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Vancouver’s Japanese community torn over where best to celebrate roots

VANCOUVER - The Powell Street Festival was lacking a little something this year -- Powell Street. Renovations at Oppenheimer Park meant the annual celebration of Japanese culture and heritage marked its 33rd year with a temporary new location, Woodland Park near Commercial Drive. The switch may have created a bit of a problem for the festival. It worked too well.

The Powell Street Festival has long been one of the little treasures of a Vancouver summer. Overshadowed by grander events on the crowded August long weekend, the event offers a craft fair and entertainment including taiko drumming, an amateur sumo tournament, contemporary bands, and this year an appearance by Kokoro Dance. Folks line up for barbecued salmon, corn on the cob, and above all, tako-yaki, the Japanese national snack that can be difficult to find in this sushi-mad city. The Oppenheimer Park location connects the festival to Nihon-machi, Japan Town, the historic home of the local Japanese community before World War II paranoia led to its forcible eviction and internment.

There has been a price to pay for that historic connection. Oppenheimer has long been Vancouver's own Needle Park, a place of refuge for the homeless and drug-addicted. Few family festivals are held in places where a careful syringe sweep of the grounds is a required preliminary.

Not a problem at this year's event. More trees, more parking, a more residential neighbourhood, and a marked absence of substance-abusing park regulars made for a relaxed atmosphere. The roomier site even allowed for valet bike parking. “If they decided to move here permanently,” one volunteer offered anonymously, “it would be awesome.”

Anonymously, for good reason. It's a touchy subject. The old Nihon-machi district is part of the festival's raison d'etre, a way for succeeding generations of Japanese Canadians to reconnect with their local history. Would a permanent move represent a betrayal of that history?

A random survey of festival attendees and participants uncovered support for a move but plenty of mixed feelings. “Given the amount of talk about [relocation], it's probably something the festival society will at least have to take a look at,” says Joji Kumagai, executive director of Tonari Gumi, the volunteer society of the Japanese Community Centre.

But Kumagai is not sure a relocated festival would be quite the same. “I don't think it would mean as much to this neighbourhood,” he says. “There's a vibrant community in the Powell Street area that really appreciates the festival. They're proud of it. Here, it's not as important to the community.”

Festival GM Kirsten Lambertson insists that the festival will return to Oppenheimer next year. “It is the Powell Street Festival,” she says. “We were thrilled with the way it worked out this year. But it’s a lot easier to do at Oppenheimer—we have so many willing community volunteers.”

Steve Burgess is a regular contributor to The Tyee.

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