By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
As she gazes across the room, her look becomes one of longing. The older Japanese woman she is watching has hair like wisps of snow. She is gently fondling silk handkerchiefs and bric-a-brac with the care of a mother.
“Why did I do it?” said Ruth Kimura, as she returned her gaze to the table in front of her.
Kimura, in her 50s, is the co-chair of the Ayame Kai Arts and Crafts Fair and has been up since dawn for the past several days, baking apple pies and organizing dozens of volunteers. Today she has overseen hundreds of community members crowding the halls of the Blaine Methodist Church, milling around dozens of vendor stands, eating 300 apple pies in less than two hours, and cavorting with other families, chatting and kibitzing.
“Why did I volunteer?” she said. “I didn’t have a community.”
Kimura grew up in West Seattle, far from the Japanese American community.
Her father, a jumpmaster at parachute school and a decorated veteran of the 442nd regiment, retired there from Kentucky.
Until she found Ayame Kai, a Japanese American fundraising club, she felt isolated.
“It’s more than just fundraising,” she said. “They welcome you, and for just 10 dollars, you can join and they give you an apron,” she said.
She was wearing hers, the same as the older woman behind the counter she had been gazing at on the far side of the hall, where she was selling trinkets and handmade silks—anything to remind a passerby of Japanese culture.
Ayame Kai was founded 40 years ago and raises money for Keiro Northwest.
But it’s not clear how much longer it will be around. The nursing home on 1601 Yesler Way was sold on Nov. 21 for $11 million, according to the King County Recorder’s Office.
Now only Nikkei Manor, an assisted living facility, remains. Even that’s uncertain, how long it will run.
Bryce Seidl, interim CEO, wrote in an email, “The reality is that the future of Nikkei Manor is dependent upon being able to establish a sustainable business operation.” This was in response to a question about whether the community would trust the new management given the lack of transparency in the past.
“The future of any enterprise depends upon being able to be economically sustainable over time.”
Seidl committed to being “open and transparent with families and volunteers going forward.”
In the old days, said Kimura, Keiro would present Ayame Kai with a wish list. The volunteers would raise money and pay for things like an extra lift for patients needing help out of bed. Or they would subsidize teaching in adult day care.
But now Kimura realizes the long run of Ayame Kai contributing to Keiro may someday be over.
“We may have to change and take a look at where our money is going,” she said. “There are other places where money can be raised and donated for. There are other elder care places. Those are the things we have to decide,” she said.
Seidl said Keiro is still working with Ayame Kai.
“We continue to work alongside these volunteers on a daily basis, and see them as a key partner in building a better future for assisted living at Nikkei Manor.”
No matter what, Ayame Kai will stay together, Kimura said.
Even the arts and crafts fair, held on Nov. 17, showed how far the group will go for the community.
Hundreds of people showed up from nearly dawn to pack the halls of the church, a traditionally Japanese American community. They waited outside in a line to eat the apple pies and takuan (Japanese pickles) made by the Ayame Kai volunteers.
The day before, about 60 volunteers showed up, according to Kimura’s count, to roll the dough, cut apples, and bake the 300 pies. When they were gone within two hours, she wasn’t surprised. It happens every year.
One community member said a spirit of cohesion still united the community despite the many challenges it has faced now and historically.
“It’s still a community and I’m always impressed that what they always have in common is this solidarity,” said Nikki Louis, board member of the New Mexico Japanese American Citizens League and a professor of creative writing and Asian American literature. Louis grew up in Seattle and was visiting her daughter.
“Demographically, we’re dwindling,” she said, citing intermarriage and dispersal to the suburbs. “Most of us from the Little Tokyos and Japantowns of mid-20th century America don’t live where we grew up anymore.”
“But in New Mexico, in Salt Lake City, Portland, Ontario, many of the communities I’ve worked with, that solidarity is there and now there is a pride in being Japanese American that was not there when I was a child,” she said.
Louis has worked with Japanese American communities as an oral historian, and is also a playwright. Her first play, about the internment of Japanese Americans in concentration camps, “Breaking the Silence,” was first performed at the University of Washington in 1986 to raise money for court cases involving the incarceration.
As a child, she survived one of the concentration camps she wrote about, and was released at age seven and a half, she said.
Standing outside in the cold, the wind tossing her hair, as the party wound down, she spoke of the sense of uncertainty facing the community now that Keiro has closed. It is, she said, a sign of economic changes in the 21st century, like gentrification.
“The dispersal of the ethnic communities has meant you no longer have ethnic clusters anymore, unless they’re recent immigrants.”
But Louis said the feeling of displacement was the same as it has always been.
“We are part of the dispossessed and we have spent all of our lives trying to prove we’re American because our faces are different, just like any people of color.”
She added, “It’s the same feeling, but it’s not the same story.”
For some, however, the feeling is anger and a sense of betrayal.
Gordon Shoji, in an email to Northwest Asian Weekly, said he had attended a recent meeting with representatives of the company that purchased Keiro.
After the meeting, he wrote a poem that criticizes the third and fourth generations of Japanese Americans (“sansei” and “yonsei”). He was particularly critical of the fourth generation, who he described as “becoming uninformed and riding on the coat tails of those before them without respect, let alone appreciation.”
Furthermore, he wrote, “This is exactly what I believe to be the foundation of the Keiro issue.”
His poem, titled, “Society Creates the Criminal,” has the subtitle, “Assimilation [a generalization too often accurate].
losing the culture…can’t speak the language
but you love rice and you’re hell with chopsticks
successful in education… business…politics
content with growing wealth and position
japanese hyphen american…but…
beneath the veneer…the unspoken truth
females coveted…males not respected as men
created waves…demanded more than survival
untouched by struggles of prior generations
just old stories & the photos without soul
reaping the harvest of your forebears toil
oblivious to waves & survival.
Inside the hall, as the day ended and crowds dispersed, a few vendors remained talking with folks.
Down at the far end, surrounded by hanging colored prints and paper cuttings, a grey haired woman was speaking Japanese with a visitor. Her son, with a beard, was by her side, selling her work. She had been selling her work for more than 30 years, she said. She studied with a teacher once, long ago. But her paper cutting has been mostly self-taught, she added.
By the end of the day, she had sold out of her 70 calendars and all her “fortune” bags.
“They were very popular,” she said.
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.