By Laura Saimoto, Community Impact Committee

What has the famous Asahi Baseball’s team’s winning brand of ‘Brainball’ got to do with Japanese Canadian architecture?

The answer to this question was an ‘aha’ moment for our UBC summer student, Irene Zhang, and myself during our Historic Powell Street Walking tours.  As we explained the architectural history and features of many buildings in Nihonmachi/Japan-town, we asked ourselves the question, ‘what is Japanese Canadian architectural style?’  Then a lightbulb lit up. 

First of all, what is ‘Brainball’? Founded in 1914, the Asahi Baseball team was a Japanese Canadian baseball team that played in Powell Grounds (now Oppenheimer Park) going on to great success in the 1930s. Winning the Pacific Northwest Championship five years in a row, the Asahi Team was a vehicle for racial integration between Japanese Canadians and the white community.  Being Asian, the Asahi players were shorter and less physical compared to their Caucasian opponents, who played a physical game of powerful hitters, or ‘sluggers’.  As they could not out-slug the competition, the strategy was to ‘out-think’ and ‘out-run’. This meant using bunting, speed, base-stealing (squeeze) and strategy to win.  

This style came to be known as ‘brainball’ as opposed to ‘brawn ball’ – using a perceived weakness as a strength and basically using your ‘head’ or strategy to even the odds. So how is ‘brainball’ manifested in Japanese Canadian building design? There are several dots to connect. The first is that Nihonmachi/Japan-town at first glance does not culturally look distinctly ‘Japanese’ like Chinatown looks Chinese. Just by driving down Powell Street, it’s hard to tell that it was once a vibrant market village of 8000 Japanese Canadians with over 400 businesses before WWII.

The Dispossession and Internment disrupted the continuity of cultural identity. However, if you scratch beneath the surface, there is a clear distinctive voice that emerges. The pre-war racial inequalities of a fairly small racial minority is key to understanding this voice. Between 1897-1901, some 15,000 Japanese emigrants settled in B.C., working in the lumber, fishing, agriculture and small business. Japanese emigrants did not have the right to vote and were limited from entering certain professions. 

With rising economic prosperity and the building of vibrant communities like Powell Street, institutional racism against Japanese Canadians became more hostile, particularly after WWI. The Canadian government imposed emigration quotas to 400, then to 150 emigrants from Japan per year by the late 1920s. Fishing license quotas issued to Japanese Canadians were also imposed.  

Amidst these growing racial tensions, the community continued to grow and thrive. The pressure to ‘stay unequal’ was great while at the same time, the desire to express their cultural identity was similarly strong.  This can be seen in how they expressed their cultural voice in architectural design. The following patterns emerge. 

Japanese Canadians understood the elite values of the dominant Anglo-Saxon establishment well and aspired towards this in the overall basic design of their buildings. Our 1928 Japanese Hall Heritage Building, Vancouver’s new National Historic Site, embodies this.  Our architect was Sharp & Thompson Architects, one of the top architectural firms in Vancouver.  They designed UBC Point Grey Campus and the Burrard Street Bridge. It is a simple yet grand Art Deco design.  The Tamura Building, a grand brick building on the corner of Gore and Powell St. was designed by Townsend and Townsend Architects.  The Maikawa Department Store on Powell St. Is a stunning Art Deco design by architect T.L. Kerr.  

While the designs of these buildings primarily aligned with the dominant design trends of the time, if you look closely, Japanese Canadian names are spelled in English on these buildings.  For example, above the entrance to the Japanese Hall in tile mosaic, ‘JAPANESE HALL’ is printed in English letters. Japanese lettering was not chosen. On top of the Tamura Building in the replica pagoda on the roof, you will notice the English printing of ‘TAMURA’ printed beneath the pagoda roof.  Similarly, on the second floor of the Maikawa Department Store, the name, ’T. MAIKAWA’ is printed in trendy Art Deco font lettering in English. These were all names of the owners.  Also, if you look at store or house entrances, there are a few tiled names of the owners, such as ‘KOMURA’ printed in English letters in the tile design. While openly expressing ownership, it does so in a non-threatening and understated way.

Another pattern that emerged was the open-ended and understated use of cultural symbols.  In the case of the Japanese Hall, if one looks closely at the top corners of the second floor west and east side windows, there is a mosaic tile design of the Buddhist Sanskrit symbol of peace. As most Japanese Canadian early settlers were Buddhist, they would know this symbol.  On each side of the centre windows, there are maple leafs, and in the centre pillars, there are what looks like dogwood flowers or sakura blossoms carved into the pillars. The maple leafs could be either Japanese maple (momiji) or Canadian maples, both powerful symbols in Canada & Japan. And the dogwood flower or the sakura blossoms are also powerful culture symbols in both cultures.  Were these left open to interpretation is likely to show allegiance to both cultures. Experimentation of other cultural influences to express cultural identity is also evident. The Japanese Hall has a slight Spanish colonial influence, and the Fuji Chop Suey Restaurant beside Sunrise Market on Powell Street integrates Chinese and Californian design. 

Lastly, the key underlying principle of Japanese Canadian style was simplicity, frugality, and pragmatic functionality. Certainly there is grandeur in many of the building designs, but it is moderated by functionality of space, simplicity of line, and quiet forms of cultural expression. How does a racially oppressed community voice their cultural identity?  ‘Brainball’ strategy.  Next time you visit Nihonmachi/Japan-town, scratch beneath the surface to see how bases were stolen in Japanese Canadian architecture.