The 4Runner and BC’s Lost Japanese Ghost Town

On a weekday morning, there is little traffic outside the historic Japanese Language School building, on Alexander Street in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. Here, in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Canada, the nearly century-old structure still stands proudly, providing Japanese language and cultural education to many students, including pre-schoolers. It is also the hub for the summer Powell Street festival, the largest Japanese-Canadian festival in Canada.

I took my kids here in early August, and the streets were thronged with people. There was traditional kumi-daiko drumming, demonstrations of calligraphy and origami, artwork and dancing and anime prints, and delicious street food from dozens of vendors. This morning, as I guide the big blue Toyota to the curb, the mood is far more subdued, with only a few people on the streets. Two blocks away is a huge tent city of homeless people, camped out beneath the sakura cherry trees of Oppenheimer Park.

The Downtown Eastside is a wound in the fabric of Canada, a place known for poverty, addiction, and homelessness – and also a surprisingly resilient community spirit. There are many reasons things ended up the way they are here, from evictions and an influx of drugs in the 1980s, to inadequate support for the mentally ill. But in the contrast between the happy crowds of the festival and the empty streets of today, I can’t help but hear the echoes of a time when the Canadian government reached down and tore out the heart of a community, root and branch.

On the city streets, the 4Runner TRD looks faintly ridiculous in its big, knobbly off-road boots. Yet we’re here for a reason. This building is the only piece of property returned to Japanese-Canadian citizens in the period after World War II. Unlike the US, which also interned its citizens of Japanese descent, Canada additionally confiscated and sold all the property of Japanese-Canadians. Every building, every business, every car. Gone. Apart from this one structure, a physical link to Japanese-Canadian society before WWII.

And, perhaps, no longer the only link. Across the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge, hidden amongst the trees of the North Shore Mountains, an archaeologist has found something. A hidden village, reclaimed by the forest. Relics of a lost way of life. A forgotten story, waiting to be told.

The 4Runner is not a random choice. For one thing, it’s literally called a “Fore-runner.” What better choice to go searching for the spirits of Japanese ancestors than in a rugged 4x4 built in the Tahara factory in Aichi prefecture?

As if that wasn’t enough, the 4Runner is practically the flagship vehicle of North Vancouver. They could stock them on the shelves at a Mountain Equipment Co-Op store: simple, durable, sluggish, slightly outdated. Because the 4Runner’s been virtually unchanged over the fifth generation’s ten-year run, you see them parked on every corner.

There are one or two parked in the lot at Capilano University, where archaeologist Bob Muckle works. It was he who uncovered the Japanese-Canadian village in 2004, while excavating what was assumed to be an early 1900s logging camp. Things changed when the excavation started turning up far more ordinary household items than you would expect to find at a transient logging camp: delicate rice bowls, sake bottles, valuable windup clocks.

Capilano University has a partnership with a university in Aichi prefecture, and Muckle spent a month-long sabbatical in Toyota City a few years ago. “I wanted to see the city with an archaeologist’s eye,” he says, “It’s really noticeable how welcoming the architecture is to pedestrians, how many benches and how much public art there is everywhere.”

Canada was not so inviting to the first Japanese-Canadian pioneers. We are a nation of immigrants, including my parents, but we are also a nation that has long struggled with official policies and general culture that has often excluded those who come to our shores.

The first Japanese immigrant to Canada, Manzo Nagano, stepped ashore in New Westminster, 1877. Chinese, Japanese, and South Asian immigrants to Canada were excluded from the right to vote in federal elections, extending well into the late 1940s. This despite Japanese-Canadians fighting for Canada in WWI: a troop of 225 volunteers from Vancouver went to the front to prove their loyalty. Fifty-four of them never returned.

In such an atmosphere, it is perhaps not surprising that a group of Japanese immigrants, numbering perhaps around 50 or so, decided to live apart from the rest of society. Japanese men were part of BC’s early logging industry, particularly an entrepreneur named Eikichi Kagetsu, so there would have already been a familiarity with life in a logging camp. People simply brought their families to join them, and built something new in the forest, based on the bones of an old camp.

Muckle is an academic, committed to the factual record, so he is careful not to speculate much about what life was like in the village, or even to absolutely confirm that it existed right until internment came knocking in 1942. He points out the importance of artifacts like a woman’s shawl pin, indicating both that there were women likely living in the camp, and that the village was occupied during the winter months. In an ordinary logging camp, neither would have been the case.

Further, the excavation uncovered the remains of a garden, a wood-lined freshwater reservoir, what’s believed to be a cold-storage shed, and a traditional Japanese bathing hut. The artifacts collected are also much more valuable than you’d expect to find simply abandoned. “Normally, when people abandon a site, they take the good stuff with them,” Muckle says. Here, useful items seem to have been buried by people hoping to return.

After a brief chat about the vagaries of Canadian archaeology – you need to be okay with working in the rain, and having bears occasionally wander through your dig site – Muckle gives me a map to the site. It needs to remain hidden from public view, as places like this are often looted by souvenir hunters.

The entrance to the trail is a short drive, easy work for the 4Runner. If you fancied yourself a modern amateur archaeologist, bouncing around the mining sites and forest camps of rural BC, you might well have one of these instead of the Series Land Rovers used by jungle explorers decades ago (in fact, Muckle used an older Tacoma for much of his dig). A modern Jaguar Land Rover product is far too fancy. The 4Runner feels like the sort of thing made to carry a couple of shovels, a flagging kit, and a plastic case for your finds.

The walk to the site from the gate takes about an hour. The people who lived here likely walked out every day, then took a bus or tram into town to their places of work. They’d then return in the evening, walking home to lamp-lit cabins beneath the cedars. There’s something calming about the thought, a quiet life so much at odds with how we are now.

And there is also a deep undercurrent of sorrow. Any discussion about the facts of Japanese-Canadian internment in Canada tends to focus on policy. Was our government overly prudent, or merely angrily xenophobic? Or both? Given the culture at the time, can we go back and judge the actions of government by our own modern views? Certainly there were contemporary Canadian officials, diplomats, and even an army Major-General who spoke out against the injustice of internment.

Walking among the trees, none of that seems to matter. If history is the story of nations, archaeology is the story of individuals. How they lived. Where they lived. What it meant to have their homes taken from them.

Fragments of pottery; shattered lives. No-one definitively knows what happened to the people who once settled here. They were scattered to Slocan, New Denver, Kaslo, or elsewhere in BC’s interior. Others were perhaps sent via rail to sugar beet farms in the prairies. Some 90 percent of Japanese-Canadians were sent away, numbering more than 21,000 people. They never came back to the forest.

Many of the artifacts found by Muckle can be found on display at the Nikkei Museum, in Burnaby, BC. The cherry blossom trees that bloom in spring at Oppenheimer Park were planted in 1977, marking the hundredth anniversary of Manzo Nagano’s arrival. As part of an official redress process, then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney rose in the House of Commons on the 22nd of September, 1988, to apologize on behalf of the Canadian government for injustices to the Japanese-Canadian community.

That is the history. But I can’t help thinking about the broken rice bowls on the forest floor. There is a Japanese art form called kintsugi, where cracked and broken pottery is painstakingly rejoined with lacquer. The cracks are then dusted with gold, silver, or platinum, so that the joins stand out brilliantly, glinting under lights.

Kintsugi is meant to show both the art of repairing something rather than replacing it, and also that breakage and repair are part of an object’s history. It does not seek to disguise the work of mending, but instead celebrates it.

It shows that you can heal, without forgetting.