Above and below: Kansha Obon participants dance in the plaza outside the Japanese American National Museum.

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

The Save Our Seniors Network presented Kansha Obon 2 — a rally and community celebration in support of residents of the former Keiro facilities — outside the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo on Aug. 7.

SOS has been holding a series of rallies to stop the eviction of residents from the Sakura Intermediate Care Facility in Boyle Heights. The owner, Pacifica Companies, plans to tear down the ICF and replace it with market-rate housing. SOS has also drawn attention to the deaths of 125 residents at the Kei-Ai nursing homes in Lincoln Heights and Gardena due to COVID.

“Kansha” means gratitude and the goal of the event was to thank those who have supported the seniors. Although not an official Buddhist event, this Obon was intended to honor everyone’s ancestors.

David Monkawa of SOS urged everyone in attendance to sign a petition demanding that the ICF residents be allowed to move to the assisted living facility on the Boyle Heights campus rather than being forced to find other facilities.

Attendees were also asked to support AB 279, introduced by Assemblymembers Al Muratsuchi and Miguel Santiago, which would restore the original conditions of sale that the state imposed when Pacifica bought the Keiro facilities. Pacifica promised to maintain culturally sensitive care for five years.

The passage of AB 279 would “ensure that the residents get at least another year … We’re cautiously optimistic and working hard to get the … votes from the state senators,” Monkawa said.

He stressed the need for adequate alternative facilities for residents who leave the ICF. “Outrageously, they listed Kei-Ai (the former Keiro Nursing Home in Lincoln Heights) as an alternative. Well, they had the worst COVID death rate west of the Mississippi. Kei-Ai is again accepting COVID patients before fixing any past problems. The death rate now is a staggering 125 between L.A. and South Bay.”

Announcing that another protest would be held on Aug. 13 outside the ICF, Monkawa said, “The spirit of the residents and their families to resist evictions and fight back has been remarkable, and we’re really proud of you.”

David Monkawa spoke on behalf of Save Our Seniors.

The program was emceed by actress and activist Tamlyn Tomita, a long-time supporter of SOS and other community causes. She introduced several speakers who gave messages of support.

Support from Mayor

Mayor Eric Garcetti, who has been appointed by President Biden as the next U.S. ambassador to India, recalled visiting Japan as an exchange student. “Ever since, my Japanese host family and I have kept in touch and I’ve always seen the close ties between not only Los Angeles and Japan, but more importantly, the Japanese Americans that were here and have been here. My family was part of making Manzanar a national monument, and also my mother recently told me about taking in a young Japanese American girl when her parents were interned … a story I had never heard before.”

He noted that some of those who were put in camps during World War II are now the senior residents that SOS is fighting for.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti

“I’m proud that we are a city that fought for seniors, the first city to mandate testing at senior care facilities, the first city to make sure that that was published publicly so that families could come in and workers could be protected, and our seniors lives could be saved,” Garcetti said. “When we saw everything that was taking our loved ones. I promise you, Los Angeles will be the first city in this country to get boosters to our seniors as soon as they are authorized …

“This pandemic was so hard for all of us, but especially for our seniors. It’s why we mobilized over 12,000 meals to deliver to our homebound seniors and why we worked so hard to get our vaccines for older Angelenos … Please get vaccinated; it will keep you from dying. I had to talk to a widower today of a police officer who died. She died just two days ago …

“On a happier note … thank you for the opportunity to represent you for these eight years. When I had the invitation to come here to Little Tokyo, I wanted to not only pay respect to our seniors, but to this amazing community.”

ICF Family Council

Speaking on behalf of the Sakura ICF Family Council was Kensaku Nakayama, who was joined by other council members.

“There were about 80 residents living there in late December of last year, and that number has declined to, at last count, seven,” he said. “So all of these seniors have now been relocated, evicted, call it what you want. But they are no longer, for the most part, receiving culturally sensitive, Japanese language-based care, unfortunately, at their new facilities … I think this is a issue that we’re going to see again with the other Pacifica-owned facilities, so we have to be vigilant as a community to make sure that these other facilities are maintaining their culturally sensitive care.”

Kensaku Nakayama spoke for the ICF Family Council.

Nakayama added, “You’ve all heard the troubling news that Kei-Ai L.A. is continuing to accept COVID patients … So this is a continuing concern, of course, for many in the Japanese American community. Please stand with us.”

State Sen. Maria Elena Durazo, who as a labor leader worked with Monkawa to fight for unionization of workers at the New Otani Hotel, recalled, “The struggle went on for many years, but they were supported by this community … The Japanese American community stood with the Latino workers against a Japanese-owned company. Why? Because they wanted to be on the side of justice. They wanted to be on the side of working families. You wanted to be on the side of a healthy community …

“We never gave up, so those workers won what they deserved — retirement and healthcare and good wages and democracy. So I just want to say the struggle now in Boyle Heights for Japanese American seniors is everybody’s struggle. It is our struggle and is my struggle … It is so disappointing and cold-hearted that Pacifica is trying to evict seniors … Pacifica, they brag that they have a proven track record to generate superior returns on their assets. You know what that means? That means maximum profits over people, maximum profits over the well-being of our seniors. Well, they don’t know what they’re facing right now because they haven’t seen the power of our combined communities.”

State Sen. Maria Elena Durazo

Durazo described AB 279 as a temporary measure that “will help until we geta a real fix.”

Former Councilmember Jan Perry, who represented Little Tokyo from 2001 to 2013, recalled attending Nisei Week every year with the late community leader Frances Hashimoto and the late actor and event emcee Rodney Kageyama.

“I have loved little Tokyo for a very, very long time,” she said. “When I was in college, I would shop with my friend whose mother had been in Poston and they lived in Arizona and they couldn’t get certain condiments back in Arizona. And we would go shopping every week to send the food back to her **baachan** … I’ve had many relationships with people that have gone on, and I have danced in many Obons and Nisei Weeks. I can’t say that I was good, but that’s okay …

“But what’s most important is … the protection of elders, the provision of housing, the social services, the institutions that are very well organized to support seniors. It has to continue. It has to remain. It has to grow because people are living longer and we have to take care of them and support them and their families so that they can live their lives as seniors in peace and stability. So I’m happy to sign the petition tonight.”

Interfaith Message

Rev. Ray Fukumoto led a delegation of clergy members who included Ken Nagata, president of the Board of Directors of Rissho Kosei-kai Buddhist Church, and Rev. Eziokwu Washington of West East Community Access-We Can Foundation. Fukumoto also had done a public service announcement that was used to promote the event.

Noting that senior members of Rissho Kosei-kai, located in Boyle Heights, have become residents of the former Keiro facilities and youth members have visited the facilities to cheer up the residents, Nagata thanked everyone for “working so hard to support … the dire needs of our senior citizens.”

Ken Nakata spoke on behalf of Rissho Kosei-kai. At left are Rev. Eziokwu Washington of West East Community Access-We Can Foundation and Rev. Ray Fukumoto.

Washington, who led the audience in chanting “Power to the people,” said, “We’re all brothers and sisters … Our purpose today is celebrate and recognize culture and defending our elders. Whatever it’s going to take, you’re obligated to take that path. Injustice to one is injustice to all.”

“Although Obon is a Buddhist holiday in Japan, it is celebrated by most as a commemoration of the passing of family, friends and loved ones from the previous year to now,” Fukumoto explained. “And now, in that spirit, we’re here today to express our deepest condolences and remembrance is 125 Japanese American elders, lives loss, and our gratitude to the staff that made their last moments as comfortable as possible. The hope is that even as we have opened her eyes to the truth and realities that we are facing in this crisis, and as we stand in solidarity with the residents, we hope others will see us for who we are.

Quilts from the Heart volunteers received a city proclamation.

“That is, we are no more than regular folks who have been pushed to action by the injustices of more deaths, lack of compassion for the staff … and the continued lies fueled by greed. So as we gather here today, we are not here to whine … We want to revive our energies with new beginnings, starting with a dance to the future, where our remaining seniors are safe …

“The true definition of Obon is simply a gathering of joy … to express our hope for the future and gratitude from the past to a mindful present, we are here to show our solidarity just as regular folks who cannot tolerate injustice. So with that in mind … when the time comes to dance shortly, please let’s show our solidary and dance, dance, dance, dance.”

Dr. Nadine Momoyo Diaz and Suzy Watanabe of SOS, on behalf of City Councilmember Kevin de Leon, acknowdged the Quilts from the Heart volunteers for their contributions to the community. The volunteers have been sewing and distributing blankets and masks for the underprivileged and frontline workers.

Mike Sonksen aka “Mike the Poet” and Asian American studies professor Allan Aquino read original poems.

Actor and activist Tamlyn Tomita served as emcee and participated in the dancing.

Nancy Takayama, governor of JACL’s Pacific Southwest District and president of the San Fernando Valley JACL, delivered a statement of support from JACL’s Washington, D.C. office: “The fight against gentrification is happening across the country, and we are in danger of losing our cultural communities in the name of economic development, JACL National joins you in your fight to save the residents … (amid) the rise in cases of the Delta strain and wish to thank everyone who has come out to support our seniors.”

Addressing Pacifica directly, Takayama said, “You have chosen to separate yourself from this community … Shame on you. Where were you during the last five years? Apparently not listening to the residents and families … Otherwise you wouldn’t be dividing this community and spending money to make more money.”

The program included a performance by East L.A. Taiko, led by Maceo Hernandez. Drumming during the Obon dancing was provided by Steve and Robie La of Ryujin Taiko.

The dancing was led by Bev Toyama, Joyce Tomita, Elaine Fukumoto, James Harada and Toru Nagao. For the benefit of those new to Bon odori, the dances were easy to learn, including “Shiawase Samba.”

Many of the participants, who would normally be spending the summer going to Obon festivals every weekend, expressed delight at being able to dance with others again, in many cases for the first time in two years.

Photos by MARIO GERSHOM REYES/Rafu Shimpo

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