Kimochi reflects on more than 50 years of social services

A woman and a man are seated next to one another and hold bobbleheads of themselves.

Sandy Mori and Steve Nakajo, founders of Kimochi Inc. hold bobbleheads of themselves during a Oct. 21 celebration of the senior service organization’s 50 years. photo by William Lee

What started out as a volunteering opportunity for school credit has blossomed into a senior service organization celebrating more than 50 years serving the Japanese American community in San Francisco and the Peninsula.

Formalized in the same social environment as many other Japanese American organizations based in San Francisco’s Japantown, Kimochi Inc. sought to serve the Japanese American community’s Issei elders because “sekinin ga anno, we got responsibilities (to do so),” according to Steve Nakajo, co-founder of the organization and former executive director.

“I get this idea that if I’m teaching a class at San Francisco State called ‘Introduction to Japanese American Community,’ and then, if we want to go and find out about the history, culture of our parents or Issei, why don’t we go volunteer down at Hamilton with Mrs. (Kay) Okamoto. And me, as an instructor, I’ll give you units and I’ll give you an ‘A’ to do that,” Nakajo told the Nichi Bei News.

Around the same time, Nakajo met Sandy Mori, a dietitian at the French Hospital in the Richmond District of San Francisco (now the Kaiser San Francisco Medical Center). They met by chance while Mori was on her way to work and started discussing the need for support for the Issei who were mostly monolingual and did not have access to bilingual or bicultural services.

In 1970, they gathered around 10 Sansei to form Kimochi as a nonprofit and met out of the Kimochi Lounge, a drop-in center space Nakajo secured in the Kinokuniya Building that continues to operate to this day. They were officially incorporated as a nonprofit in 1971.

“It was Steve’s idea to name it Kimochi, and the reason of course, obviously, the meaning for kimochi is ‘feelings,’ and there’s very special feelings between grandchildren and grandparents,” Mori, who was also inspired to help seniors because of her relationship to her grandparents, said.

Kimochi and its drop-in center did not offer any kind of strict program. Nakajo said he would sit the Issei elders down, serve them tea and ask what they needed, whether it was glasses, social security or transportation. The service even helped elders move into a new home or apartment if they asked and Nakajo would personally pick up and drive seniors around in his ‘61 Volkswagen Beetle.

While Kimochi worked with students from San Francisco State in their early days to develop and staff its programs, many of them started dropping out as they graduated and Nakajo realized they needed funding to pay for staff. With Mori on the founding board of directors, Kimochi hired Nakajo and the late June Ikemoto as co-executive directors after its incorporation in 1971. Together they applied for funding through the Older Americans Act and started a nutrition program that served seniors culturally-sensitive meals. Nakajo, however, said his push to fund programs through the government didn’t mesh with some activists when many Japanese Americans and activists did not trust the government from years of abuse.

“But it funds our home meal delivery, it funds the guy that drives it. It funds the gas. …. You know what I mean?” he said. “My argument became, ‘What fricking difference does it make,’ I remember using the line, ‘If they want me to dance, I’ll dance. They want me to sing, I’m gonna sing. I don’t give an ‘f’ as long as I’m taking that money, hiring my people, have my gas account, have G & G Produce be my produce. You know what I’m saying? Putting it back in the community.”

Convincing the government to fund Kimochi’s nutrition program, however, was also a challenge. Mori said she had to explain to the state government that Japanese food staples such as miso and rice are healthy, and above all, preferred by Nikkei seniors over Western meals featuring hamburgers and french fries. Starting the service, however, did not mean Issei immediately came out to Kimochi’s meal programs either.

LUNCH IS SERVED — Lunch program at the JCCCNC in San Francisco’s Japantown. courtesy of Kimochi

Nakajo said some seniors felt embarrassed lining up for a meal, and Mori said some Issei even started pressuring fellow seniors who came to eat to make a donation for the food.

“The person who comes to get the meal, they do not have to make a donation. They can if they want to, and our suggested donation is $1 or whatever it is for that year, but they don’t have to, because … anybody over the age of 60 is entitled to one good nutritious meal a day, and that’s the federal government’s commitment to seniors,” Mori said. “And so we had to explain to the Issei that you can’t pressure your fellow Issei to make a donation if they don’t want to make a donation. … Because the Issei, they feel like everybody should give something, and some Issei, they were very poor, they just barely made paying their rent.”

As the nutrition program started in the Konko Church of San Francisco, Steve Ishii also joined Kimochi as a volunteer 47 years ago. Ishii grew up in the Japantown neighborhood and was practicing aikido out of the church when he met Nakajo. Since promoted to executive director in 2016 after Nakajo retired, Ishii has spent most of his tenure at the nonprofit’s nutrition program.

“It was probably the first time I’ve seen a real heartfelt interaction between the Issei and Sansei,” Ishii said.

“The fact that the Sansei … assisting (seniors) onto the van, assisting with going down stairs, taking them to doctor’s appointments and just having this nice, friendly, heartwarming conversation with a lot of laughing, a lot of smiles, hand holding — that was something that you didn’t quite see that much of.”

Ishii helped oversee the nutrition program, including its weekend and holiday meals program, which Mori said was one of the most important aspects of the nutrition program. The extended meals program, however, was reduced to weekday lunches years ago due to government funding cuts. Still, Ishii outlined the meals were not only meant to nourish seniors with a healthy meal, but social interaction through either the congregate dining program or the home-delivered meals.

“A very important piece of it all is the social interaction that comes with it. For home delivered meals, our staff may be the only person the client sees in a day,” Ishii said.

Beyond the nutrition and social services, however, Kimochi also offers a continuum of care for seniors, Mori added. The program established Kimochi Home in 1983, a 20-unit assisted living community and senior day care. The organization then expanded southward into the peninsula by opening Kimochi San Mateo in 2016, a 14-unit residential care facility. Mori helped with raising the money necessary to develop both projects.

“The two big issues that we’ve promoted throughout Kimochi through all these years: one is to own the property, … and we should go where the need is,” Mori said. “So that’s why we eventually went to San Mateo, because there’s a big population of Japanese speaking people in San Mateo.”

The volunteers and families have both benefited from the residential services.

Ann Ohsawa said her mother was one of the first residents at Kimochi San Mateo when it opened.

“For the right situation, I’m like 100% thinking that it was everything that it said it would be when I was volunteering in the capital campaign committee. It was to create a residential care facility for seniors that were interested in, and being taken care of in the Japanese kind of way,” Ohsawa said.

Ohsawa’s mother lived in Los Angeles near her brother, but a head injury required her to move into a residential care facility. She had tried a number of homes, but her mother hated all of them until she moved to

Kimochi San Mateo. At the end of her mother’s life, Ohsawa said she suffered a stroke during the pandemic and she was faced with needing to find hospice care for her since Kimochi San Mateo was not licensed for it.

Ohsawa, however, said she wanted her and her brother to be with her mother at the end of her life. Many hospice care facilities refused to allow that due to pandemic restrictions.

Ohsawa asked if Kimochi could apply for hospice eligibility and allow her to stay with her mother in her room during her final days, and Kimochi agreed and got emergency eligibility.

“That was really, to me, above the call of what they had to do for us, and they did it. I mean, they’re always open to suggestions and trying to find a way to make it happen,” she said.

Linda Ishii, director of residential services, said the facility is now licensed for hospice care and Ohsawa’s mother spurred the organization to apply.

“At some point, we knew that we would be applying for a hospice waiver, and so as our first group of residents aged, it became apparent that we needed to make that step and to get that hospice waiver. So the timing was great for Ann, to be able to spend more time with her mother, even during the pandemic,” Linda Ishii said.

In San Francisco, the pandemic also rocked the organization’s volunteer base as the organization had to pivot to conducting its programs using only staff while its several dozen volunteers were asked to stay home as the world locked down. Ishii noted it was particularly a challenge as their meals program went from serving 400 meals a day to 800 during the pandemic.

“Staff stepped it up. They went ahead and restructured, because everything was take-out. So we had, not only lunch nutrition staff there, but we had other staff to come in and offset the loss of the volunteers,” Ishii said.

“So it was doable, but if we didn’t have the staff, the staff support and all of that, it would have been a rough, rough program to serve.”

Kimochi Home’s adult day care program recently restarted and two long-time volunteers have also returned to help. Shizuko Ikeda and Shizue Mortensen joined Kimochi’s team of volunteers at Kimochi Home 19 years ago when they retired from their jobs as hairstylists in San Francisco. Ikeda, who owned a salon on Chestnut Street, said she had a customer who also worked as a caregiver at Kimochi who encouraged her and Mortensen to volunteer after they retired.

“She would bring us customers every week and she would ask, ‘When are you retiring?’” Ikeda said in Japanese. “And when I said ‘I am,’ she told me to come over as soon as I could. I didn’t have anything else planned and it was something to do to keep active.”

Today, she and Mortensen volunteer on a limited basis. Mortensen said she loves volunteering to play games with seniors and help them with art projects. She said she will continue volunteering as long as she can. She is now 87 and met a resident at the facility who is 88.

“I like the people who work over there. I like the ladies and gentlemen who (are) there. And it’s a comfort to me too. I have somebody to keep me company, and I keep their company, so it’s vice versa,” Moretensen said.

While the Issei have since passed on, along with many Nisei, Linda Ishii said rather than seeing Sansei residents, she has seen older Nisei use the nonprofit’s services. Her latest resident in San Mateo was 103 years old and many are in their 90s. She said the shift in demographics are due to seniors living longer and being healthier as well as many seniors feeling they do not need the services.

Mori said part of the challenge today is convincing Sansei that Kimochi offers services rather than charity.

“I’m trying to get the Sansei to come to the nutrition site, and the Sansei, their excuse is, ‘I don’t have to go to a nutrition site, I could pay my own lunch at a Japanese restaurant.’ I say that’s fine, but you’re 60 now, you’re entitled to a lunch, a Japanese lunch. And so I said, please support Kimochi, because if the department feels that there’s no need for this in the Japanese community, they’re gonna cut our budget back, because they’re saying, ‘Oh, you Japanese, you don’t need this program, because no one’s coming.’ So that’s what we have to explain to everybody and how it works and how it can negatively affect us if you don’t use the service.”

Mori said she relied on the services herself and got home-delivered meals while recovering from a knee surgery and a longtime chairman of the board, Shoji Horikoshi, used the transportation services to get to his medical appointments.

“He said, ‘Oh, I can use this?’

And I said, ‘Yes, you can,’” Mori said.

And while Kimochi is based on Japanese American community activists serving their elders, Mori and Nakajo recognize their services also reach other Asian seniors, especially those living in and around the Japantown area. In recent years, many Korean and Chinese seniors have also lined up for congregate meals at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California. Nakajo said the “gohan factor is huge” and that non-Japanese Asian seniors recognize the value of Kimochi’s lunches as well.

Mori also said Kimochi began reaching out to Korean seniors in the Western Addition by hiring a Korean-speaking social worker.

“We created a Korean-speaking social worker position, who to this day works with us, and she reaches out to the Korean speaking seniors, and she provides all the different support services that they need. So the Korean seniors, a lot of them come here for services, including the nutrition program or home delivered meals,” Mori said.

That the organization also serves non-Nikkei seniors, has also caused friction in the past, Mori said.

“We had issues with some of the Nisei where they did not want to support the nutrition program because we also allowed seniors who are Chinese and other ethnic groups, and I said, ‘What are you talking about? You can’t discriminate against anybody coming into a federally funded program,’ and besides that, ‘You’ve gone through discrimination yourself, why would you want to discriminate against other people?’” Mori said.

Still Nakajo said the troubles have been minimal and the program has maintained a “positive atmosphere for more than 30 years.”

“It’s amazing to put that many people in one place,” Nakajo said.

Steve Ishii has also noticed that Sansei are more resourceful with technology and gathering their own information. Thus, he said older Sansei look for more recreational and social programming in addition to Kimochi’s core services. Still, he feels the quality of Kimochi’s services continue to shine.

“The reason why we’re so popular, for lack of a better term, is because of the help that we provided a senior or a family member,” Ishii said. “We must have touched the life and the heart of that senior or family members, for family members to go ahead and talk about Kimochi, to refer Kimochi, to be a supporter of Kimochi. That is probably one of the best feelings that I could have. I know it was always something very strong that Steve and Sandy had always emphasized and appreciated. That meant the world to them. It means the world to me.”

While Mori retired from her position as development director in 2010 and Nakajo retired from being executive director in 2016, the two remain an institution at Kimochi. During the organization’s Oct. 21 50th anniversary celebration at Pa‘ina Restaurant in Japantown, the two were honored and presented with a bobblehead of each other, as well as a trip to Hawai‘i.

“You guys worked so hard and close to each other, we thought you might miss each other, so we made bobble heads for you to keep very close,” Steve Ishii said.

For more information call (415) 931-2294, or visit https://kimochi-inc.org. For those interested in Kimochi Home or Kimochi San Mateo call Linda Ishii at (415) 922-9972.

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