SIDNEY, B.C. — Emperor Akihito of Japan thrilled Canadian marine scientists Sunday as he quizzed them with ocean-related questions during a visit to the Institute of Ocean Sciences near Victoria.
The royal couple then crossed to Vancouver to visit the city’s historic Japanese Language School, symbol both of a dark chapter in the Japanese-Canadian community’s history and one of renewal.
The Emperor and Empress Michiko were given a briefing on the Canadian-led Neptune Canada project, the world’s largest under sea observatory.
Neptune Canada senior scientist Rick Thompson was part of a group of scientists connected to the Neptune project that escorted the Emperor and Empress on a 30-minute tour of the ocean sciences institute.
“It’s not often we get somebody of this stature coming around asking questions about science. It’s wonderful,” said Thompson.
The Emperor asked a question about ocean nutrients after Thompson described the area off Vancouver Island near Port Alberni where the Neptune project will be installed as teaming with sea life.
“He asked me about productivity in the Atlantic and Pacific (oceans),” said Thompson. “That’s a pretty broad question to answer, but it was a good one.”
Thompson described the Emperor and Empress as a very nice couple, very sympathetic, who made people feel comfortable in their presence.
“They were obviously very interested in the science, which I tell you is a really wonderful feeling.”
Japanese science and technology are part of the $100-million project, which will provide real-time, 24-hour Internet access to an 800-kilometre undersea section ocean life off Vancouver Island.
The Emperor, who has written books and research papers on marine-related topics, examined Japanese-designed equipment that will be part of the undersea Neptune laboratory.
More than 500 people cheered and waved Japanese flags as the royal couple pulled up to the Japanese Language School on the fringe of Vancouver’s troubled Downtown Eastside.
The school, founded in 1906, was once the heart of a thriving Japantown near Vancouver’s waterfront.
But after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, the Canadian government interned all Japanese-Canadians, whether immigrant or born here, in camps away from the coast.
The school was confiscated by the government and used by the military. Part of the property was later sold without compensation to the government’s costs.
“When I came back in ’49, the Army and Navy (department store) had a warehouse here,” said honorary school chairman Cy Saimoto, who spent the war interned near the town of Gold Bridge, B.C.
Saimoto, 81, escorted the Emperor and Empress through a historical exhibit.
“I explained all the pictures inside, what happened,” said Saimoto, who first met the Emperor in 1953 when Crown Prince Akihito toured Canada as a student.
The school was revived after the war and celebrated its centennial in 2006. A sidewalk mosaic commemorating the internment lies a few steps from where the Emperor greeted a knot of young students.
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson explained how the neighbourhood is undergoing renewal, and Saimoto said he hoped the recognition would spark a revival of its Japanese roots.
Japanese royal couple is on a 12-day visit to Canada, which ends Tuesday.
The Emperor and Empress arrived in Ottawa on July 3 and will leave Canada from Vancouver.
The visit celebrates the 80th anniversary of Canada’s first diplomatic mission in Japan.
The 75-year-old Emperor first visited Victoria 56 years ago in 1953 as the Japanese crown prince. He stayed at Victoria’s Government House, which he visited again Saturday, while on his way to attend the coronation of Queen Elizabeth.