The Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival’s Senior Appreciation Brunch started 30 years ago to thank seniors in the local Japanese American community for their volunteer services. Each year, honorees are nominated by senior centers and receive certificates of commendation from elected officials. Following the brunch, they are recognized at the Peace Plaza Stage for their commitment to the Japanese community.

2018 Honorees

Larry Oishi is being honored by Sakura Kai Senior Center, where he has been the main program operations volunteer for more than 15 years. Larry was introduced to Sakura Kai by his uncle, Joe Oishi, who was an active and dedicated volunteer donating beautiful flowers to the seniors and holding flower sales to help raise funds for programs. Larry is always the first to arrive and the last to leave the Center. He quietly sets up the rooms for activities. Everything is ready when seniors arrive so they do not have to move tables and chairs. He takes care of it! He helps serve lunch and when programs end, he can always be seen cleaning and putting away everything so the space can be used by others. When asked why he works so hard to do all the physical tasks needed, he says he enjoys helping the seniors have a good time and has made many friendships at Sakura Kai. All the hard work is worth it! Larry was born in Berkeley, and graduated with a B.A. in Accounting. He is a nurseryman and continues to work on Saturdays. Sakura Kai is proud to nominate and have Larry recognized this year!

Akira Suwabe is the honoree from the San Mateo Japanese American Community Center (SMJACC). Aki was born in Elma Washington and was interned at Tule Lake during the war. He attended the University of Washington where he received a B.S. and M.S. in Civil Engineering and worked as a structural engineer. His work took him to Australia, New Guinea and Latin America. He and his wife Kaoru settled in San Mateo where they raised their family and upon retirement, he became active with the SMJACC joining Kiraku Kai, their senior men’s club. He created the Happy Ukulele class and enjoys recruiting new members to gather and play together. He has served on the SMJACC Board of Directors since 2009 and is currently the Chairman of the Board. In addition supporting SMJACC, Aki has been an Elder and Deacon at Sturge Presbyterian Church, Honorary Director of the San Mateo Nippon Gakuyen, former Cub Scout Pack Master and San Mateo Japanese Youth Organization (JYO) boys and girls coach. Aki is dedicated to promoting volunteerism and getting young adults involved in the Japanese American community.

Yu-Ai Kai has named Linda Takao Iwasaki as their honoree. Born in Kyoto Japan, Linda now lives in San Jose with her husband, Aki. A retired San Jose Mercury employee, Linda received her B.A. in Math from San Jose State University. She was introduced to volunteering at the encouragement of her best friend, Cindy Iwamura. They met in 1999 and together they helped many San Jose Japantown-based groups. Cindy passed away last year but Linda still continues her volunteerism helping Yu-Ai Kai, San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin, Kumamoto Kenjin Kai, and the Young Japanese Adults. At Yu-Ai Kai, Linda helps seniors hold two arts and crafts classes that meet once a week to create handicrafts. She is the original and continuing member of the Tuesday Night Volunteers, a group that began in 1993 to meet on a monthly basis to help with mailings, make centerpieces for events, wash agency vehicles, and clean the tables and chairs in the lunchroom. She is also a key fundraising volunteer who helps at our annual golf tournament, crab feed and mochi tsuki. One of Linda’s major roles is as a caregiver to her mother. Volunteering and family caregiving provide Linda with a balance and appreciation for the services provided by Yu-Ai Kai.

Yu-Ai Kai’s second honoree is Rich Kenji Saito. Born in Oakland, Rich graduated from San Jose State University where he received a B.A. in Business and went on to become a police officer. After 43 years with the San Jose Police Department, Rich retired and has focused his time on helping groups in San Jose’s Japantown. He was active even before his retirement! Since the early 1990’s Rich has been a lead security and safety volunteer for our annual Yu-Ai Kai fun run recruiting officers to volunteer and help make sure everyone safely completes the run and was often seen riding his bike behind the last people to make sure they safely finished! He also provides Standard First Aid and CPR trainings and earthquake drills for us on an annual basis so we are trained and prepared to handle medical emergencies and natural disasters. He generously provides security for many other groups and events including Wesley United Methodist Churches Rummage Sale, Day of Remembrance’s Candle Light Walk, and Nikkei Matsuri. One of Rich’s biggest challenges has been balancing volunteer time and family time. His wife Dian and kids have supported him with his work and volunteer interests. Rich feels the most rewarding part of volunteering is serving the community by protecting and providing security for everyone. “Our Japantown is a very special place and I am just trying to keep up with everyone else and contribute my share.”

Katsunobu Yamabata is being recognized this year by Kokoro Assisted Living. Born in Japan, he came to the United States and worked as a sushi chef for over 50 years until his retirement. For over 11 years, Yamabata san has provided our senior residents with entertaining minyo singing and shamisen performances. He has collected a group of friends who also enjoy performing to join him so they can entertain the seniors. Not only does he bring the talent, he also has his own audio equipment that he brings with him. He says his greatest challenge is parking in San Francisco. When asked why he volunteers, he says, “I look at the residents who have come here from a faraway place called Japan. I am hoping to provide support through my contribution of music. All of the residents are very nice and kind people. Everyone listens with such enthusiasm. It gives me a very deep happiness.” Kokoro is very grateful for the gift of friendship and music from Yamabata san and is honored to recognize him this year.

Pine United Methodist Church is honoring Ann Lew. Ann was born in Yokohama Japan and received her B.A. from UC Berkeley and Master’s degree from Oxford in England. She is a retired teacher and lives in San Francisco with her husband Ken and family. She is a leader at the church and is respected for being an advocate for social justice. Ann is currently Chairperson of the Worship Commission and is responsible for coordinating all aspects of each Sunday worship service. She is the primary mover behind each service and has held this responsibility for over five years. In addition to her role at the church, Ann is extremely involved in participating and advocating for human rights through her involvement with the annual Pride Parade, attending Women’s marches, circulating petitions, and showing support for immigrants at Immigration Detention Centers particularly where children are detained. She consistently encourages us all to be involved and to help wherever and whenever needed to ensure people are treated fairly and to support their human rights. Ann also finds time to volunteer at the Youth Guidance Center where she is founder of a book club and writing club. Ann is a true leader who embraces the community and always finds the goodness in people. She is respected as a mentor by many and we are extremely honored to recognize her this year.

This year Kimochi, Inc. is honoring an important group of individuals who are volunteering their time to “connect” with isolated and homebound seniors. Our “Fureai” volunteer group are made up of men and women who are visiting seniors in their homes to provide them with friendship and support. They are also an intergenerational group of students, adults, and seniors who are matched by staff with seniors based on personality, language skills and interests. Mitsuko Umemoto is the senior member of the group. Born in Japan, Umemoto san lives in El Cerrito with her husband Tad. She began as a “Fureai” volunteer in 2010 and drives from El Cerrito to San Francisco to connect with seniors who look forward to her visits. She admits the drive is not easy for her as it takes 45 minutes without traffic, but she feels it is worth the effort when she sees the seniors. She values their company just as much as they do hers. Although she is there to help them, she feels she learns a lot from the seniors. Listening to their stories about how they lived their lives makes her think about how she should live going forward. Umemoto san feels honored and grateful to be a part of the “Fureai” volunteers.