It Takes a Community to Create an Idea

Jeff Masuda


Welcome speech at the opening of the Nikkei National Museum’s “Revitalizing Japantown? A Right to Remain Exhibit,” October 24, 2015.


It takes a community to create an idea like the Right to Remain, and over the past three years, our team – a community based research project has brought together numerous academic researchers, graduate students at all stages of training, colleagues that include artists, activists, and leaders from respected organizations from the DTES and Japanese Canadian and other human rights and cultural communities – has worked hard to bring about this idea.


But the Right to Remain did not come from nowhere, rather, it is an idea that has always been. The role of our project has been simply to create the time and creative space to allow the community to stitch its own ideas of the Right to Remain and all that it entails together into a “unified” concept. To create this space, we’ve conducted nearly 100 interviews, had students scour dozens of archival materials from newspaper, policy documents, and other sources, and we’ve engaged with countless residents of the DTES in arts-facilitated workshops and discussions, held public lectures, panels and walking tours within the community and beyond. But the conversation of the Right to Remain really got a foothold once we turned the process over to our colleagues at the Gallery Gachet, who were instrumental in helping us to recruit and support the talented artists and community leaders – Herb Varley, Andy Mori, Karen Ward, and Quin Martins, coordinator Ali Lohan, and latecomer Audrey Siegl, who ran a year-long Community Fair – their dedication, their ability to give bring a unified perspective to the experiences and histories gathered by so many in the previous years, have ultimately led to what you will see here in this exhibit today, and to so much more.


The seeds of this project began after I had already been working within the community for at least a few years previously, focusing then on trying to understand how local understandings of health and wellbeing in the DTES seemed to contradict wider representations of the neighbourhood as some kind of a local tempest in Vancouver’s teapot – reviled as being the worst of Vancouver’s public health, social, justice, and cultural problems. One of the things that struck me as I became more aware of the politics of public health in the DTES was an overwhelming “presentism” that pervaded professional and clinical discourses of the place and its people. That is, no one seemed capable, or even interested, in considering the historical “roots” of the contemporary landscape – both in terms of the ways in which the neighbourhood has “evolved” through the years since it was the hub of a Japanese Canadian community, nor the strong sense of community and the high level of resilience that people here seemed to have, even in the face of the hum of public scrutiny and disdain that has persisted for over a half a century – you might recognize this tune in the binder of newspaper clippings we’ve put together in the exhibit reading area.


After working with my brother for a couple of years on another project, and through our mutual interest in exploring our own “roots” in the DTES through genealogical research as well as our increasing involvement in the local Japanese Canadian community, the idea of a project that unified the many histories of communities that have inhabited the area came to fruition.


One of the things we were particularly interested in early on was this phenomenon of “Japantown” – a term that seemed to be popping up all around the DTES, sometimes in very strange places – as my former student Trevor Wideman will be able to tell you. To help us to understand what this term meant and what it might lead to, we were fortunate to link with sociologist Sonia Bookman, our colleague at the University of Manitoba whose expertise in urban branding provided a lens for understanding the encroachment of a “brand” that takes advantage of – that coopts even – the continued relationship and commitment of Japanese Canadians to the DTES in the postwar period.


Another significant repository of knowledge in the form of Audrey Kobayashi, joined the team early on, bringing her immense expertise about the historical geography of the DTES, as well as within the Japanese Canadian experience surrounding human rights activism.


We also benefited from the visionary capacity of our one absent colleague Joyce Rock, whose decade of leadership at the DTES Neighbourhood House, and later the Potluck Café Society led to the creation of many of worthwhile programs and important public events that have challenged the charitable mentality of food provision in the DTES, advocating instead for the right to food in the DTES.


Beth Carter at the Nikkei National Museum has been an enthusiastic partner since the beginning, wielding this institutions excellent staff and vast historical repository of Japanese Canadian knowledge to help with the research, as well creating the exhibit here today – made possible under the leadership of Beth’s successor Sherri Kajiwara and her team. The accompanying catalogue, and the stellar programming surrounding this exhibit and its predecessor at the Gallery Gachet could not have been possible without the infinitely talented and patient Kathy Shimizu, who we somehow cajoled to formally join our team about a year ago, though she’d supported us in many ways before that. She was joined by Designer Zoe Garred of Fleeting Objects to produce the remarkable space that you will see today.


Finally, our team has been rounded out by my deeply committed and talented former postdoc, Aaron Franks, who coordinated much of the project’s research activities as well as co-created the vision – and the funding application – for this exhibit, as well as the moral and often tangible support of our other parters, especially the Powell Street Festival Society and the Greater Vancouver Japanese Canadian Citizens Association.


That’s a lot of people and a lot of stuff to happen over a relative short period of study. But what’s it all be about? Just what is research, and what is it meant to do?


Our purpose has been nothing more or less than the careful unearthing of ideas, histories, lives lived and experiences had.


Social scientists think about research slightly differently than, say, an astronomer, or a marine biologist. For us, there is nothing outside of “knowing” because the area of knowing we are concerned about both begins and ends with human experience – the social, the societal, the cultural, and the political. We are not in the business of finding universal truths, but in revealing the meaning of human existence, including all of the things that can happen in, or to, that existence – things like injustice, oppression, subjugation, marginazation.


Ours is a search for understanding “why we know” about the world in the way that we do. More than that, ours is a search for particular “ways of knowing” or a ways of seeing or being in the world that have perhaps been forgotten, obscured, or even oppressed, by a more dominant view.


The dominant view that we are concerned about in this exhibit is the simple idea of “home.” For many in the room here today, “home” is something we take for granted. It’s a place to hang out hats, to eat, to unwind, to sleep, to raise our families, to take refuge from a difficult day. If you take a thousand of us, a thousand homes, or 10K, or a million, then you might have what could be considered a “city.” A place where people “live” or “live together,” as neighbours. All of this goes without saying. At least on the surface.


But then how are we to understand the idea that “cities” have become, over the last half-century at least but certainly in the past 20 years, more than just our “home” they are “investments,” “economic engines.” The dominant idea for politicians, bankers, developers, these days is that cities, and the things in them – including buildings, people, and even space itself are commodities to be traded on the global market, meant to increase in value or the value of the city – in some kind of absurd global competition of cities – in fact whole economies are now relying on rising values of cities and their “assets” to the point that the idea of “home” suddenly becomes obscured from view.


Of course, for many in the DTES, this basic idea of “home” is much more tenuous, at least when it comes to having a place to hang one’s hat, to sleep, to be secure. We all have heard about the sorry state of affordable housing in this city, about the concerning numbers of our neighbours who are living in a state of sheltered or unsheltered homelessness.


But this dominant way of knowing sees this situation, these people at the margins of our economic view as a liability – a blight that takes away from the “value” or in Sonia’s vocabulary, the “brand equity” of our city, of our neighbourhoods, of our properties.


For many in the DTES, the precarious state of housing is simply an extension of a precarious state of existence – either to be effaced from public view whenever possible, or at times held up to the spotlight in order to personify our own “metropolitan anxieties” (a term a learned from Audrey just recently based on her theoretical work with fellow academic Mark Boyle) – this state of realization that somehow, even our own “existence” in the city or “as a city” may be in peril – as we begin to absorb the reality of our increasing debt loads, escalating cost of living, the no longer looming but present climate crisis, and above all our continued inability to reconcile ourselves to the presence of “others” in our midst – once characterized as a “Yellow Menace” and now a “Chinese foreign investor” or a would-be terrorist gazing from behind a veil – threatening to destroy our “way of life” at least in part by undermining the value or security of our cities.


This threat of the “other,” whether the unkempt mental health survivor sleeping in our doorstep or the racialized new Canadian immigrant or refugee, these stool pigeons for our own metropolitan anxieties, are not so different than the way that Japanese Canadians, Chinese Canadians, African Canadians, and “other” waves of global sojourners and settlers have been seen by dominant society in Canada for over a century. And perhaps most absurdly, the racialization of poverty and homelessness along Indigenous lines here in Vancouver and throughout most of the country speaks to Canada’s long legacy of treating our First Peoples as some kind of paradoxical “other” in their own backyard since the beginning of colonization.


For both the DTES community today, just as the Japanese Canadians before the war, and among the Musqueum, Squamish, and Tsieil- Waatuth long before that, the idea of home necessarily extended beyond the household and into the community, and into the land – where mutual support and solidarity against a hostile outer society or an incoming settler society, provided the needed social infrastructure for refuge, to find one’s feet, and even the ability to thrive.


But of course, the Japanese Canadians and the Coast Salish Peoples, as Audrey has effectively recounted, “lost their home” – both household, wider community, and territory – by a single stroke of pen, wielded by the self-interested antipathies of politicians representing a racist society.


And so, how ironic is it that today, a single stroke of another pen is once again threatening this last refuge, this “home” to so many of our neighbours. But rather than writing into law unjust policies against “Indians” or laws for the “evacuation,” internment,” and “deportation,” of “Aliens”, now the pen writes into existence the idea of a “Japantown” a commodified, revitalized, spectacle of an urban lifestyle built upon “consumption” rather than “inhabitation.”


We have all fallen prey to a dominant idea that “homes” are built by markets and mortgages rather than by bricks and mortar, hammers and nails, and the care of inhabitation, the memories of dwelling in a place. In our ever-voracious appetite for “more,” “bigger,” “better,” “newer,” or perhaps now in the hipster era “older and faux authentic,” WE have become the perpetrators of yet another round of “evacuation,” “internment,” and “deportation.” Gentrification, often in the form of state supported revitalization,” as the housing experts in this room will tell you, is the new War Measures Act -the force behind the uprooting of hundreds, possibly soon to be thousands of our neighbours, “evacuated – read renovicted”, “Interned,” read “ forced into emergency shelters or other tenuous states of housing where they are subject to increased surveillance, scrutiny, and discipline,” and “deported,” read thrown into the ether of the ostensible “social mix” – diluted into the broader urban landscape in and probably more often beyond the city, to become, somebody else’s problem.


And so, back to the question, if research is the creation of an idea, then what does the idea of the Right to Remain accomplish? Perhaps it is as simple as this – perhaps what you will see in this exhibit and in the perspectives of those on this panel today – is nothing more than our own stroke of a pen, a kind of symbolic “uprooting” – an unearthing of a different “way of knowing” – one that can resonate with all of us – the idea of “home” less as investment and more as human right – the “right to remain” or, following Nick Blomley’s way of expressing it, “the right not to be excluded from our own homes and communities” for the sake of somebody else’s profit. And in this unearthing, an uprooting of the flawed ideology of the “entrepreneurial city” and, in the case of the Downtown Eastside, its specific manifestation of a flawed, no false, history of a heritage “Japantown” district.