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Kyowakai Society

During the war, every camp had a kai (association) that managed day-to-day survival. In 1943, the Kyowakai Society formed in New Denver, and until it disbanded in 2018 as elders died, it was the only wartime internment organization still in operation in Canada. Kyowakai means working together peacefully. The society’s purpose was social, cultural, religious, advocacy, and to be a nucleus for the Japanese Canadian community.

Internees built the Kyowakai Hall that now forms the centre of the NIMC. “One of our evacuees who was a builder decided to build the temple,” explained Gayle (Ono) Swanson, and so the Kyowakai Society started with the building of the otera (Buddhist temple) in Kyowakai Hall. “Now once the temple was built, they met there for Kyowakai and for Buddhist reasons.” The hall was used to sidestep the government’s sanction against congregating because all meetings were claimed to be for religious practice. 

The hall has long been the religious, political, social and cultural centre of the New Denver Japanese Canadian community. It was a locus for meetings, receptions, ceremonies, classes, concerts, theatre, movie nights, funerals and Buddhist practices, all of which helped glue the community together and strengthen it. Originally, men ran the society and women formed the Fujinkai Society (women’s auxiliary group) to attend to those who needed care, to provide food and flowers for community events and religious gatherings. The Fujinkai Society made decisions by consensus. The two societies combined into one after the war when the Japanese Canadian population became too small to support both. A gift of the Fujinkai Society, the Kohan Garden’s ornamental cherry trees still form enveloping arbours for weddings and cultural events today.

Every year since 1943, the Buddhist Obon ceremony to honour the ancestors has been held in the hall. In August 1943, the Obon festival was held at the ball field on a raised platform decorated with crêpe paper and colourful Japanese lanterns hung from poles. Roy Yasui wrote that everyone danced and felt the ancestors had joined them. “They make us forget temporarily that we are inmates in a detention camp. Everything from the stage to dance attire has been made by camp inmates who refused to surrender to uncaring and prejudiced camp authorities like E.L. Boultbee [General Manager of Interior Housing and war profiteer]. They overcame their initial despair and repeatedly paid homage to their ancestors as required by their culture. It is a magnificent and magic moment.”

from Kyowakai: Memory and Healing in New Denver by Anne Champagne

Left to right: Gayle Swanson, Tsuneko Kokubo, Momoko Ito, Amy Mori, December 2013
Kyowakai Society members preparing a meal for the NIMC’s opening, July 1992. Photo by Paul Gibbons.
Kyowakai Society members preparing a meal for the NIMC’s opening, July 1992. Photo by Paul Gibbons.

The Kyowakai Society is memorialized in an historical book, Kyowakai: Memory and Healing in New Denver. Published by the Village of New Denver, it is written by local author Anne Champagne and designed by John Endo Greenaway. The book tells the story of Japanese Canadian internment in New Denver, the creation of the Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre (NIMC) by the Kyowakai Society, and the healing it inspired. The 76-page, soft cover book features colour and black-and-white photographs, including images from the NIMC collection, Nikkei National Museum, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) and various private collections.

The book is available for purchase for $21 (including GST) at the NIMC Gift Shop or by sending us an email: