J-Sei founders reflect on 50 years of the East Bay community institution



(Left to right): Murayo Sawai, Tad Hirota and Dennis Yotsuya at an early intergenerational planning meeting for East Bay Japanese for Action. photo by Thomas Okamoto

J-Sei, a Japanese American social service organization based out of Emeryville, Calif., celebrates its 50th anniversary this year amid the global coronavirus pandemic. As its headquarters reopens for in-person classes, the organization kicked off its milestone celebration via an online program June 18 entitled “Planting the Seeds: A Grassroots Approach to JA Community.”

Founded by several Sansei graduates of the University of California, Berkeley, J-Sei started as two separate organizations founded in the 1970s. Dennis Yotsuya, Dr. Reiko Honma True and Bob Sakai — three founding members of East Bay Japanese for Action and East Bay Issei Housing — spoke about the early days. The organizations eventually merged to form Japanese American Services of the East Bay in 1986, which later changed its name to J-Sei in 2010. Documentary filmmaker Lauren Kawana served as the discussion’s moderator.

Yotsuya, a Sansei activist attending UC Berkeley, and Honma True, a Shin-Issei studying to become a social worker, came together with other Japanese Americans to form East Bay Japanese for Action in 1971. Yotsuya noted the student activism that led to the creation of Asian American studies served as a catalyst for young student activists seeking to enact change. He recalled Linda Yamamoto calling her friends and neighbors to meet at her house in Oakland, Calif. in 1970. Some 30 people gathered and planned field trips and meetings with Issei.

“The group of Sansei were very much not bilingual. And here we are trying to start a project for bilingual services, either idealistically or stupid or just crazy thinking we can do something like this,” Yotsuya said.

Incorporated as a nonprofit in 1971, EBJA started a senior center in Berkeley, Calif. and hired Amy Maniwa as their first coordinator. As the organization proved their effectiveness to its members and the government, Yotsuya said EBJA continued to secure funding from the Commission on Aging and other entities to fund additional senior centers, now known as Sakura Kai in El Cerrito, Calif., and the Eden Center in Hayward, Calif.

The organization also published a mimeographed newsletter by Murayo Sawai and Honma True, overseen by Thomas Oka, their Issei advisor. Yotsuya also said Bonnie Hashimoto helped conduct oral histories by Issei and published a bilingual collection of essays entitled “Our Reflections.”

Ben Takeshita, who helped set up Sakura Kai in 1972, noted how much work it took to set up a program.

“Grace (Yotsuya) had asked me to start the senior center in Contra Costa County, and I had no idea what that meant, because they had just finished making it in Berkeley. So, there was no Japanese list or anything, but the telephone book in those days had

Japanese names and addresses and the phone numbers,” Takeshita said. “So my wife and I would look through our telephone book, find out the Japanese names, … I started to call them, each one, speak to them in Japanese when necessary, and try to get them interested in forming a senior center. And we got about 30 people initially.”

As Sansei activists took the reigns, however, Honma True, also pointed out that their work was supported by outspoken Nisei activists as well as newcomer Shin-Issei women, such as herself. The Niigata, Japan, native, although not a war bride herself, said women who married non-Japanese Americans after the war were often ostracized by the larger Japanese American community. Their language skills and ability to help the elder Issei, however, gave them an opportunity to become a part of the community.

“I think newcomer Issei, mostly women, were very involved in kind of doing the actual helping of the Issei, because we were able to speak, communicate with Issei in Japanese,” she said. “And that was really an exciting time for us, because now, for the first time, we were able to provide assistance to the Japanese American community, and we were part of the community as opposed to a shunned group.”

Seniors making ribbon fish at the senior center in Berkeley. photo by Thomas Okamoto

Bob Sakai, a Hayward, Calif.-based attorney, attended UC Berkeley around the same time as Yotsuya and Honma True, but he had, at the time, been studying engineering. Later, after finishing his law degree, he took a more active role in the Japanese American community and joined the Japanese American Citizens League. Sakai first learned about the need for low-income culturally sensitive housing for Issei when he helped a family friend find housing. Hearing about a meeting to provide housing for Issei run by Laura Date and Phyllis Ogata, Sakai said he joined what would become East Bay Issei Housing.

“It probably took us two years of numerous evening meetings with the different organizations. We recruited 23 different organizations to form East Bay Issei Housing, which was incorporated in 1978. I was a president for a long time and served on the board,”

Sakai said. “We spent about seven years and looked at probably 40 different sites all over Alameda County for a property that would be suitable and affordable.”

Eventually EBIH found it’s first location off of Cypress Avenue in Hayward, Calif., on a property formerly owned by Caltrans. The organization partnered with Eden Housing, an affordable senior housing developer, and raised the funds through golf tournaments and bingo games to build their first development.

The organization would go on to purchase two more properties, and be donated a fourth.

The panelists reflected on the five decades their organizations have served the Nikkei community. Yotsuya, who moved back to his native Central California, said he had been away from J-Sei since the 1980s, but said he was sure the organization had continued to evolve to suit the needs of the community. Honma True meanwhile said she now stands to benefit from the services she helped set up, being an octogenarian herself.

The event concluded with the three panelists giving advice to today’s young activists hoping to enact change in their communities.

“I just have this to say to today’s young people. There’s always something you can do to help the community. Go out there and find it and do it,” Sakai said. “You’ll be satisfied, greatly satisfied with what you’re involved with.”

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