History of Tonari Gumi

Tonari Gumi was founded in 1974 with the goal of improving the lives of Vancouver’s Issei population, many of whom were living desperate lives in the rooming houses of Vancouver’s downtown eastside.

The difficulties facing Japanese Canadian seniors had been increased by the long term effects of internment during World War II. In 1942, Japanese Canadians living in Vancouver were uprooted from their homes and jobs and placed in interior work camps. The task of starting their lives over after being released proved overwhelming for many. As the years went by many Issei made their way back to Vancouver.

Jun Hamada 1977 tree planting as part of the Centennial

The seeds of Tonari Gumi were planted in 1973 and 1974. With the support of the federal government’s Local Initiative Program (LIP), Jun Hamada and four Nikkei youth, under the program name of “Japanese Community Volunteers,” started cultivating relationships and ties with seniors through activities such as visitation while working out of office space rented out from Language Aid. It was from these early beginnings that the term “Tonari Gumi” began to be used among the staff as a Japanese name for the organization.After ceasing operations with the federal grant monies exhausted, Jun Hamada and Takeo Yamashiro secured temporary, 6 month funding from the United Way and the federal New Horizons for Seniors program and began operations again, this time from space provided by the Downtown Eastside Residents Association (DERA). In April 1976, they were able to obtain more stable funding from the provincial government and from the City of Vancouver and opened a drop-in centre at 573 East Hastings in 1975. It was during this time that many of the current programs and services were developed.

The year 1977 marked the centennial anniversary of Japanese immigration to this country, a milestone Japanese Canadians celebrated nationwide. It gave TG an opportunity for growth and development by spearheading with pioneer seniors to provide a community work yard, where a number of commemorative projects and events were born such as the national centennial project “A Dream of Riches”, the Powell Street Festival, Memorial Sakura tree planting on Powell Grounds and the coordination of the Centennial Performing Arts troupe to B.C. interior Japanese Canadian communities to name a few. Thus, the creation of the community base and resources, where Sansei youths and immigrants from Japan renewed the consciousness of our traditional and cultural values in partnership with pioneer seniors, helped us nurture a sense of social justice to right the wrong on the issue of the treatment of the Japanese Canadians during and after the Second World War. The JC Centennial Project (producer of the “Dream of Riches”) directed the proceeds of the book sale toward the Redress activism and started conducting a series of local public forums as early as in 1982. TG was an inseparable and vital partner of the movement throughout this struggle which resulted in the settlement with the federal government in 1988.

In 1986, Tonari Gumi moved to 378 Powell Street to work more closely with the Japanese Canadian Society for Seniors Housing and their ‘Sakura-So’ seniors housing project. The present location, since 2000 is at 511 East Broadway.

On November 13, 1994, Tonari Gumi celebrated the drop-in centre’s 20th anniversary at the Maritime Labour Centre with an overflowing crowd and speeches by local members of the Japanese Canadian community, BC’s Premier at the time, Mike Harcourt and Libby Davies. Both a celebration and a time to reflect upon the role that Tonari Gumi played in their lives, the anniversary provided an opportunity for the community to express gratitude for Tonari Gumi’s impact in their lives.
Recently, in 2008 and 2009, the Memorial sakura trees planted at Oppenheimer Park (formerly the Powell Grounds) in 1977 were in danger of being removed through a City plan to redevelop the Park. Tonari Gumi and several other Japanese Canadian community groups and individuals rallied together to form a community coalition and worked with many stakeholders including City officials, the Parks Board, residents and other organizations to impart the significance of the trees as a legacy of the Issei seniors and as a cultural and historical monument. While all were not saved, the majority were, and the trees will be commemorated at the new fieldhouse in honour of the Issei. Two short films were produced by award winning filmmaker Linda Ohama: “Sakura, sakura” and “Haru wa Akebono”, a story of one of the trees that was relocated within the Park.

Tonari Gumi provides a place where members of the community can visit for assistance or participate in a variety of programs. Over the years the centre has been a meeting place for other Nikkei groups, such as the Powell Street Festival Society and the Japanese Canadian Redress Movement.

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