East Bay senior center pioneers look back at roots

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June Sakaguchi speaks at the opening gathering for the Contra Costa Senior Center Program (later renamed Sakura Kai). courtesy of J-Sei

Continuing J-Sei’s celebration of its 50th anniversary, the organization held its “Cultivating Communities: Legacy of Centers in the East Bay” virtual event Oct. 21 to discuss the history of the Nikkei senior centers that originated from students organizing at the University of California, Berkeley in 1971.

Tets Maniwa at an East Bay Japanese For Action garage sale in 1978. courtesy of J-Sei

Kevin Toyama, a J-Sei board member, moderated the discussion featuring Pam Honda, June Sakaguchi, Amy Shinsako and Tets Maniwa. Honda was involved in organizing the Eden Senior Center in Hayward, Calif., while Sakaguchi and Shinsako were involved with Sakura Kai in El Cerrito, Calif. Maniwa, who helped organize the Berkeley Nikkei Senior Center, also helped organize the other two senior centers as a member of J-Sei’s original predecessor, East Bay Japanese for Action.

Maniwa said he joined after coming home from the Vietnam War, urged by his brother and sister to get involved with the community organizing that started in the late 1960s. With a dearth of programs for seniors, Maniwa said East Bay Japanese for Action organized field trips for seniors for the first two years. The outings, which continued even after the senior centers were established, invited around 100 Issei seniors along with 40 or so Nisei and Sansei volunteers to go to destinations such as Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, wine country and Reno, Nev. for gambling.

“After the centers got started, we tried to coordinate as much as possible to get all three centers and all the other people who weren’t associated with centers to go out and have fun,” Maniwa said.

“When Sakura Kai was starting, we relied on EBJA for our field trips,” Sakaguchi said. “I remember going to Angel Island. They took care of all the logistics … because we could not do it on our own.”

“It was a chance not only for them to go someplace but to go someplace with people they knew. They would see the Sakura Kai people at Sakura Kai, but they would see the Eden people and the Berkeley people (during the field trips),” Shinsako added.

With the success of the field trips, Maniwa said EBJA looked to hold more functions beyond the summer field trips. They eventually established the Berkeley Senior Center for Issei, and later, Sakura Kai and the Eden Senior Center.

While there were senior service organizations for the general public in the East Bay, Maniwa said the Issei did not participate in those programs. Sakaguchi said El Cerrito and Richmond both had vibrant senior centers with great programs, but none of the Nikkei seniors went to them.

“They didn’t feel comfortable. I think that was the one main thing that we wanted to try to get, was a feeling of being comfortable with each other and having a meal together and talking to each other in the same language, and then also getting information,” Sakaguchi said. “These seniors in the other senior centers were getting a lot of information about social security and all these other important very needed programs for our Issei too, … and that seemed to be, well, not right.”

June Sakaguchi speaks at the opening gathering for the Contra Costa Senior Center Program (later renamed Sakura Kai). courtesy of J-Sei

Shinsako said Sakaguchi, Sakura Kai’s first coordinator, helped lay the groundwork for the Contra Costa County gathering space. The senior center program notably attracted its first attendees by cold calling Japanese names from the phone book, according to Ben Takeshita, a longtime volunteer and former president of Japanese American Services of the East Bay (JASEB), J-Sei’s immediate predecessor. The senior center had 30 to 40 regular attendees and transportation for the seniors to get to and from the center. Sakaguchi, however, said it was the dozens of volunteers, largely bilingual Nisei, that helped keep the organization running smoothly.

Honda, meanwhile, said Eden relied on the existing Nikkei community center, which was founded in 1931, for volunteers and outreach. The Japanese American community in Eden was looking to find ways to help the Issei socialize and stay healthy when Maniwa, along with other EBJA members such as Tom Okamoto and Dennis and Grace Yotsuya, came asking for programming space for the Issei.

“It was really a great timing, in terms of their effort and the community center’s,” Honda said.

While Eden’s senior center had an existing infrastructure to support its programs, Maniwa also noted that some community members were wary of the younger organizers.

“One of the biggest challenges we had is, a lot of the people agreed it was a good idea, but then, those same people also said, ‘you kids are going way too fast, you can’t do things that way.’ So one of the things we did was say, ‘OK, watch, we’ll do it,’” Maniwa said. “Once we convinced a couple of people who disagreed with us that it was an idea that made sense, it was a lot easier, because when you get a champion who used to be an opponent, it’s a really valuable thing to show to the community.”

More than four decades later, the San Francisco East Bay senior centers have largely kept the same mission, but have adapted to the changing needs of seniors today. They now support post-war Japanese seniors, as well as older Nisei and Sansei.

“We’re constantly evolving, and certainly the … Nisei and Sansei today have access to much more information and, because we speak English, we’re able to get that information. We’re still pretty mobile and drive and whatnot, but I think there’s still this place for these centers because … there’s a niche,” Honda said. “There’s always a group, I think, or individuals who need a little bit more, or who like maybe the smaller, more intimate kind of relationships.”

The senior centers have especially changed during the pandemic, as organizers had to reconnect with its members through Zoom and other online platforms. Honda, however, said the programs, which offer nutritional lunches, socialization and opportunities for seniors to learn and perform arts such as shigin (sung poetry) and hula, remain intact.

“I mean it might look different, but I think the core values and the mission of what … EBJA and everybody else all the way to J-Sei, the senior centers have as their mission, is still very valid today,” she said.

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