Nisei Generation: Frank Kamiya on the importance of recording our histories

As part of our Future Nikkei campaign, we spoke with Frank Kamiya on the importance of our past, and what he might envision for our future

“Myself and many of my generation are very proud of our heritage, as we witnessed how our parents persevered through many hardships to see their children succeed in Canada. I’m sure that they were proud of the many accomplishments of their children, and now their grandchildren. Although mixed marriages are very high, many (Nikkei) still do connect with their Japanese heritage, and where better to learn and connect with their heritage than at Nikkei Place? I think it’s more important now than ever to maintain and grow the Nikkei National Museum as well as Nikkei Place.”

Frank is a semi-retired architect and tireless Nikkei Place volunteer who is presently working with architect Ken Takeuchi on the Robert Nimi Nikkei Home addition and renovations.

“I retired from the NNMCC Board last year, but I’m still actively helping with the NNMCC Auxiliary and their fundraising efforts for Nikkei Centre. That takes up a lot of my time, as there seems to always be something happening every week. I’m also on the Museum Committee (for the upcoming Nikkei National Museum expansion project), where we hope to start construction on Phase One (all offices will move from the ground floor to the second floor). I’m really excited to see the Museum expansion, which I hope will be a reality in the next couple of years.”

Frank grew up in Pitt Meadows where his father, a carpenter, had just finished building his three-bedroom house when the war broke out. He was only two years old and his brother was only one-and-a-half when his family was forcibly relocated to Oak Bluff – a rural town just outside Winnipeg, Manitoba. As children during the war, they were not aware of what was going on… they simply rolled with the punches.

“At first, my father and his friends built two internment-type houses per day. When the houses were finished in this area, our family had a contract to take care of twenty acres of sugar beet farm for five years.”

Frank’s early school days in rural Manitoba started off with a long walk each morning, and in the cold winter the snow was easily 6ft deep.

It wasn’t until 1948 that Frank’s family moved back to the West Coast to North Kamloops to help out on his aunt’s farm. His first exposure to the Japanese Canadian community came in the early 1950’s, when his family moved to Vancouver and lived in the former Japan Town, about a half block east of the Vancouver Japanese Language School. He attended Strathcona Elementary School, where most of his friends were Japanese Canadians or Chinese Canadians.

“Many of my friends were involved in the Vancouver Judo Club and the Boy Scouts. When we became teenagers, we discovered girls and went to the dances that the JCCA had organized. Bowling was also popular with our generation, as we bowled at the Commodore Bowling Alley on Granville Street and often went to Chinatown afterwards for noodles or other goodies.”

In 1953, his family bought a house in East Vancouver at Pender & Skeena Street. Frank attended his local high school, Vancouver Technical School, and it was here that he considered learning a trade.

“I decided to attend Ryerson Polytechnical lnstitute in Toronto (afterward), at the recommendation of a friend, and I graduated in 1962 in the Architectural Technology program. I completed the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada’s Minimum Syllabus of Studies in 1971 and became a member of the Architectural Institute of BC in 1973.”

After graduation, Frank got his first job as an architect – ironically enough, in Winnipeg – at a major firm called GBR. He stayed there for six years, got married, and had two sons. In 1968, he moved back to Vancouver where he was offered a job with Erickson Massy Architects: the firm that designed the Canada Pavilion at the Osaka Expo.

“I made my first trip to Japan in 1970 – I visited the Expo, met some of my relatives for the first time, and was exposed to Japanese culture, which I thoroughly embraced.”

In the early 1980s, Frank was asked by Shirley Kakutani to join the JCCA, and they formed the Japanese Canadian War Memorial committee with the main goal of relighting the Cenotaph (which was extinguished during the hysteria of the war in the 1940’s). The relighting of the cenotaph and restoration of the memorial was marked by a ceremony in August 1985.

He was also asked to assist with the Japanese Canadian History Preservation Committee by Frank Hanano. “This small committee began to record the oral histories of our Issei who were passing on, such as Mr. Morita, who was a cook in the old Japan Town days. Today, we are seeing the Nisei who are now in their 80s and 90s, and so the Nikkei National Museum is advocating for all Nikkei to preserve their family history. I am always out there reminding my contemporaries to record their family history and if possible to share it with the Museum.”

The Nikkei National Museum provides a place for interesting life stories. “I think the Museum has been very good for our community and I hope it continues on. I see a lot of people donating artefacts here. If we had more money, space, and time – I would like to see more of the personal items people give on display. I want the Museum to connect to people on a more personal level.”

Posted in Future Nikkei, In the Community, Legacy Stories, NPF Updates.