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Vancouver’s Tonari Gumi: Keeping Jun’s Magnificent Dream Alive - Part 4

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How might the future needs of the JC community be different from what they are today e.g., a Nisei senior versus a Yonsei senior? Ijusha?

This is an interesting set of questions. While we are not yet discussing how we deal with Yonsei seniors, we are definitely discussing what the future holds for Sansei seniors. In order to usefully discuss these issues, it’s important to differentiate some of the characteristics of these different generations:

  • Nisei: almost all are of full Japanese ancestry, most are fluent in English and consider it their first language, but there are significant numbers who speak and understand some Japanese and a few who are quite fluent as Kika-Nisei (those who lived in Japan for a portion of their growing up years).

    Nisei have many Japanese cultural and character traits which they inherited from their first-generation parents. A significant majority married other Nisei and most eat some form of Japanese cuisine almost daily.

  • Sansei: most are of full Japanese ancestry, although a few have a non-Japanese parent. The vast majority do not speak or understand any Japanese. Probably about 80% are married to a non-Japanese spouse and the majority of their friends and interactions are with non-Japanese.

    Most Sansei identify themselves as being of Japanese ancestry and have interest in things Japanese, and a majority will have visited Japan indicating an interest in understanding their roots. Nonetheless, only a few are active in the Japanese Canadian community. While they often like Japanese cuisine, many do not cook it at home.

  • Yonsei: more than 80% are of half-Japanese ancestry coupled to a vast mixture of different nationalities. Very few speak or understand Japanese and most will have had very little interaction with other individuals of Japanese ancestry. However, a small minority, perhaps even more so than their Sansei parents, have developed a deep interest in their roots and have sought involvement in the Japanese Canadian community.

    Japanese cuisine is only one of many types of cuisine that are of interest to this generation. Most Yonsei are under retirement age, it remains to be seen if their interest in their Japanese roots will increase as they grow older.

  • Ijusha: this category includes all post-war Japanese immigrants to Canada and their offspring. The first-generation, as they age, generally revert back to their first language which is Japanese. However, Ijusha seniors are very different from the Nisei or Sansei, even though they may be of similar age, as they do not share the internment experience and see Japan as their homeland.

    Also, while the Issei Ijusha may have had some interaction with other Japanese Canadians, their children, the Nisei Ijusha seem to have very little involvement with the Japanese Canadian community.

The issues facing JC seniors roughly differ by decades. For the next ten years, we still need to concern ourselves with the remaining Nisei’s in our communities. Although almost all of them speak sufficient English to be able to adjust to the services available to the larger community, they still have many Japanese cultural traits and a desire for Japanese cuisine which justify having some form of customized senior care available to them. This is a major aspect of the Japanese Canadian Survivors’ Health and Wellness initiative currently underway.

The first generation Ijusha are also part of this discussion and they can benefit from the senior care put in place for the prewar Issei and Nisei generations. In other words, we need to retain the Momiji’s and Nikkei Homes that currently exist and develop some more flexible “village-style” assisted living senior care options.

Current independent living facilities such as Shin Sakura-so and Wisteria house in the Lower Mainland need to be prepared to shift to assisted living and more scope for dementia friendly facilities will be required. In both Vancouver and Toronto, housing costs are excessive and some low-cost and subsidized senior housing is also required. Community groups such as Tonari Gumi are playing and can play an even more important role in meeting some of the Japanese language, cultural and social needs of the Nisei and Issei seniors.

Over the next 20 years, the Japanese Canadian focussed assisted living and dementia friendly facilities will still be needed in Vancouver and possibly in Toronto, particularly for the aging first-generation Ijusha. In all Japanese Canadian communities, we may need to consider more diverse seniors’ facilities where several ethnic communities might share services.

Japanese Ijusha being together with Koreans, Filipinos, and some Chinese, such as those of Taiwanese ancestry, might share a kitchen service that provides a variety of Asian cuisine (Japanese and Koreans share a taste for short-grain rice, while Chinese prefer long-grain rice and the Filipino eat both). The Sansei would also benefit from a more diverse environment with some access to Japanese cuisine along with a more western offering.

Discussions on these issues have started at Tonari Gumi, and TG may have a role in the future to help seniors to navigate through the different types of senior care that may be available. TG may also be able to help develop better ways to develop the services needed by different generations and the preferred forms of senior housing. In all cases, however, a higher degree of customized homecare is seen as being desirable.

Who are the other key stakeholders?

With the diminishing size of the Japanese Canadian community in the City of Vancouver, city funding for TG and other Japanese Canadian organizations within Vancouver has become less significant over the past decade. Instead, it’s the provincial government in terms of its possible funding of B.C. redress that is of more direct concern at this time.

Gala Dinner in 2019

Also, with greater provincial funding, the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority and the United Way of the Lower Mainland are becoming more direct sources of funding and hence, stakeholders, as TG grapples with the various issues facing seniors. With long waitlists for space in existing seniors’ facilities and the disproportionate negative impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on congregant living environments, the demand for better and more affordable home care is exploding. Helping to find more effective mechanisms to meet this demand is something in which TG is very much interested and TG is seeking to align itself with others wanting to improve the current situation.

What kind of role are you hoping that TG might serve to this end?

Increasingly, I see TG playing a role as more of a direct service provider for Japanese Canadian seniors, and playing more of a counseling or advisory role in helping seniors to navigate an increasingly complex seniors’ services landscape.

What are some of the challenges of operating TG during a pandemic?

As a direct service provider: as a result of the pandemic, Tonari Gumi was not able to continue hosting congregant and group lunch socials for seniors. Consequently, TG had to focus on delivering healthy, low-cost Japanese-style meals to seniors who are homebound or in assisted living and/or long-term care.

Currently, other than Nikkei Home, no other seniors’ facilities or meal delivery services offer Japanese style meals. There are a whole host of so-called Japanese restaurants who will deliver, but the type of food that is available tends to be very similar and the cost is relatively high. TG could also help in getting seniors to their health appointments and meeting simple DIY repairs in their homes so that they can remain in their own residences and out of institutions longer.

As a navigator, TG would provide advisors to help seniors and their caregivers to chart a course whereby they can access the care and services, including homecare or institutional residential care, that they require from within the increasingly complex and hard-pressed senior care system.

Ideally, TG would be involved in various aspects of both these two pathways. Either directly, providing some services or helping the seniors find the appropriate services elsewhere, while at the same time providing some of the socialization and cultural support the seniors require.

Also, as the Japanese Canadian community becomes more scattered throughout the Lower Mainland, I see Tonari Gumi being less of an institution located in one place, but one that can provide services in multiple locations, with satellite offices either co-located within various seniors’ housing complexes and seniors’ institutions or delivering various programs where needed by TG staff or volunteers.

What do you hope the future JC community in Vancouver will look and feel like?

Currently, there are a wide variety of different JC organizations, most of which are quite small, which are seeking to meet the different needs of the JC community in Vancouver. However, as the community ages and becomes more spread out, there is a need for organizations to cooperate to a greater extent so as to be able to provide the services needed and for the JC community to be better noticed among the other much larger communities in order to advocate on key issues affecting members of our community.

Given the diversity that is likely to grow in the Japanese Canadian community in the coming years, it is unlikely that the community will coalesce into one single organization in the near future. Also, despite some diminishment in the community due to high levels of intermarriage, the continuing presence of some new Japanese immigration and the interest on the part of Yonsei and subsequent generations in their roots, most of the JC organizations will likely survive.

Nonetheless, the hope would be that there might be interest in creating an informal coordinating council that could meet once or twice a year to help better coordinate the activities in the community and to discuss some themes that affect significant parts of the community. For example, it would be useful to have a general conversation within the community on what should be our priorities in meeting the needs for seniors’ homecare and housing.

Other issues might be to work together to create a true community recognition system where the community as a whole might celebrate the accomplishments of members of the community and cooperate on ways to better preserve some legacy sites such as the former Tashme internment camp. These are all bigger issues than just one of our organizations can tackle, suggesting that if we work together, we can achieve more.

My dream is a JC community that can work together to achieve these things.


Tonari Gumi website:


© 2022 Norm Masaji Ibuki

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