By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
Every morning from 7:30 to 9:30, the Buddhist priest in the Seattle Koyasan temple chants, waves his hands around, and practices visualizations. This is so he has the energy to practice the kaji ritual with troubled souls that come in the afternoon.
“There was a high-ranking military officer that was shot in Iraq many times, and he comes to me
because he has gone to 20 hospitals and clinics, and the doctors don’t know what the cause is but he keeps losing weight,” said Taijo Imanaka, the priest.
“He keeps losing weight and he thought he was going to die,” he went on.
“Then I performed the kaji ritual with him and he has now started to gain weight rapidly.”
Taijo offers meditation classes, counseling for Microsoft executives and other community leaders, and then, in the evening, he gathers food and rice, places it in a metal bowl, and leaves it outside the temple for “hungry ghosts.” Hungry ghosts are souls that have practiced evil in this lifetime and are doomed to wander this earth before being reincarnated through the acts of kindness of others.
Like the Keiro nursing home, across the street, the temple has been struggling to stay afloat and stay true to its values.
The temple’s founding generation (Issei) has passed away. There are only four members of the second generation of Japanese Americans (Nisei), mostly in their 90s, and many of the rest of the members are Americans without a Japanese background.
“The temple is miraculously surviving,” he said, in an interview.
But the temple is staying open—at least for the near future—while Keiro is shutting down.
Taijo credits it with support from the home temple in Japan and an ability to adjust to the times and changing demographics of the Japanese community.
Due to a number of factors, including a decline in immigration rates and intermarriage, the Japanese population in the United States has been in decline this decade.
Decades ago, when Keiro was founded, the majority of Japanese lived in Seattle. Today, the Eastside has a higher proportion of Japanese than Seattle. Almost 3 percent of the population of Mercer Island is Japanese. In Bellevue, it is over 2.5 percent, while in Seattle, the Japanese population fell to 1.39 percent this year, according to Zip Atlas.
“The later generations of Japanese have all fled to the Eastside and don’t like to come to this part of town anymore,” said one insider at Keiro, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the community to negative remarks.
Like the temple, however, Keiro has opened its gates to different ethnicities.
“As a nonprofit, Keiro was open to all ethnicities. However, it was opened to support Issei Japanese,” said the insider.
A decade ago, according to a longtime family member, “it was a mix of Asians–Japanese, both Nisei (2nd generation) Shin Issei (National Japanese), Chinese (both foreign-born and some Chinese Americans), Vietnamese, and Korean.”
However, as of last year, Keiro was roughly 35 percent Japanese, 30 percent Chinese, 15 percent Vietnamese, and the rest a mix of Korean, Caucasian, and Black.
To reflect these changing demographics, “there was a rebranding around 2014 to change the name to Keiro Northwest (it was formerly Nikkei Concerns) and change the mission,” said the longtime family member.
The new mission statement reflected the growing diversity of ethnicities within Keiro over the past half decade: “We empower our Asian community through a continuum of exceptional health care services that are culturally sensitive.”
By contrast, the old mission statement had been categorically focused on preserving Japanese culture per se: “Our mission is to enrich and support the lives of elders and meet their needs in a way that honors and respects the Nikkei culture and values.”
Socio-economic and cultural differences
In the Koyasan temple, however, most if not all of the non-Japanese members are from high socio-economic backgrounds, including medical doctors, executives, and military consultants. Most, if not all of them, are white. Some live in Madison Park.
After his meditation classes at the temple, Taijo offers them tea and traditional Japanese refreshments in a small hall with tables and Buddhist posters on the walls.
At Keiro, on the other hand, most of the new patients have been poor and reliant on government support.
“I would say about one out of every 10 patients there is Black,” said the second family member.
Still, other ethnicities have found comfort in the food and Asian-culturally themed activities, although language communication has sometimes been a problem.
Recent DSHS citations include references to communication difficulties between Japanese patients and Taishanese-speaking Chinese caregivers.
Such challenges may account for difficulties some residents are having in finding new homes since Keiro last month announced its impending closure.
Outside Keiro, on a sunny day recently, an old, hunched-over Chinese woman was screaming into her cell phone, which she held at arm’s length, as if afraid of injuring it with the decibels of her voice.
“I’m at Keiro! At Keiro! The nursing home!”
She explained she was waiting for a ride, that she had recently returned from China, and that her husband was bedridden owing to a stroke and had no place to go.
“No one has helped me,” she said. “I don’t even know where to start.”
She further explained she has been in the United States for 20 years and is now living on social security.
Affluent families seem to be handling the transition better.
One family, at least, has already secured housing in an assisted living community in another part of town.
A member of that family, in an interview, asked that no distinguishing features of that person’s family be revealed for fear of repercussions to the elderly family member who is still living in Keiro.
The elderly family member will move to an upscale retirement center within the next month. The family’s chief concern, besides overall adjustment, was with food. But they spoke to the chef at the new community. He agreed to provide special adjustments to the meal plan to include rice and other staples that were readily available at Keiro.
Still, the family member explained, Keiro staff, in order to conserve resources, has already moved the majority of the remaining patients to a single floor. On several occasions, the elderly family member has wandered back to the original room, however, and had to be led back to the new quarters by staff.
“We are worried about the transition,” said the family member.
Still, said the family member, making a rough guess, it appears that perhaps up to half of the patients have already moved.
“I guess that some families have just decided to take their own members in,” said the family member.
However, when the patient is really sick or when the family lacks sufficient resources, that may not be possible.
The old woman, standing on the sidewalk outside Keiro waiting for a ride, yelling in thickly accented Chinese into her cell phone, said this was not possible.
“There’s no way I can care for him at home. He’s too sick. That’s impossible,” she said.
Meanwhile, Keiro leaders have been unavailable for comment.
President Tomio Moriguchi declined a request for an interview and Keiro board member Fred Kiga failed to respond to multiple emails.
Japanese values in a changing world
Despite the changes taking place, both at Keiro and the Koyasan temple, the neighborhood on a sunny afternoon appears unchanged. A hush and calm pervades the streets that are thickly lined with old trees. Across from the temple is a large lot of unused land upon which a sole figure sits in the sunshine.
Still, change has already come to the neighborhood in ways that are making it increasingly difficult for its residents to bear.
Taijo and his American wife used to live two blocks from the temple. But now he spends an hour each day picking up trash, bottles, and needles from the streets around the temple. He worries that his three-and-half-year old daughter could be kidnapped on the streets.
“That would be the end of life,” he said.
So he and his wife have moved to West Seattle.
Inside the temple, he reads Chinese sutras in a Japanese pronunciation. He performs the kaji ritual for those whom western medicine has failed. And he caters to the needs of white Americans.
“The real question,” said the Keiro insider, “is who is going to keep Japanese tradition alive in these times?”
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.