the effects were held in trust for their owners, and that the custodian had no right to them.
Bunt’s records also reveal that the church made a conscientious effort to return personal belongings to their owners after the war.
During the early period of internment, the Board of Home Missions set up a “Special Japanese Fund” to hold congregational funds from the Japanese missions in BC. The fund could be used at the request of the Home Mission superintendents. Receipts indicate that the Powell Street Church deposited $1,000 to the fund on May 27, 1942 for safekeeping.
According to Roland Kawano, who had consulted the records of the United Church Division of Mission in Canada: “By 1953, the balance stood at about sixteen thousand dollars. Over the next two decades grants were made to Japanese congregations as they were formed across the country in Toronto, Montreal, Hamilton, Steveston, and Lethbridge.” Roland Kawano, ed., Ministry to the Hopelessly Hopeless: Japanese Canadian Evacuees and Churches during WWII (The Canadian Christian Churches Historical Project, 1997), 115.
Within a few months of closing the Powell Street Church, Rev. Andrew Roddan proposed that First United Church make use of the building for an expansion of that mission’s work (later Welfare Industries). In January 1943, the Board of Home Missions approved a plan that would incorporate Sunday school, kindergarten, boys’ work, girls’ work and mothers’ groups within the main building and the gymnasium. Rev. Roddan originally proposed the name “United Church Friendship House” but the site came to be known as “Community House”.
Japanese Canadians gradually began returning to the west coast after restrictions were lifted in March 1949. Where they had once enjoyed a lively community and fellowship, they found a vacuum. They had to rebuild from nothing in a society once hostile to their presence. The Superintendent of Home Mission, Dr. Percy Bunt, wrote to the Rev. John Goodfellow, church historian in 1949:
“I doubt if as yet very many Japanese have returned to Vancouver, but if and when they do, my conviction is that they should be encouraged to fit in to the normal life of congregations already established.”
The United Church Board of Home Missions appointed Rev. W.R. McWilliams to begin Japanese services in Vancouver and Steveston. In Vancouver, congregants began meeting in homes and then at First United Church on Sunday afternoons. Services were in Japanese. According to members’ recollections, the Powell Street Church and gym were being used largely for storage for Welfare Industries, a non-profit society of First United Church.
In 1952, the congregation sent Mr. T. Arahawa to meet on their behalf with the Vancouver Presbytery’s Home Missions Committee. Mr. Arahawa expressed their wish to use the Powell Street gymnasium for a religious and social centre. The Committee noted the difficulties in using the building in light of its “state of disrepair.” Percy Bunt, letter to John Goodfellow re: Columbia Street United Church, December 6, 1949, PMRC Archives, Archives Reference Collection, Vancouver Japanese United Church (vol. 1), box 2155.  Home Missions Committee minutes, September 5, 1952, PMRC Archives, Vancouver Presbytery fonds, box 1601, file 2.