By James Tabafunda
Northwest Asian Weekly
In 1971, there was an urgent need for better nursing care for Japanese elders.
Tosh Okamoto, then commander of the Nisei Veterans Committee, visited a man with this need. He was staying at a nursing home in Seattle’s First Hill district.
The man’s son asked Okamoto if he had spare change. He explained to Okamoto that his father had to give a coin to the nursing home staff member who responded after the call button for assistance was pushed. With the money, staff members would help his father. Without it, they would ignore him.
Okamoto remembers saying to himself, “Wow! That’s not right.” Immediately, he was motivated to do something about this.
He established a meeting with then-president of the Japanese American Citizens League, Tomio Moriguchi, after a banquet of the Imperial Drum and Bugle Corps. A community meeting about the possibility of a Japanese nursing home followed in 1972 at the Nisei Veterans Hall.
They were soon joined by five other co-founders of Issei Concerns — Glenn Akai, Harry Kadoshima, Sally Kazama, Fred Takayesu, and Henry Miyatake — and together, they bought the Mount Baker Convalescent Center in 1976.
After a thorough renovation, it soon reopened with a nursing staff of 10 and a new name, Seattle Keiro Nursing Home.
Nikkei Concerns (the name that replaced Issei Concerns in 1980 to reflect its commitment to all generations of Japanese) owes its success to its founders, volunteers, and the ongoing support of the local Japanese American community, as well as other supporters.
An umbrella organization, Nikkei Concerns has become the country’s second-largest healthcare and education organization for Japanese Americans as well as the general public. “The largest is actually in Los Angeles,” said Nikkei Concerns Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Hattori, who was selected for the job six months ago. “We have become a community institution, and … the board … had representation from just about every Japanese American organization. So, they had a seat at the table.”
Nikkei Concerns is made up of nursing home Seattle Keiro, assisted living facility Nikkei Manor (opened in 1998), senior activity program Kokoro Kai (established in 1978), continuing education program Nikkei Horizons (begun in 1990), and the Midori Condominiums (completed in 2002).
Seattle Keiro – at 1601 East Yesler Way in Seattle– opened in 1987 and has a full occupancy of 148 residents and a waiting list of 20 people. Nikkei Manor is almost at full capacity. Forty-eight out of the 50 units are occupied, and 20 people are on its waiting list.
Four hundred active volunteers and 280 employees work at Nikkei Concerns. “There are several [volunteers at Seattle Keiro] who are in their 90s that are still assisting with laundry,” said Hattori.
“It’s not about me, it’s about we,” said Hattori. “We don’t have a J-town here really … And so, this is one of the few places where I think … just about every Japanese and Japanese American organization supports Nikkei Concerns in one shape or form.”
He pointed out, “What separates us … is that, really, the community owns this. The staff that work here and the many new people who have come on board [say] they’ve never worked at a place like this before. Never. And, they’ve got years of experience working at other nursing homes.”
In having volunteers, family members, and community organizations actively interacting with residents and staff, Hattori said, “Throughout the day, it really feels like you’re in a community and a neighborhood. There’s a buzz.”
He also feels that many people consider Seattle Keiro to be “uniquely Japanese American here in Seattle” and claims its success is due to “the values and the principles that created this and maintained it over time.”
The four cornerstones of Nikkei Concerns are respect, quality care, trust, and kimochi (a Japanese word that means a caring spirit).
Evelyn Yabuki began her career as a nursing assistant at Seattle Keiro 31 years ago. Now a nurse, she has a personal connection to the nursing home. Her father stayed on its second floor from 2001 to 2005. She also met her husband Herb Yabuki at Seattle Keiro when he worked the evening shift in maintenance.
“It feels like you’re part of the family [here]. It’s a family atmosphere,” she said. “We deal with patients and their families. We help them out.”
“When you’re at other facilities, you can feel the difference.” ♦
For more information about Nikkei Concerns, visit www.nikkeiconcerns.org.
Meet Nikkei Concerns’ staff members at our Pioneers in Healthcare awards banquet.
James Tabafunda can be reached at email@example.com.