Yu-Ai Kai recognizes a community effort during gala

(Left to Right): Jennifer Masuda, Yu-Ai Kai’s executive director, with Ray and Lucy Matsumoto Community Award winners PJ and Roy Hirabayashi and Board Secretary Tadashi Oguchi. photo by Scott Nakajima Photography

SAN JOSE ­— Yu-Ai Kai celebrated its half-century milestone with a 50th anniversary Golden Gala at the Signia by Hilton hotel in San Jose March 16. San Jose Taiko started the dinner off with a bang, ushering the some 500 guests into the Imperial Ballroom.

While the attendees were there to wine and dine to raise money for the senior service nonprofit, the evening emphasized the spirit of “friendship” and “love” the organization’s name embodies through its recognition of community members who have supported the organization for decades.

The evening’s program, emceed by NBC Bay Area’s Weekday Morning Traffic Anchor Mike Inouye, featured an entourage of speakers including Rep. Zoe Lofgren, state Sen. Dave Cortese, Assemblyman Ash Kalra, Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez, San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan and a toast by Consul General of Japan in San Francisco Yo Osumi. Along with San Jose Taiko, the Kawailehua Hula Ohana performed a Tahitian dance while Jon Yamasato and Herb Ohta Jr. performed an ‘ukulele duet at the end of the evening.

The event also reflected on and recognized a number of community members, starting with Rich Saito, “Mr. Japantown,” who passed away two days prior on March 14. Yu-Ai Kai also dedicated their gala to Ray Matsumoto and his late wife Lucy Matsumoto, to recognize their decades of philanthropy, benefitting San Jose Japantown. Matsumoto in turn expressed how the organization’s staff, volunteers and donors have come together to make the organization what it is.

“In 2023, over 20,000 meals were served. And over 2,000 boxes of food distributed. Over 9,000 hours were designed for senior daycare and different programs,” Matsumoto said. “There was almost 12,000 hours of volunteers. … Yu-Ai Kai’s budget is over $1.8 million. … 40 percent of the funding comes from you people out there. Where does the other 60% come from? Jennifer (Masuda, Yu-Ai Kai’s executive director) and her staff have to go through the county, the city, to different organizations, foundations, to get money.”

The evening celebrated the organization with an update from Masuda on the organization’s ongoing efforts, including new plans to be implemented thanks to an in-depth survey the organization conducted, which sought to improve communications, programming and parking.

Akira Kamiya Spirit of Yu-Ai Kai Awardee Wesley Mukoyama. photo by Scott Nakajima Photography

The gala also recognized community members and organizations for their support of Yu-Ai Kai and the larger San Jose Japantown community. Wesley Mukoyama, a former board member and executive director of the organization, received the Akira Kamiya Spirit of Yu-Ai Kai Award, named after an early organization leader who was instrumental in building the nonprofit’s headquarters building.

Mukoyama, a social worker who had been country director for the Peace Corp. for the Solomon Islands during its turn of the century civil war, said Yu-Ai Kai was his opportunity to work for his own community.

“Actually, Yu-Ai Kai was my last paying job. I didn’t make much money … it’s a very difficult job, but I loved it. Why? Because … finally, I could work in my own community, the Japanese American community, and that was the apex of my career, to work for my own people. And I’m so grateful that I did that,” Mukoyama said.

The nonprofit also presented the Kay Shimizu Memorial Award to the San Jose Lions Foundation, the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin and the Wesley United Methodist Church for their philanthropy, humanitarianism and “genuine dedication to the community, especially in support of Yu-Ai Kai,” according to board member Penny Kyler.

The San Jose Lions Foundation, founded in 2011, has provided volunteer tax-preparation services to seniors at Yu-Ai Kai, as well as manpower for meal distribution through Meals on Wheels and support for other organizations.

“This award is a testament to their unwavering passion and dedication. These are members who consistently devote themselves to create a positive impact within the Japantown community. As we celebrate this momentous occasion of Yu-Ai Kai’s 50th Anniversary, let us embrace their collaboration, endurance and stewardship that defines Japantown. We remain steadfast in our commitment to ongoing service and volunteerism,” said Tim Huynh, president of the Lions chapter.

The Betsuin, meanwhile had been a spiritual and cultural center for the San Jose Japanese American community and host to various Yu-Ai Kai affiliated events including various fundraisers, such as the annual mochitsuki. Similarly, Wesley United Methodist Church has served as a site for the annual bonenkai as well as hosting Yu-Ai Kai’s congregate meals program from 1978 to 1994.

Finally, the nonprofit recognized Roy and PJ Hirabayashi with the Ray and Lucy Matsumoto Community Award for their work in Japanese American culture and heritage. The co-founder of San Jose Taiko and founder of Taiko Peace respectively, two cultural pioneers, who started around the same time as Yu-Ai Kai, said they never imagined the student initiatives started out of ethnic studies would grow to become the organization it is today, similar to how Roy Hirabayashi never expected San Jose Taiko to become his lifelong work and passion. PJ Hirabayashi meanwhile also said the organization lauding her during its 50th anniversary brings things “full circle” as she said she takes her own 99-year-old mother to partake in the organization’s services.

While the evening dedicated itself to the volunteers and San Jose community the organization served, their honorees in turn proved that Yu-Ai Kai was just as deserving of recognition in celebrating its 50 years.

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