Moments at last summer’s Powell Street Festival. Left: The poster designed by artist Emmie Tsumura on a pole at Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver. Right: Artist Emmie Tsumura with Daruma at the festival. Photos courtesy: Emmie Tsumura.
TORONTO — The poster design artist Emmie Tsumura created for the 46th Annual Powell Street Festival is bursting with colours and characters that connect to Japanese and Japanese Canadian culture; takoyaki, kakigori, taiko drummers, dancers in yukatas, sumo wrestlers, carp swimming upstream. Keen eyes may spot Amabie, a yokai or Japanese spirit, in the poster.
First seen in the Edo period, Amabie is a scaly creature with a beak that comes from the ocean. According to Japanese folklore, seeing and sharing Amabie’s image can ward off infectious diseases and illnesses. Tsumura’s design used for the festival’s poster campaign was shared across the city—in storefront windows, on street posts, in bus shelters, in magazines, newspapers, and beyond.
“It was like this talisman, a protective creature,” Tsumura tells Nikkei Voice in an interview.
“During the early pandemic, people started drawing it again, so I included one of them in the poster because it was the first Powell Street Festival since the pandemic began.”
The Amabie was just one of many characters Tsumura created for the 46th Annual Powell Street Festival’s poster campaign. Inspired by Japanese folktales and the magical joy of togetherness, the design celebrates how communities emerge from and continue to navigate difficult times.
🎊 The 46th Annual Powell Street Festival is just around the corner this July 30 and 31, as we come to Oppenheimer Park and Paueru Gai (Powell Street) this July 30 and 31.
— Powell St Fest パウエル祭 (@PowellStFest) June 29, 2022
Tsumura is a Toronto-based interdisciplinary artist who works in illustration, collage, and graphic design. She aims to create art that can reach communities outside traditional art spaces and explore the human and non-human relationships to consumption and urban environments.
The last time Nikkei Voice spoke to Tsumura was in the summer of 2020, when she created Pigeons for the People, a compassionate public art project. Tsumura created giant two-dimensional pigeons, which she placed around the city with messages thanking essential workers for their tireless work throughout the pandemic.
On Jan. 18, Tsumura’s poster design was selected as a triple winner for the 2022 Creative Communication Award in Advertising/Print Campaigns. Selected by a jury of esteemed industry professionals, the award honours the best original and innovative creative designs from around the world.
“It’s a rare honour to be recognized for work that is true to your heart. The Powell Street Festival team, including Samantha Marsh, Gawa Desilets, and executive director Emiko Morita, are a dream to work with, and the festival itself is a real point of pride for me as a third-generation Japanese Canadian,” said Tsumura on receiving the award.
The festival, established in 1977, is one of the largest and longest-running community arts festivals in Canada. Each year, nearly 17,500 local, national, and international attendees visit the free, two-day festival in the Powell Street area, once known as Paueru Gai, a prewar Japanese Canadian neighbourhood bustling with culture and community. Tsumura hopes the award will draw much-deserved global attention to the festival.
Part of this hope comes from Tsumura’s joy in experiencing the festival for the first time last summer, where she witnessed the Japanese Canadian community come together and celebrate its culture loudly and proudly.
“It was probably the first time I’ve experienced that kind of Japanese culture in Canada, so I was really proud to be a Japanese Canadian in that moment,” says Tsumura. “Seeing the Japanese community inviting other communities in and sharing our culture was just so beautiful.”
Seeing the social and environmental considerations that went into planning the festival was also a point of pride for Tsumura. During her master’s studies at York University, Tsumura researched global conference design and found concepts like sustainability were often not prioritized in creating festivals. But environmental considerations at the Powell Street Festival, like using reusable cups and tote bags with Tsumura’s designs or partnering with students from UBC to create cooling stations with recycled water, highlighted the festival’s social conscience.
“The whole experience just made me feel really good about being part of the community,” says Tsumura.
Finding a sense of pride and connection to community was a big deal for Tsumura, who grew up in Oshawa, Ont., and didn’t know many Japanese Canadians outside her family. As a child, she remembers looking through the names in the phonebook to see if there were any other Japanese people in the city.
For Tsumura, it felt like there was a lot of silence and gaps in her family history and cultural identity. After Tsumura’s paternal grandmother passed away, it also felt like that connection to culture, Japanese Canadian identity, and family severed, like her grandmother was the piece that held everything together.
“I think there’s a lot of trauma in the community, and my family is no different. I think there’s a pride in being Japanese Canadian, but it’s also pretty quiet. I didn’t hear stories, there’s a lot of silence, and we didn’t connect culturally, and when my grandma passed in the 90s, we lost a lot,” says Tsumura. “I think it was hard to process such a huge loss in our family. Growing up, I just didn’t have any exposure or feeling of community, so to be chosen to do this poster for the community in Vancouver, it’s just been such a huge honour.”
Attending and being part of the festival felt like a cultural and spiritual homecoming for Tsumura. She knows her grandparents arrived on the West Coast in the early 1900s, living there until they were forcibly uprooted during the war. It felt full circle to return to where her grandparents once lived, acknowledge their struggles and experiences, and celebrate their memory and culture with the wider Vancouver community.
“I never got to meet [my grandfather], and I didn’t know my grandma really well because of the language barrier, but she was a great artist, so I take a lot of inspiration from her,” says Tsumura. “It meant a lot [to be part of the festival] because I’m constantly trying to connect with [my grandparents]. If there’s a way for them to know that everything they went through and all their struggles are being acknowledged, and their stories are still alive.”
Tsumura lived in Hiroshima, Japan, for a decade, where she taught English, attended festivals and learned about her cultural roots. Tsumura wanted to capture her experience of festivals in Japan, the smells, sounds, colours, and imagery in the poster design. She also wanted to tie the poster to the history of the Japanese Canadian community and festival, the community’s resilience to come together after being dispersed during the war, and that sense of community and inclusiveness that is part of the festival today.
“My design is a lot about diet. I think everything you consume, whether food, music, or activities, everybody you talk to feeds into what comes out when you’re designing things,” says Tsumura.
Tsumura has continued to explore and celebrate her Japanese Canadian roots, from embracing Japanese art forms and folklore in her work to learning taiko and discovering and researching her family history.
“After living in Japan and just really loving the culture and understanding myself and my family history more, I think when I came back to Canada, I was more opened to seeking out the Japanese community here, which I never really thought about before,” says Tsumura.
“But maybe there’s an aspect of shame in not knowing how to be in a community that I’m slowly learning more about; how can I be part of something when I’m coming to it so late in life? I think it’s a really wonderful community, and the Powell Street community has felt very welcomed, and that’s been a good feeling.”
To learn more about Emmie Tsumura, visit Emmie’s website here.
The Powell Street Festival Society runs programming throughout the year. To learn more, visit the website here.