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

Located on the traditional unceded territories of the Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil- Waututh First Nations, the area once known as Paueru Gai1 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 (DTES).

Though Japanese immigration slowed following the 1907 Race Riots, the community continued to grow nonetheless. Japanese women (largely picture brides) would continue to immigrate in large numbers until the mid 1920s. It was during this period that Paueru Gai became known as the centre of Japanese Canadian economic activity and property ownership. Vancouverites from across the city came to Powell St. and Oppenheimer Park to experience Japanese culture and commerce, and to watch the champion baseball squad, the Asahi, challenge their opponents.

Following the forced removal and wartime internment 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 Powell st. area has grown multiculturally as a heart of the Downtown Eastside (DTES). In the 1970s, a collection of efforts emerged to honour Japanese Canadian history in the neighbourhood.

A black-and-white photo, taken in 1977, of five people taking a wooden structure off of the back of a truck.
Black and white photo taken in 1977 of an outdoor martial arts tournament or demonstration. One person, with their back to the camera, stands over three others lying on the ground. All are wearing martial arts gi and black belts.

Enter the Powell Street Festival (PSF)

In 1977, the Japanese Canadian centennial year, 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 the Powell Street Festival Society’s (PSFS) mandate, society volunteers are deeply engaged in the DTES. 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 DTES Local Area Planning Committee that is collaborating with the City of Vancouver to produce a shared vision for future neighbourhood growth.
1 Since the removal of Japanese Canadian residents from the Powell St. 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.