Steveston Japanese Language School

Celebrating 60th Anniversary

Japanese language studies in Steveston date back to the late 1800s when thousands of Japanese men arrived to make a living building fishing boats and fishing for the numerous salmon canneries that lined the Fraser River. They lived in bunkhouses and retained their culture and language. In the early 1900s, women and children followed them from Japan to settle in Steveston. 

 At the turn of the twentieth century, the Japanese community was segregated. Japanese fishermen faced anti-Asian sentiment from Europeans who feared for their jobs. Between 1906 and 1907 Japanese language education began at the Japanese Hospital and Christian Church as there was a requirement that one must be a property owner in order for children to attend public school. 

 The first Japanese school was built in 1909 on the east side of No. 1 Road north of Chatham Street beside the Japanese Fisherman’s Benevolent Society, which was the hospital’s administration building.

 Although the school building no longer stands, the neighbouring Japanese Fishermen’s Benevolent Society was relocated in 2010 and has been preserved as a historic site. It is located behind the Steveston Museum and Post Office on Moncton Street and First Avenue.

“The Japanese Language School educated young children, with an increasing emphasis on English. Eventually, the full B.C. curriculum was adopted and Japanese classes were taught after school.” (Steveston Historical Society)

During the Second World War, the school closed due to the relocation and internment of Japanese Canadians. Japanese language instruction returned in 1949 when the Richmond Japanese Language School began operating out of the Steveston Buddhist Temple. 

In September 1960, the new Steveston Japanese Language School commenced teaching Japanese at the Steveston Community Centre. 

The Richmond Japanese Language School merged with the Steveston Japanese Language School in June 1975. Later that year the school was granted non-profit society status by the B.C. government to become the Steveston Japanese Language School Society. 

In September 1992, the school moved to the newly constructed Steveston Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre, behind the Steveston Community Centre where it continues to reside. 

The school’s mission is to promote the understanding of Japanese language and culture to all Canadians.

Tomoko Suzuki’s students know her as Suzuki Sensei (teacher). She joined the school in 2009 as a teacher and became the principal in 2014. She continues to teach high school students and adult classes. Nine teachers, including Tomoko, teach part-time. 

 The school is open Monday through Thursday and Saturday with a wide range of classes offered for preschoolers, children, and adults. This past year 262 students were enrolled. Students come from Delta, Richmond, Surrey, Vancouver, and White Rock.

Some students speak Japanese at home, while others are new to the language. Some have lived in Japan, others have travelled there, and some have another connection and are eager to learn the language.

Like all places where people gather, Steveston Japanese Language School closed with the arrival of the pandemic in March 2020. In-person learning ceased and the instructors adapted their way of teaching. There was a learning curve involved in transitioning to online education. Tomoko says, “It has been challenging. We have never taught this way before.” 

“We wanted to provide for our students. We didn’t want them to stop learning.” Tomoko Suzuki

Steveston Japanese Language School operates with the assistance of seven volunteer board members who oversee fundraising and donations.

 The school’s major fundraiser was an annual bazaar that was held every spring, beginning in 1961. This event took over the entire Steveston Community Centre. A variety show featured singers, dancers, and musicians. Udon and other Japanese foods were sold. Few Japanese restaurants or shops existed locally at the time, and Stevestonites enjoyed eating and socializing at the bazaar. In 2002, the large event was cancelled due to lack of volunteers.

In 2004, the Steveston Japanese Language School set up a booth for the first time in the Cultural Centre during the Steveston Salmon Festival. The room was decorated in a Tanabata festival theme, which is a very popular event in Japan. Origami, calligraphy, and craft booths were provided for children along with mini Japanese lessons for adults. Over the years the school has added even more popular activities such as kimono dressing and papermaking. 

Brenda Ohara, chair of the board mentions, “Today, the school holds smaller fundraisers throughout the school year, such as selling gyoza (provided by Cana-Ya Gyoza), waffles at Christmas (provided by Damien’s Belgian Waffles), and mochi. We hold bake sales, sell Japanese treats at our annual New Year’s parties, and sell hot dogs and drinks at our annual Sports Day which are kindly donated by PriceSmart Foods in Richmond.”

She adds, “We have also partnered with G&F Financial Group’s West Richmond Branch. They donate $25 to the school for every successful referral. However, none of these fundraisers raise as much money as our bazaars did. We recently added a donation page to our website, so we can now ask for donations to support our programs and include a link to that page. Because the school is a registered charity, donors will receive an income tax receipt.”

 Brenda remarks, “The only government funding that we have received during my eight-year tenure on the board was the Multiculturalism Grant from B.C. in 2017. We applied and received funding for our photo booth set-up, which we have used at events such as the Salmon Festival to augment our kimono-dressing offering and the 25th Anniversary celebration of the Steveston Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre that was hosted by the school in 2017.” 

In 2018, the school received funding from G&F Financial Group Foundation to support their Learning with iPads project. G&F Financial Group’s West Richmond Branch also supports the school by donating to its scholarship fund. The school awards up to three $350 scholarships for qualified past students of the school.

Tomoko points out, “We don’t only teach Japanese language and culture, we contribute to the community as well.”

The history of the school and continuing involvement in local communities are things to be recognized and remembered. For instance, the school was an active fundraiser for the building of the Steveston Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre. More recently, in 2017, the school donated 100 Japanese books to Richmond Public Library; the school also supported the Nikkei Memorial Project with a donation. At certain times of the year, students at the school share an activity with the Japanese seniors at the Cultural Centre,” says Brenda. 

 Students are encouraged to make direct connections with Japan. Every September Japanese university students visit the school for a day. Each Christmas students send cards to children in Japan who are victims of natural disasters; this gives them a chance to communicate with kids their own age. 

Tomoko comments, “Due to COVID-19, we won’t be planning any large gatherings. We wish to mark the school’s 60th anniversary by recognizing the school’s community involvement and contribution over the past 60 years by sharing stories with our school community.” 

 Brenda concludes, “This Steveston Insider story helps us celebrate the school. Of course, the sustainability of the school would not have been possible without the support of its past and present students, the parents, volunteers, and staff, local businesses, and the community at large. To them, we say thank you!”

 To register for the 2020-2021 school year, visit www.sjls.ca or contact ngakko@telus.net. Classes begin on September 8.

Steveston Japanese Language School

4111 Moncton Street, Richmond BC V7E 3A8

Telephone 604-274-4374

www.sjls.ca