Yu-Ai Kai reflects upon 50 years of meeting community needs

Yu-Ai Kai Japanese American Senior Service of San Jose staff photo from 2019. courtesy of Yu-Ai Kai Japanese American Senior Service of San Jose

Rooted in the community’s needs, Yu-Ai Kai Japanese American Senior Service of San Jose grew out of a collective effort of politically conscious Sansei students joining forces with the Nisei to establish an organization that cared for the aging Issei.

Fifty years on from founding the Japanese American Community Senior Service of San Jose, the organization now known as Yu-Ai Kai serves as a cornerstone of San Jose’s Japantown.

The organization principally serves as a senior center, offering exercise and cultural programs, an adult day care service, congregate dining and support groups for caregivers. It also offers transportation services and meal delivery for homebound seniors in the San Jose area.

However, the nonprofit’s impact reaches beyond their two buildings in San Jose’s Japantown, as the organization has become a vital partner for the neighborhood.

Key Community Player
Jennifer Masuda, executive director of Yu-Ai Kai, said community partnerships will strengthen the organization into its future. Beyond their central mission, Yu-Ai Kai hosts several key events for the San Jose Japantown community, including their annual Japantown Fun Run, which started in 1985 and now attracts some 500 people each year, or their annual mochitsuki, which employs hundreds of volunteers to pound and package rice cakes for the new year.

“This past November, … we did the curry cook off, and that was a benefit to Yu-Ai Kai and Nikkei Matsuri Foundation,” Masuda said. “That was actually an event that was put on by the two churches in San Jose (the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin and the Wesley United Methodist Church) … coming together to do a benefit. So that’s pretty exciting.”

Community leaders, such as Pam Yoshida and Ryan Kawamoto, Japantown Community Congress of San Jose co-presidents, said the organization has impacted the greater region and community both.

“With the exponential growth of the older adult population and what I believe is an ongoing need for more opportunities to further build community, Yu-Ai Kai is so essential to the health of not only San Jose Japantown but to the larger Bay Area community as a whole,” Ryan Kawamoto, the previous executive director of Yu-Ai Kai, told the Nichi Bei News. “I currently am the co-president of the Japantown Community Congress of San Jose — and so from my vantage point, Yu-Ai Kai is so critical for the future and vibrancy for the entire community.”

Yoshida meanwhile has been participating in activities since she turned 50, starting with yoga classes. She appreciated Yu-Ai Kai’s efforts to serve “young active seniors.”

She also takes part in their monthly dine-out programs to support local restaurants and has been attending the annual mochitsuki at the end of the year.

“Because Yu-Ai Kai is not affiliated with the church, it’s kind of a place where people from the difference churches, who don’t normally do a lot of mixing, at least historically, started to get to know each other,” Jane Kawasaki, the organization’s board president, told the Nichi Bei News. “Yu-Ai Kai is one of those places where people from both churches and people who don’t go to church at all can come, and it’s a welcoming environment. We don’t discriminate against anybody, and we don’t have any doctrines.”

Rooted in 1970s Activism
That spirit of partnership bridging the Buddhists and the Methodists on Jackson Street came from the organization’s early days as a collective of young Sansei activists coming out of San Jose State University to join forces with Nisei community members. Started in 1970, Asians for Community Action strove to put into action what Sansei students learned from ethnic studies.

THE EARLY YEARS — Seniors in front of Yu-Ai Kai’s first home: Issei Memorial Building on N. 5th St. (1974-1993, with a few years in the interim facilities during Issei Memorial Bldg. renovation in the late 1970s to early 1980s). courtesy of Yu-Ai Kai Japanese American Senior Service of San Jose

Dan and Chris Kubo, two former members of the ACA, said the group developed the “Issei Project,” a program that started organizing.

The ACA’s program aimed to serve the Issei in the community through crafting and cultural activities at a day program held at the Leininger Center in Kelley Park.

Additionally, the ACA started the annual mochitsuki fundraiser, which they held from 1971 to 1973.

As many of the Sansei left as they graduated from college, however, the larger Japantown community assumed control. The Kubos got married and moved back to Dan Kubo’s hometown of Cortez, Calif. in 1974. Before the ACA completely dissolved, however, they left the fledgling community organization with some $2,000 from its mochitsuki fundraisers.

“I mean, you think that’s nothing in terms of the current type of financing that you would see, but at that time, to have that much that we’re just going to say ‘OK, here’s the money. Use this,’ in 1973, that was a big deal,” Chris Kubo said. “And people were so willing to put in time and energy into organizing activities, and making sure that the Issei and elderly were being taken care of, that it was very heartwarming, and reassuring to know that somebody was going to do this and we could leave it in good hands. But we never imagined that it would last 50 years, more than 50 years.”

Artie Tadashi Kameda first called on community organizations to help form the organization, according to Chris Kubo. She went on to say the bank managers from the three Japanese-affiliated banks, lawyers and social workers joined the initial meeting and the organization came together pretty quickly thanks to their expertise.

Representatives, meanwhile, came from all across the community. They came from the majority Japanese American churches in the area, the veterans’ organization, the gardeners’ association, the Japanese American Citizens League and even the Nisei Ski Club.

“There were a lot of organizations that came together, existing organizations and young people organizations that formed Yu-Ai Kai, so the board was a mixture of representatives from all of those organizations. So when I joined, it was a huge board. I think there were like 30 people in the boardroom, and we would have meetings until late at night with lots of discussions, different opinions from people of different generations, but trying to figure out what should Yu-Ai Kai do?” Kawasaki, who first joined the board in the 1980s, said.

Risky Expansion
After its initial formation, the organization held its program and activities at the Japantown churches and at the Issei Memorial Building, but the organization outgrew those spaces by the end of the 1980s. While the organization had secured a grant from the California State Senior Center Bond Act Program and purchased the land to build on, the organization did not have enough money to build the senior center.

Tom Izu, who worked at the organization in the 1980s helping to raise funds for the new building, said it got “pretty scary” as the state started to threaten to take their grant back if Yu-Ai Kai did not start building. According to Izu, however, the organization took a lesson from the 1989 film “Field of Dreams.”

“Akira Kamiya was a Nisei, he said, ‘Look Tom, we should just start building, even if we don’t have enough money. You start building it, and then people will donate.’ … Like ‘Field of Dreams’ with Kevin Costner, ‘If you build it, they will come.’”

According to Kawasaki and many other longtime-leaders, Kamiya was a founding member of Yu-Ai Kai and set the direction and tone of the board.

And the money did come, as Izu, as an executive director with no formal experience in construction or development, took the helm to secure additional funds and help from the San Jose community, including the three Japanese-affiliated banks in the community. Union Bank (now U.S. Bank), Sanwa Bank and Sumitomo Bank loaned the organization $500,000 to finish construction with several community members signed on as guarantors.

“We had to approach these people to sign these documents, and all of them did, which was kind of amazing,” Izu said. “It really was because they knew this was about the community, and they all supported the community. Everybody had faith in the community. This is something needed, so we’re going to do it. So that’s what happened.”

Izu left the organization in 1994, a year after the new headquarters building opened in 1993, citing he was “exhausted” by the building campaign and missing out on spending time with his first child born in 1992. Kawasaki noted the organization paid off the loan in 1997.

Into the New Millennium
Yu-Ai Kai continued to grow after the headquarters building opened. According to various executive directors who oversaw the organization over the last two decades, it now has a budget of around $2 million, though they had some lean years during the 2008 financial crisis. One of the biggest expansions for the organization, however, was opening the Akiyama Wellness Center around the corner from their headquarters in 2010.

The project was the “baby” of Wesley Mukoyama, a longtime Nisei-han board member, who had been involved since the 1980s. Mukoyama retired from his job as a social worker in 2002 and left the board to join Yu-Ai Kai as its executive director in 2003. During his tenure, he partnered with the Boys & Girls Club of Santa Clara Valley to renovate their building to create an intergenerational program with them.

While the partnership fizzled and the Boys & Girls Club vacated their building, Mukoyama raised the funds necessary to extensively renovate the aging facility into the facility named after Dr. Hajime James Akiyama, who left a portion of his estate to Yu-Ai Kai after he passed in 2007. Mukoyama oversaw the $1.3 million renovation project and secured a 15-year lease with the city of San Jose for $12 a month.

“I think it was a good deal,” he said with a chuckle.

Masuda and Kawasaki said the lease, which expired last year, is now being renegotiated. Kawasaki said San Jose had not been ready to negotiate with Yu-Ai Kai up until recently.

“And once we have that solidified, then we will be looking at what we want to be able to do to develop that property to provide more activities and more services, both for Yu-Ai Kai and the community. And we want to work with other organizations within Japantown to make this development something that is beneficial to the entire community,” Kawasaki said.

Mukoyama retired as executive director in 2009, about a year before the Akiyama Center formally opened, but he was proud to see the organization continue on and said the new building provides a valuable addition to Yu-Ai Kai’s services. “I think it was a good division, because a lot of people … felt uncomfortable seeing much older seniors in the daycare. The third floor, they had some nice programs, but they needed more activity kinds of things,” Mukoyama said.

The Akiyama Wellness Center houses exercise classes, such as zumba and other activities that attract younger more active seniors, an important goal, as Kawasaki noted many Sansei seniors have said they want to support Yu-Ai Kai for “when they need it,” although they are already within the age bracket the organization serves.

“We did a survey of our members last year asking about participation and what kinds of things they would be interested in doing. And a number of people, …

‘want Yu-Ai Kai to be here when I need it.’ And then I ask how old they are, and they’re in their 70s.” Kawasaki said. “’When do you think you’ll need Yu-Ai Kai services?’ ‘Oh, well maybe in five or 10 years’ but I think what we’re trying to do is with some of the new activities and things that we have is to have activities that people in their 60s and 70s want to participate in.”

Services Today
While Mukoyama is now retired, he remains a volunteer and facilitates the caregiver support group he helped start in 2003. The groups, which meet in both English and Japanese, help caregivers who are caring for aging parents.

“We know statistically, that the best programs for seniors, particularly with dementia and difficulties in caregiving, and for the family caregivers, is the daycare center, which provides respite for the caregivers and also a caregiver support group, which has the biggest takeaway that, ‘you’re not alone,’” Mukoyama said. “There are other people who will do the same thing. We do know that 75% of caregivers will become depressed one time or another. We even had a suicide amongst the caregivers. So it is a very stressful situation for caregivers.”

Mukoyama said Japanese Americans often feel a sense of obligation to care for family as a part of their culture and that 53% of Asians serve as a caregiver at some point in their lives, the highest among any group. Combined with the fact that Japanese Americans have some of the highest rates of seniors in the country, Mukoyama said caregiving is a much bigger issue among Japanese Americans than the average American.

Kawasaki, though a board member, also partakes in Yu-Ai Kai’s programs. Her late father relied on the organization’s transportation services for doctor appointments after he suffered a series of strokes and her mother now attends their daycare services.

“Seeing what my mom was like during the pandemic, and what she’s like now, with the socialization, I personally see the tremendous value of having somewhere to go and having to get dressed every morning, and get out the door,” Kawasaki said. “… I wonder what’s happened to people who are not coming.”

Masuda said her organization was fortunate to have “survived and thrived” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I mistakenly had taken for granted that we made it through and created a solid foundation to move forward. I had this realization that some organizations were not as fortunate and were unable to pivot during a very challenging time. Our success is based on the support of all levels of government, the San Jose Japantown community, and our generous donors,” she said in an e-mail.

Masuda said some seniors who formerly attended congregate dining have continued with the Meals on Wheels delivery services since the pandemic began. To Masuda, the biggest challenge her organization currently faces is transportation for seniors, citing the pandemic has left many seniors isolated.

“I think many of them have decided to not drive anymore, some are now homebound and we know this for a fact because we did see an increase in our Meals on Wheels Services. But transport is huge, and transportation is also very expensive,” she said.

Masuda knows full well what it’s like to be a driver for the organization, as she initially began working for Yu-Ai Kai as a substitute driver in 2011 while caring for her grandmother who relied on the nonprofit’s services. And Masuda is not the only leader within the organization who has both relied on and worked for the nonprofit. Former executive directors such as Tom Izu also started as an employee before becoming executive director.

Still, the organization at 50 years is continuing on with various programs it has built up over the years. The pandemic has expanded the organization’s reach nationally as hybrid programs have participants logging in from out of state, while a more diverse local community has brought non-Japanese American seniors into the organization.

Kawasaki added that she and Izu, along with other Sansei, have started a lecture series at Yu-Ai Kai to invite Sansei to reconnect with the Japanese American community. On top of the new programs, however, older programs also persist, which Sophie Horiuchi-Forrester, who oversaw the Akiyama Center open in 2010 after Mukoyama retired, said she was glad to see the continue, such as the Healthy Aging Initiative and Kenko Living Series programming.

To acknowledge all of this, the organization is planning its 50th anniversary Golden Gala on March 16 at the Signia by Hilton San Jose. Mukoyama is among those who will be honored there, along with other community leaders and organizations.

“It’s going to be a special gala. I mean, because this is the 50th year,” Masuda said. “But as galas go, we probably will not have another gala for a while too.”

For more information on Yu-Ai Kai’s services, visit http://www.yuaikai.org or call (408) 294-2505. To purchase a ticket to the gala, visit https://www.eventbrite.com/e/yu-ai-kai-50th-anniversary-golden-gala-tickets-781073530957. Ticket sales end March 1.

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