Photo Credit: Bob Hare
475 Alexander St, Vancouver BC
VHF Restore It 2012
Japanese immigrants first arrived in the city in the 1880s, settling in Strathcona. An anchor of the community, the school served as a place for children to learn and maintain Japanese language skills, parallel to their education in regular public schools. The Vancouver Japanese Language School & Japanese Hall (VJLS-JH) was established in 1906, and began in a wood-framed rental property on Alexander Street that was later destroyed by fire.
As the community grew, many Japanese Canadians struggled to teach their children Japanese, and so in 1919 the school eliminated the general Canadian curriculum to focus on Japanese language instruction only. Children attended regular public schools in English and went to learn Japanese language after school. This Spanish-Mission Revival building was designed for the VJLS-JH in 1928 by Sharp & Thompson Architects to serve not only as a school but also as a cultural centre.
From 1942-49, the VJLS-JH facilities were occupied by the Army. A portion of the complex was sold to pay for the maintenance of the Government occupied portion. In 1949, many members of the community fought to reopen the school, and in 1953, the unsold portion of the VJLS-JH property was returned to the Japanese Canadian community. Out of all the Japanese Canadian properties, cars, boats, homes, and businesses that were confiscated, the VJLS-JH stands alone as the only property to retain ownership during and after the internment.
To this day, the VJLS-JH is dedicated to the learning and promotion of Japanese language, culture and arts. It is also the only municipally designated heritage building on Alexander Street. Little remains of Japantown, as property was seized by the government in 1942. In 1928, Sharp and Thompson built the building as we see it today, punctuated by a high-contrast mosaic around the entryway. The school was returned to the community in 1953, and in 2000, an addition by Shigeru Amano quoted the original mosaic entry.
In 2012, with the assistance of a VHF Restore It grant, the original pivoting wood windows were replicated.
On November 13, 2019 the VJLS-JH was given a National Historic Site designation. The plaque text reads:
“Founded in 1906 and moved to this Art Deco building in 1928, this educational institution was the first and largest Japanese language school in Canada before the Second World War. After Canada declared war on Japan in 1941, the government forcibly relocated people of Japanese descent away from the coast, seized their property, and closed all 50 existing Japanese language schools. Community leaders managed to prevent the sale of this building, reclaimed ownership in 1952, and reopened the school in 1953. One of the only properties returned to Japanese Canadians after the war, it remains a powerful symbol of community resilience.”
Exploring Vancouver Architectural Guide, Harold Kalman, the Vancouver Japanese Language School website, VHF's Historic Map Guide of Japantown