By REINE NAKAMURA
From financial struggles during the Great Depression, to anti-Japanese discrimination and racism rooted in World War II events, to displacement and gentrification, the Little Tokyo community has endured its share of hardships over the past 136 years. Yet, in each of these difficult seasons, the community managed to overcome through unity and perseverance.
Experienced by those across the globe, the COVID-19 outbreak in March of this year brought its own unique set of challenges. As the pandemic quickly unfolded, Little Tokyo senior residents and small business owners emerged as two populations in great need of assistance.
Because there was a great deal of uncertainty when the virus first broke out, many residents experienced heightened feelings of stress and anxiety. “When the stay-at-home order was issued, I was very scared,” recounted resident Masayoshi Sasaki, 74. “At that time, nobody knew exactly what was going on and I felt very depressed not being able to enjoy karaoke and mahjong anymore.” [translated from Japanese]
In addition, longtime businesses such as Kouraku restaurant found themselves struggling to adjust to the evolving social and economic landscape. The owners felt immense pressure to make decisions that would sustain their employees, customers, and the broader community. Due to the growing financial burden of keeping their doors open, another local restaurant, Oomasa, made tough decisions to cut both their hours of operation and the number of employees in half.
LTSC Special Projects Manager Scott Ito recalled, “I was particularly worried about our fixed-income clients in Little Tokyo and the restaurants who were feeling the brunt of the difficult economic environment that transpired after the shutdown.”
Thankfully, these emerging difficulties for restaurant owners and the senior population residing in Little Tokyo did not go unnoticed. Continuing the historic trend of community care, Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC), Little Tokyo Community Council (LTCC) and Keiro partnered to launch the “Little Tokyo Eats” program (LT Eats) in April of this year.
“This food-delivery program during COVID-19 is the latest example of Little Tokyo’s resilience and omoiyari (compassion),” said Mike Murase, LTSC director of service programs.
A generous grant from Keiro made it possible to support local restaurants by paying them the market value for their meals. Seniors are then able to order these meals at a subsidized rate of $3 and receive contact-free deliveries from LTSC staff and volunteers every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoon.
Volunteer Shou Zang shared, “I admire the brains and heart behind the LT Eats program, because it is a multi-faceted initiative that addresses both the public health concerns of people who live here and the business rooted here.”
Over the past eight months, LT Eats has partnered with 12 Little Tokyo restaurants: Azay, Far Bar/Sake Dojo, JiST Café, Korea BBQ House, Korean Kitchen Hibachi BBQ (Japanese Village Plaza), Kouraku, Mitsuru Café, Mitsuru Sushi & Grill, Mr. Ramen, Oomasa, Orochon Ramen, and Suehiro Cafe.
“Being part of this program has brought us closer to the Little Tokyo community, and it was great getting to know the younger generation of community leaders,” said Julie Blakely, daughter of Oomasa founder Masaharu Motoyama.
With each restaurant preparing over 100 meals per delivery date, there have been a total of 9,000+ meals delivered to senior residents living in Casa Heiwa, Daimaru Apartments, Far East Building, Little Tokyo Towers, Miyako Gardens, and San Pedro Firm Building. Among the delicious meal options, some resident favorites include tempura zaru soba, unajuu (broiled eel), grilled salmon and karaage, and teriyaki beef donburi.
For legacy businesses such as Kouraku (established 1976) and Oomasa (established 1972), LT Eats has helped sustain them through this tough financial season. While the future remains unclear, Oomasa shared that they are taking things one day at a time in hopes that they can reach their 50-year milestone.
“Making 100+ meals was new to us and we wanted to put together something everyone would enjoy,” relayed Blakely. “After the first order went out, we were relieved and felt more confident preparing all the meals. It became easier each week, and we are very grateful we were given this opportunity for six weeks.”
Kouraku, which hopes to remain open for generations to come, expressed similar sentiments. “Thanks to [LT Eats], we were able to receive big orders and provide food to the community… and it was a great financial support to protect the work of our employees,” said owner Mihoko Yamauchi.
Along with strong community partnerships and generous financial support, this program has succeeded due to the tireless work of LTSC staff and volunteers. Through the help of these dedicated individuals, the order forms were made available in five languages (English, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Spanish). On top of logistical and administrative tasks, over 3,200 hours have been expended packaging and delivering meals. Even on days with record-setting warm temperatures or compromised air quality due to forest fires, volunteers and staff faithfully donned their personal protective equipment and distributed meals to residents throughout Little Tokyo.
Some volunteers, such as husband and wife Dave and Debbie Endo, have been assisting since the program’s inception. “Our favorite part of volunteering is our newfound respect for everything LTSC does for the community and the expressions of appreciation from everyone who benefits from LTSC’s outreach efforts,” said the Endos. “In addition, it truly brightens our day when we are welcomed with a cheerful hello and a grateful thank you from the residents.”
Along with recurring volunteers, LTSC has been fortunate to have employees of Southern California Gas, as well as Rep. Jimmy Gomez, Assemblymember Miguel Santiago, and newly elected City Councilmember Kevin de León, assist with meal deliveries.
The aspects of connection and community have greatly resonated with the senior residents who receive the meals as well. For many, LT Eats has functioned as a consistent source of safe, physically distant interaction.
“I often check on my neighbors to see if they are doing okay, but for many of them, meal deliveries are the only time when they interact with people. Although we need to keep our distance and it takes only a few seconds to get the meal, I think that it is still helpful for those seniors to see the happy faces of the LT Eats people,” said resident Sayoko Fukuda, 72 [translated from Japanese].
Resident Hiroko Ito, 73, described, “Many of us [residents]are excitedly waiting as we hold our chopsticks. I’d like to express my deepest appreciation from the bottom of my heart.” [translated from Japanese]
LT Eats delivery dates provide both a hearty meal and an extra dose of joy to keep residents going. Due to the convenience of home deliveries, vulnerable seniors have been able to limit their exposure to COVID-19 and other germs outside of the home.
Resident Sharon Hahm mentioned, “It’s been tough even going to the market, but I’m glad that LT Eats food is affordable and delivers right to my doorstep… The food is good and the descriptions make selecting the meals more fun.” [translated from Korean]
Another resident, Sachiko Nagata, 67, expressed, “I cannot thank everyone enough for making this program possible to seniors. Even though many stores designate the senior hours for us to shop safely, there is still a line at the stores. So, this delivery service is very helpful for us.” [translated from Japanese]
Amidst the many changes brought on by the pandemic, the Little Tokyo community has continued to come together to uplift the most vulnerable populations. “From the LT Eats team, the businesses and seniors, and the invaluable volunteers that keep this program going, there is so much passion and connection,” shared former LT Eats coordinator Deanna Atkinson. “It’s bringing people together in a time that has felt so disconnected.”
Even in times rife with uncertainty and division, Little Tokyo remains a beacon of hope and community for senior residents, small business owners, and volunteers alike.
If you are interested in donating to this effort or volunteering to deliver meals, contact Scott Ito at [email protected].
Photos (various photographers) courtesy of Reine Nakamura