The Power of Community: Tonari Gumi
Many hands make light work at Tonari Gumi
On a chilly Sunday in February, a dozen kids and adults gather in the library at Tonari Gumi to listen to storyteller and balloon artist Michael Ouchi as he reads from Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. The book recounts, in words and illustrations, the story of Sadako Sasaki, the 12-year-old Hirsohima survivor who set out to fold 1,000 origami cranes as she lay in the hospital suffering from exposure to radiation.
The same Japanese legend – that folding 1,000 cranes will ensure that a wish comes true – has inspired the launch of Tonari Gumi’s new fundraising initiative Sen ba zuru – 1,000 cranes. In aid of this initiative, over 80 community members have gathered in the new Tonari Gumi resource centre at 42 West 8th Avenue to take part in the filming of a promotional video aimed at raising awareness of both Tonari Gumi and the campaign.
The day was kicked off earlier with a short taiko performance outside the centre, followed by a chance for kids and adults to try out the drums, setting the theme for the day: community members of all generations coming together to celebrate their shared heritage in a safe and caring environment where everyone is welcome.
Following the taiko, everyone gathered inside for welcoming remarks by Board Chair KC Sato and TG co-founder and longtime Executive Director Takeo Yamashiro, who shared the origins of Tonari Gumi. Formed in 1974 to support Japanese Canadian seniors who were often cut off from family and community, TG became a locus point of the community, where an unlikely alliance was formed between sansei (third generation) and shin-ijusha (post-war immigrants) who recognized the plight of the elderly issei (first generation pre-war immigrants), many of whom were living in poor conditions in rooming houses in Vancouver’s downtown eastside.
With the 1977 Japanese Canadian Centennial, TG cemented its place within the community as a number of important projects were launched, including the Dream of Riches book and exhibit, the Powell Street Festival and the planting of memorial sakura trees in Oppenheimer Park.
The JC Centennial Project (producer of A Dream of Riches) directed the proceeds of the book sale toward the nascent Redress movement, launching the ten-year struggle that resulted in the historic Redress settlement with the federal government in 1988.
Within the context of a community that has changed immeasurably in the ensuing years, these complimentary ideals of community activism and volunteerism remain strong at Tonari Gumi today. English- and Japanese-speakers co-mingle in the warm, welcoming atmosphere, where volunteers, families and seniors share a cup of tea or some salty snacks.
A number of former volunteers are now clients themselves, people like Nancy Morishita, who laughs when she has to remind herself to sit down and enjoy herself because she is no longer a volunteer, yet still part of the Tonari Gumi family.
As the filming continues over the course of the day, colourful cranes are being folded by a team of volunteers, with the older ones showing the younger ones the intricacies of origami folding. In the corner, Kikko Tasaka runs a kimono-fitting station. Alisson Ogawa, who had lived and worked in Japan for a number of years, had never worn a kimono, so was happy to be fitted for her first one, bringing smiles to her husband and three boys.
Food is always a big part of the TG world, and today is no different. Lunch is prepared by Moizumi-san and his amazing group of volunteers (please see full list of volunteers on page 33). The food is wonderful as always: yakisoba, inari zushi, tekka-maki, California rolls and much more, all amazingly put together within two hours.
After lunch it is time for some physical activity. Jean Maede and her three volunteers lead the group in bon odori, festival dancing. It is touching to watch young families participating in this traditional Japanese activity, the kids easily picking up the various patterns. Moizumi-san then entertains everyone with his shi shi mai, or lion dance. While he chases the young kids around the room, Michael Ouchi begins creating balloon swords, and a multitude of light sabre battles break out amongst the kids. Balloons are soon popping everywhere.
One mother mentions that the event is really great and she feels her kids are safe here. She does not have to worry about where they are all the time. Another woman is trying to get some friends together so they can start a volunteer drop in time for families.
With things winding down for the day, board member Martin Kobayakawa, who often plays at Jules Café in Burnaby, pulls out his guitar and serenades us as people gather their coats for a group photo outside.
Many people mention the wonderful atmosphere and the videographers are pleased with all the footage they managed to capture over the course of the day.
The 1,000 Cranes initiative fits in with the Tonari Gumi spirit – the idea that many hands make for light work, and that by working together we can create something special – for seniors, for families and for the volunteers who receive so much back in return for their precious hours.
As the filmmakers pack up their gear, and the many colourful cranes are stored away, the sound of Martin’s guitar summons up memories of Tonari Gumi’s long history, and the community spirit that gave it life, a spirit that continues to shine through today. It is a reminder of the thread that runs through the community, linking generations together through a shared heritage and a shared history.
The new 1000 Cranes video will be available for sharing with the community before the end of the month, viewable on the TG website, at tonarigumi.ca.
in Conversation: Manabu & Alisson Ogawa
In 2000, Allison Rowlands was working in Japan as an assistant language teacher at a local high school. Born in Edmonton and raised in Toronto, she had been drawn to Japan’s unique culture: “I like the things that make Japan different from Canada and unique in the world. The amazing food, the hospitality, attention to detail and the history and sense of tradition.”
While attending a friend’s hanami party she met, and fell in love with, Manabu Ogawa, a fireman who was born and raised in the fishing and surfing town of Kujukuri in Chiba prefecture.
After maintaining a year-long long distance relationship, the couple chose to make Canada their home, a difficult decision, but one that made the most sense for them. Settling in North Vancouver in 2003, Manabu studied to become a shiatupractor while Alisson began working as a teacher.
As a couple, they maintain strong ties to Japan and have also immersed themselves in the local Japanese Canadian community. With a lifelong passion for sports, Manabu often supports visiting Japanese national sports teams, as well as Canadian national teams, in his capacity as a sports medical trainer and shiatsupractor. He is involved in organizing a number of sport-related events in the Japanese Canadian community and was chosen as a torchbearer for the 2010 Olympics. Following the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, he was involved in fundraising locally and then flew directly to the disaster area to aid in the rescue effort alongside Japanese firefighters.
For her part, Alison teaches at Sentinel Secondary in West Vancouver. Focusing mainly on math and science, she also teaches a Beginner Japanese class, drawing on her experience learning the language as well as her experiences living in Japan. In 2007, she took a group of students on a ten-day visit to Japan, where she enjoyed sharing different aspects of Japanese culture with the students.
Manabu and Alisson have three boys: Kai, seven; Kolton, five; and Sho, two. As a family they are actively involved with a number of Japanese Canadian groups and see organizations like Tonari Gumi as critical to keeping the community connected. Manabu first became involved with TG about ten years ago when he took over the coaching of their softball team at the time. He is currently instructing a shiatsu course at Tonari Gumi.
The Bulletin spoke to the couple about their experiences raising their children in Canada.
Allison, living and working in Japan clearly had a profound impact on your life, including meeting your husband.
A: Living and working in Japan was a life-changing experience and I learned a lot about myself in the process. I would recommend it to anyone.
Was it a hard decision to move to Canada?
A: Yes, it was very hard because Manabu had a job that he loved, being a firefighter, and leaving his job meant that he couldn’t go back. I had been accepted into a Master’s program in Toronto, but turned it down to move to Vancouver. We both wanted to see the world together and living in Canada seemed to offer more flexibility and choices.
Manabu – what are your thoughts about living in Canada as opposed to Japan?
M: Of course the language and culture are different. But this was our choice, so even though it can be frustrating at times, we always try to create the life we have always wanted. Surrounding ourselves with friends, taking opportunities and trying new things. In Vancouver, we don’t have our family nearby, so our community and neighbors are very important to us and we try to help each other.
You are raising your boys with an awareness and appreciation of their culture.
M: We are raising them to be bilingual. The older two boys, Kai and Kolton, are both learning Judo as well as studying Japanese at a Japanese Language school. We try to take the best of both cultures and our children will grow up knowing both. Ultimately they will make their own decisions about who they are and how they identify themselves. For them, being both Japanese and Canadian is just normal. We are trying our best to give opportunities to our children and to let them discover their own passion and formulate their own understanding.