By KAREN KIYO LOWHURST
One of the reasons I jumped at the opportunity to become a board member, and later, a co-president, of the Berkeley Chapter of the JACL is that I wanted to find a way to support our Nisei and greater elder community.
This desire has been rewarded on many fronts: I learned about and now support J-Sei, I have met and spent time with some residents of the Wagaya living community, and I have observed our board direct funds to various worthy senior support organizations both in and outside the Japanese American community.
Part of my own deeply held identity as a Yonsei has always been rooted in the core value of caring for our elders. I observe this in my own family and in the families of my close JA friends. To me, this says that we are a culture of honor and integrity. Of sacrifice and loyalty. It is one of the reasons I am so proud of my Japanese American identity.
It was against this background that I was so disturbed to learn of the recent death of Mr. Dennis Eimoto, 73, a Berkeley native and graduate of Berkeley High School in the 1960s.
According to an article published on Nov. 20, 2020 in Berkeleyside, Mr. Eimoto worked for BART for about 25 years, as an operator, until 2008. Mr. Eimoto also worked as a fishery biologist for the State of California Department of Fish and Game (now known as the Department of Fish and Wildlife). He lived on the 1700 block of Eighth Street in northwest Berkeley, in the home he grew up in and which he inherited from his late parents.
Though he was known to behave eccentrically at times, Mr. Eimoto was known and well-liked by his neighbors, all of whom appear to not be Japanese American. They characterized him as talkative and friendly, with an impeccable sense of style. Mr. Eimoto was reported by one neighbor as periodically catching large tuna and gifting pieces of the coveted fish to the appreciative neighbors. He frequented the North Berkeley Senior Center.
Still, at times, Mr. Eimoto showed clear signs that he needed support. Neighbors were aware that he appeared to have mental health problems, and at times would have “bad days” involving “screaming fits,” only to later apologize. He was heard talking to himself from time to time. One neighbor observed that Mr. Eimoto experienced a decline about a decade ago, one that made it difficult for them to keep up with his “rambling thoughts”: “At some point, he changed. He just couldn’t have a relationship with his neighbors. He just kind of lost his way.”
In 2018, Mr. Eimoto’s home caught fire, and he lost his pet dog in the fire. It seems that the dog was Mr. Eimoto’s sole daily companion. A neighbor reported to Berkeleyside that Mr. Eimoto would often talk about his dog thereafter.
For unknown reasons, Mr. Eimoto’s home was never renovated after the 2018 fire. A Jan. 30, 2018 article in The Daily Californian reported that the total damage to Mr. Eimoto’s home in 2018 was $250,000. However the home, a historic and large home with architecturally significant details, appears to have been worth well in excess of a million dollars in 2018.
Berkeleyside reported that Steven Riggs, Berkeley Fire Department acting fire marshal, stated that there were many overlapping “burn scars” on the house, making it difficult for authorities to even distinguish between 2018 and 2020 fire damage.
Though the home had been red-tagged and identified by the city as “completely uninhabitable,” it appears that nothing was done to help Mr. Eimoto bring his home to habitability. It appears he lived there the next two years with only periodic utilities and using a camp stove for heat and cooking. Neighbors believe he was fearful of being forced from his home by authorities, and for that reason he may have resisted efforts ‑ if any there were — to help him into a safe and comfortable environment.
For this reason, some neighbors believed that Mr. Eimoto’s death by home fire was “inevitable.”
On the night Mr. Eimoto’s house caught fire last month, his next door neighbor “prayed that he wasn’t there.” Since that time, it has been confirmed that Mr. Eimoto perished in the fire.
Clear mental health issues.
Over the course of a decade.
In plain sight.
How can this happen?
The Berkeley JACL is first and foremost a civil rights organization. However, we are also deeply committed to supporting our JA community, especially our elders. I do not have words adequate to describe the distress I feel when I realize the series of community failures that led to the “inevitable” death of Mr. Eimoto, someone who had more life to live and more to contribute to our community. Available public records show that he had outlived his family.
His neighbors could have intervened and helped him raise the funds to repair his home to habitability, perhaps obtaining an equity loan or via a Go Fund Me. The city could have gotten involved in providing mental health services to Mr. Eimoto. Our JACL chapter could have connected him to J-Sei, where he would have received meal delivery, JA socializing opportunities, and fellowship. Social services could have facilitated the reconnection of safe utilities for his home. One of the neighbors could have taken him to the Berkeley SPCA for a new dog.
The opportunities, large and small, were endless. And perhaps, in the end, he would have refused. But was enough done to try?
If you become aware of a senior in need, please let our chapter know. We are prepared to support both our Nisei elders, our JA elders at large, and our broader community in need. It is at the very core of our mission.