EXTENDING A LIFELINE: Japanese American Association of NY connects and serves community

Spotting the first daffodil leaves poking out of the ground this year brings an extra sense of hope to New York City, after an extremely trying 12 months. It is a promise that their playful yellow blooms will soon grace neighborhood parks large and small throughout the city, offering a reminder that spring always follows even the coldest winters and that the cherry blossoms are on their way.

The Japanese American Association of New York Inc. usually celebrates the arrival of cherry blossoms with a sakura matsuri, held in the footprint of the iconic location in Queens where the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs took place. “JAA donated the cherry (blossom) trees to Flushing Meadows Corona Park so this annual event is dear to our hearts, but we are not planning any large gatherings until further notice,” JAA Board President Susan J. Onuma explained.

JAA was founded in 1907 by Dr. Toyohiko Takami as the Japanese Mutual Aid Society (Nihonjin Kyosaikai). Takami purchased a plot of land at the Mount Olivet Cemetery in Queens in order to hold memorial services and bury Japanese who died in New York without family. JAA continues to hold these memorial services, with their annual Memorial Day bosankai (grave attendance ceremony) at the Mount Olivet and Cyprus Hills Cemeteries.

Over the years, JAA has adapted to meet New York’s Japanese American and Japanese communities’ changing needs. More than 50 organizations and groups use its community center space in Midtown Manhattan. The space features a free Japanese and English lending library.

JAA emphasizes community service, hosting programs and events throughout the year centered around Japanese culture, education, networking and services for newcomers to the United States. The association collaborates with the Consulate General of Japan in New York on community services and events.

Since closing their doors on March 19, 2020 due to the COVID-19 lockdown, JAA has presented a year’s worth of programs and services molded to meet the needs of their members and communities they serve during a crucial and ever-evolving time. Volunteers swiftly moved into action, sewing more than 1,500 masks for people in need, including those receiving services from the Bowery Mission and the Coalition of Homeless. These masks became a part of Project Bento, a service that has filled the void of the Keirokai lunch program in seniors’ lives.

“During lockdown, we were not able to hold our twice-a-month senior luncheons, but our seniors were also at their most vulnerable,” Onuma said.

Project Bento began last May, and continues to deliver free lunch boxes to seniors and disabled community members, as well as make regular wellness check-in phone calls. JAA received a commendation from the consulate on the Emperor Naruhito’s birthday, Feb. 23, 2021, for its work during the pandemic.

JAA adapted other events and services to the virtual realm, easing into hybrid programs as coronavirus cases in New York decreased. They currently hold regular classes and meetings online, including calligraphy, chorus rehearsals and a rhythmic class.

The association provides free Japanese-language consultations over the phone, focusing on legal and health matters.

The 2020 Autumn Health Fair, one of two annual primarily Japanese-language health fairs, was held largely over Zoom or through telephone appointments, although a limited number of people could attend certain sessions in-person.

“As both our membership and board represent a diverse cross section of backgrounds, we are in a unique position to share both Japanese and Japanese American culture to our community,” Onuma said. “We also play a vital role in disseminating important information in Japanese (i.e. COVID vaccine updates, how to deal with anti-Asian violence, etc.) and advocating the need for more bilingual services for our Japanese-speaking community.”

Just as signs of spring have begun to emerge across New York City’s five boroughs, the new season of this pandemic shows signs of a slow return toward the aspects of life we all long for. A limited number of seniors have been allowed to return to JAA to pick up their bento, allowing them to meet with friends in small groups. “This has been extremely popular and was strongly requested by our seniors,” Onuma said. “Hopefully, we will be able to expand this as more seniors become fully vaccinated.”

Once people can gather again, JAA will continue showcasing Japanese culture through larger-scale events. Onuma speaks fondly of their Tanabata (star) festival, held in July at Manhattan’s Riverside Park. Festivities center around the story of star-crossed lovers Princess Orihime, a weaver, and Hikoboshi, a cowboy, represented by the heavenly bodies Vega and Altair in the summer sky and separated by the Milky Way. As part of the festival custom, people write their wishes on small strips of paper (tanzaku) that they hang on a bamboo tree, in the hope that they will come true. Event co-hosts The Amateur Astronomers Association of New York provides huge telescopes to aid in stargazing after participants enjoy a twilight picnic, fold origami kabuto hats and cranes, and if they are lucky, a performance by the consul general and his rock band.

Maybe if we all fill the trees in our lives with tanzaku, our dreams to safely gather again will come true.

The Japanese American Association of New York is located at 49 W 45th St., 11th Floor, New York, NY 10036. Its hours are Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, contact (212) 840-6942, (212) 840-6899, e-mail info@jaany.org or visit https://www.jaany.org.

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