History of Powell Street Area

The area once known as Paueru Gai (Powell Street), has seen an ebb and flow of Japanese Canadian culture since the late 19th century. In 1877 the first groups of Japanese immigrants to Canada started what would eventually become a uniquely Japanese Canadian community around the Hastings Mill and Waterfront in today’s Downtown Eastside located on the traditional unceded territories of the Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil- Waututh First Nations.

Throughout the early 1900s, the Japanese Canadian community continued to grow, in part due to the immigration of more Japanese women (many picture brides). Despite anti-Asian sentiments and acts of violence, such as the 1907 Race Riots, by the mid-1920s Powell Street was a hub for Japanese culture, commerce, and sport. Vancouverites flocked to watch the champion baseball squad, the Asahi, play at Oppenheimer Park. Roughly 10,000 Japanese Canadians lived in and around Paueru Gai Area when they were violently uprooted and dispossessed due to wartime internment.

Following the 1942 forced removal of all Japanese descendants, Paueru Gai experienced a period of neighbourhood vacancy and economic downturn. After the war, returning Japanese Canadian residents settled again in Vancouver, or elsewhere in areas such as Steveston. For Japanese Canadians who returned to Vancouver, the Vancouver Japanese Language School served as an important centre of Japanese culture.

In recent decades, the Paueru Gai area has grown multiculturally as a heart of the Downtown Eastside. In the 1970s, a collection of efforts emerged to honour Japanese Canadian history in the neighbourhood.

History of Powell Street Festival Society

The First Powell Street Festival during the 1977 Japanese Canadian Centennial, by Tamio Wakayama.

In 1977, the Japanese Canadian centennial year, Powell Street Festival (PSF) was initiated by a member of the Japanese Canadian Volunteers Association (Tonari Gumi). PSF celebrates the history of Japanese Canadians in the area through an event similar to the festivals, or matsuri, of Japan. In the spirit of the neighbourhood, PSF has something for everyone. In addition to being a platform for Japanese Canadian arts performers to showcase their talents, the festival engages the broader community through fun cultural activities, volunteer opportunities, and of course, delicious food.

As a part of Powell Street Festival Society’s (PSFS) mandate, society volunteers are deeply engaged in the Downtown Eastside. Year-round community events are attended and supported by PSFS, in addition to the festival weekend that involves local residents as volunteers in various capacities. With our partners, PSFS has also contributed to the commemoration of Paueru Gai through creative, multidimensional projects such as the Japantown Historic Map Guide and the Open Doors Project. PSFS also shares a seat with the Vancouver Japanese Language School on the Downtown Eastside Local Area Planning Committee that is collaborating with the City of Vancouver to produce a shared vision for future neighbourhood growth.
Since the removal of Japanese Canadian residents from the Powell Street area, various titles have been attributed to the distinctly Japanese neighbourhood of the past. Paueru Gai, literally translated as Powell Street, was commonly used by area residents in pre-internment years. Since the war, various groups have used names such as Japantown and its literal Japanese translation, Nihonmachi, to describe the historical neighbourhood though those terms were rarely used by residents themselves.