Honouring Japanese Canadian History in Victoria

Andrea Mariko Grant, first published on the Nikkei Voice

Photo credits: Claressa Gordon-Suto

On April 26, 2024, new interpretative panels were unveiled at Esquimalt Gorge Park in Victoria, BC, illuminating Japanese Canadian history at the site.

Despite a gray and drizzling morning, it was standing room only at the event, with many members of the local Japanese Canadian community in attendance. The launch was sponsored by the Victoria Nikkei Cultural Society (VNCS) and the Past Wrongs, Future Choices (PWFC) project at the University of Victoria. It featured performances by the Furusato Dancers, a local Japanese folk dancing troupe, and accomplished pianist Shoko Inoue. Mayor of Esquimalt, Barb Desjardins, shared a few words, as did Tsugio Kurushima, president of the VNCS, and Dillon Takata, whose ancestors once owned the Japanese Teahouse and Garden that had flourished at the site. Michael Abe, PWFC project director, led the unveiling and took visitors on a tour of the garden.

Built in 1907, the Japanese Teahouse and Garden that once stood in the park was the first of its kind in Canada. The innovation of two Japanese Canadian entrepreneurs, Yoshijiro Kishida and Hayato Takata, it was the place to see and be seen in Victoria. Visitors could explore the Japanese-style gardens, which featured meandering pathways lined with bamboo, plants and stone lanterns imported from Japan, and serene ponds filled with goldfish. They could also dine at the Teahouse, which served English-style refreshments such as poached eggs on toast. During WWII, however, with the uprooting, internment, and dispossession of Japanese Canadians, the Japanese Teahouse and Garden was looted and destroyed. The garden that now exists at the park is not the original, but has been carefully restored through the years by the Japanese Canadian community and the Township of Esquimalt. In 2022, after a public campaign, a new Japanese Pavillon opened its door as a testament to this history.

Two new garden panels provide more details. One is dedicated to Isaburo Kishida, the gardener who designed the original garden. Isaburo had been invited to Victoria in 1907 by his son, Yoshijiro, and went on to design other Japanese gardens in Victoria that still exist to this day: the Japanese garden at Butchart Garden and the Japanese Garden at Royal Roads University. The other panel invites visitors to reimagine what the site once looked like, and includes a hand-drawn map and archival photos.

Additionally, two new panels now accompany displays inside the Pavillon. One, written by Dillon and his wife Lisa, explains the history of a piano that was once owned by Dillon’s great aunt, Toshie Takata. During the internment, she had left the piano in the care of family friends, the Stancils. Yet, in 1944, when the Takata family was relocated to Toronto, Toshie was forced to sell the piano to the Stancils as she couldn’t afford shipping costs. In 2019, Steven Lennon, a member of the Stancil family, heard about the campaign to rebuild the Teahouse and restored and returned the piano to Dillon. During the launch event, Inoue performed on this very piano. The second interior panel accompanies a new display of a teacup and milk pitcher. Both pieces date from the 1930s and had once been used at the Teahouse. Yet, as Dillon pointed out during the ceremony, since his family had never sold items from the Teahouse, both items had most likely been looted.

A key feature of the panels is the incorporation of contemporary work by Japanese Canadian artists. The panel that now sits on Toshie’s piano features a QR code that links to a collaborative piece called Eighty Years by yonsei artists Jennifer Aoki and Cait Nishimura. Inspired by the history of the piano, Aoki and Nishimura bring their respective talents – dance and music composition, respectively – to the piece, which aims “to translate into movement and music the experiences of oppression, grief, resentment, reconnection, and healing that exist within the story of [the] Takata family’s piano”. Similarly, a panel on the history of a returned teacup incorporates a sumi-e painting by Abe.

Yet, as celebratory as the day was, our work is not yet done. For one, other panels are on the horizon to further explore Japanese Canadian history at the site. Importantly, it is hoped that a future panel will be dedicated to both Japanese and Indigenous plantlife at the site and the different ways both communities held relationships with the land.

More significantly, however, is the next phase: a permanent public art project featuring Japanese Canadian and Indigenous artists to honour the histories of both communities at the site. The VNCS has long emphasized the need to tell of the dispossession of Japanese Canadians locally within the context of the dispossession of Indigenous people, who have a documented 5,000-year history on the same site. In particular, the site was significant for lək̓wəŋən people because of the abundant herring run that took place twice a year up the Gorge waterway. In the lək̓wəŋən language, lekwung means “to smoke herring” and lekwungen is translated to “place to smoke herring.” I am co-curating this project alongside Eli Hirtle, a nêhiyaw (Cree)/British/German filmmaker, beadworker, youth mentor, and curator based on Lekwungen Territory in Victoria.

We are currently applying for funding to support this project and hope to provide updates soon.

In his remarks at the launch, Dillon pointed out that when the Pavillon first opened up in 2022, he felt a sense of optimism that his family’s history would finally be remembered. Over the years, however, he shared that his optimism has diminished as many visitors to the Pavillon remain unaware of the site’s history and importance. With further panels and art at the site – that honours both Japanese Canadian and Indigenous presence – we hope that future visitors will no longer have any excuses.

Andrea Mariko Grant is a sansei scholar and curator, who curated the new panels at Esquimalt Gorge Park.