By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
While her husband, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, spoke at the Biltmore Hotel on Friday, Akie Abe paid a visit to Homeboy Industries, an internationally recognized gang intervention and re-entry program in L.A.’s Chinatown.
Arriving with Sabine Horinouchi, wife of Consul General Harry Horinouchi, and accompanied by Secret Service agents and Japanese government staffers, Mrs. Abe was given a tour of the facility by Steve Avalos, a senior staff member and former trainee at H Homeboy.
Homeboy offers employment and job training through such enterprises as a café, bakery, grocery and food truck, as well as education, legal services, case management, mental health and substance abuse support, and tattoo removal.
CEO Thomas Vozzo told Abe that Homeboy was founded 27 years ago by Father Gregory Boyle, who saw “the need to help these young men and women who come out of prisons, who are part of gangs.”
Starting out by giving jobs to these individuals, Boyle “built an entire organization … to help them get out of gang life … teach them what it takes to be successful … giving them job skill training in one of our seven businesses,” Vozzo said, adding that Homeboy is “privately funded. We have no government money. Mostly it’s the business community that supports us, it’s private foundations, and individuals.”
He told Abe, “We’re very pleased to have you here and hopefully create an alliance with the Japanese American business community in Los Angeles to help push our programs forward.”
Vozzo introduced Abe to Homeboy representatives, “some of them former homeboys and homegirls themselves,” who are now “great mentors and teachers.” They related their stories about the difficulties they had to overcome to get to where they are today.
Among those taking part in the meeting were Director of External Affairs Veronica Vargas and Director of Re-entry Services Shirley Torres.
Speaking through interpreter Kotono Hara, Abe thanked everyone for the tour and said, “I have a lot of opportunities to meet young people who had just been released from reform school … I learned that there are a lot of reasons why they used to commit crimes, and it is very difficult for them to reintegrate into society …
“I think the effort that you are making is extremely important … I wish that we could also introduce the same system into Japan, and moreover Japanese companies doing business here would be able to help you.”
Abe was presented with gifts, including a Homeboy sweatshirt that reads, “The symbol of hope for the city of angels” and a copy of Boyle’s bestselling book “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion.”
Later in the day, Abe joined her husband in a ceremony at the Go For Broke Monument in Little Tokyo and a reception at the Japanese American National Museum. The couple’s U.S. visit also included Boston, Washington, D.C., and the Bay Area. They returned to Japan from Los Angeles on Saturday.
During her stay, Mrs. Abe visited a Japanese immersion program in Great Falls, Va. with Michelle Obama as well as Kimochi Home and the Japanese Bilingual Bicultural Program at Rosa Parks Elementary School in San Francisco.