Japanese hall in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside named National Historic Site

posted on November 13, 2019

By Vancouver Sun |

Built in 1928, it has been an enduring symbol of the Japanese-Canadian community.

The Japanese Hall is one of the last remnants of Japantown, a once-thriving community of 8,000 centred around Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Japantown was decimated when the federal government ordered Japanese-Canadians to leave the West Coast during the Second World War. Infamously, the government then sold off Japanese-Canadian property and assets.

But one prominent building went unsold: the Japanese Hall at 475 Alexander St.

“It was taken over, but the property title was never transferred,” said Laura Saimoto, head of community relations for the hall. “It was never sold.”

Why? The ownership was too complicated for the federal custodian of enemy property to deal with.

“It was a non-profit, so it was owned by the community,” said Saimoto. “The board of directors were all interned in different internment camps, or in Alberta. So they could not have a board meeting.”

The Department of National Defence occupied the building during the war, and the hall wasn’t returned to the community until 1952.

It was in rough shape, but it had great bones: the handsome 1928 building was designed by Sharp and Thompson, the architectural firm that did the Burrard Bridge. The community fixed it up and reopened the Japanese school in 1953. In 2000, a five-storey addition was added. Today it operates a language and culture division for 400 and a daycare for 160.

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