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Battle for Boyle Heights' Last Japanese Retirement Home

Photo by John Strathdee.

Close to five hundred members of the Los Angeles Japanese-American community packed the Aratani Theatre in Little Tokyo on Monday November 23rd to discuss efforts to stop the sale of Keiro Senior HealthCare to Pacifica Companies. Organized by the Ad Hoc Committee to Save Keiro, local elected officials, long-term residents and passionate members of the audience spoke of the importance of this historical retirement home and their opposition to its sale. Keiro Senior HealthCare is one of the most important institutions in the Japanese American community and the last of its kind in Boyle Heights, located south of Mariachi Plaza.

In attendance, Congresswoman Judy Chu stated, "I am proud to stand here with you opposing the sale of Keiro." Chu spoke about how her 91-year-old father passed last year and how thankful she was for the compassionate caretakers who eased his transition. Chu mentioned her concern for the six hundred seniors under Keiro's care, noting that she was, "stunned that there was no public hearing announcing the sale of Keiro."

Congresswoman Maxine Waters, also in attendance, echoed Congressman Chu's concerns and highlighted the need for a public hearing. "The Attorney General owes us all a public hearing... It's never too late to correct a wrong decision." Waters expressed deep concern of change in the care residents would receive under its new ownership. "What steps will Pacifica follow to maintain care for Keiro residents and employees?"

At the heart of everyone's concerns, is the culturally-sensitive care that Keiro residents, their families and employees cherish as the last operating Japanese retirement home in Boyle Heights, a community that has been populated by generations of Japanese and Japanese American families. It's what is currently driving organizers to demand the cancel of Keiro's sale, the re-opening of a public hearing and the resignation of CEO Shawn Miyake.

A professional portrait of a Japanese American woman and her child | Image Courtesy of the USC Digital Archives.
A professional portrait of a Japanese American woman and her child | Image Courtesy of the USC Digital Archives.

Founded originally in 1961 by eight prominent leaders of the Japanese American community, Keiro was established -- according to their website -- to "create a culturally-sensitive environment with familiar language, food, and values, a place for seniors in their twilight years to call 'home.'" They started with hospital care after they purchased the Japanese Hospital of Los Angeles in 1961. This hospital had been in operation since 1927. As the 1960s transitioned into the 1970s, Keiro founders pooled their resources together along with generous donations from the community to eventually purchase five acres of land from the Jewish Home for the Aging in Boyle Heights in 1974. This location is where the Keiro Retirement Home opened in 1975 and the Keiro Intermediate Care Facility opened in 1977. Five years later, following a successful fundraising drive in the South Bay area, a Keiro Nursing Home opened in Gardena to take care of the many Japanese American seniors around Gardena and Torrance.

 

Needless to say, Keiro is very important to the Japanese American community and is a space for inter-generational bridging. Most of the Japanese-American youth in Southern California volunteer there while in college and many consider it a part of their rite of passage to serve at Keiro. With over six hundred residents, Keiro currently houses six residents over 100 years old including one that is 107 years old.

Though traditionally, Japanese elders have been cared for among family, Keiro represented a change in attitude toward retirement homes. According to a recent article in the Los Angeles Japanese Daily Newspaper, The Rafu Shimpo, "Keiro helped to change the negative image of nursing homes in the '60s and '70s." A former employee Ken Hayashi is quoted in the article saying that Keiro achieved this because it had respect for the elderly and worked with great compassion towards both Japanese-born and Japanese American Senior Citizens. The staff spoke Japanese and knew the community inside and out. One of the biggest concerns about its sale is losing this connection and culturally sensitive care that Keiro is known for.

The Ad Hoc Committee to Save Keiro
Jonathan Kaji is a Japanese American with three generations of roots in Los Angeles. His grandfather, Dr. Kikuwo Tashiro, was one of the founders of the former Japanese Hospital of Los Angeles, that was located at First and Fickett in Boyle Heights, less than a mile east of Keiro. "It took a U.S. Supreme Court decision (Tashiro v. Jordan, 1927) to force the State of California to allow the Japanese doctors to form a corporation," Kaji says. His father, Bruce T. Kaji, was the founding Chairman and President of the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo.

Bruce Kaji with a blueprints for Little Tokyo. Image courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.
Bruce Kaji with a blueprints for Little Tokyo. Image courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.

In September, Kaji became aware of the specific deal terms of the Keiro sale to the Pacifica Companies. He explains: "I, along with many others in the community, were outraged that the Management and Board of Directors had decided to sell off this community institution. The Ad Hoc Committee to Save Keiro was formed for the purpose of stopping the sale and urging the State Attorney General to hold a public hearing."

Kaji lists the reason cited by the Keiro Board for selling off Keiro: "(1) Third and Fourth generation Japanese Americans do not need a Japanese senior health care facility, (2) Obamacare will result in ever-increasing health care costs that Keiro won't be able to afford, (3) Keiro residents will receive the same level of care under new ownership and management, (4) all the employees will retain their jobs, (5) a Community Advisory Board will ensure that during the 5-year transition, the residents will receive the same level of 'culturally-sensitive care' under Pacifica and its third party managers, Aspen and Northstar, and (6) the net proceeds will be used by the "new Keiro" to educate Nikkei seniors on health care issues."

However, Kaji believes that the facts indicate a very different picture. He contradicts their claim that most of the Keiro residents are third and fourth generation Japanese Americans. Kaji says, "The majority of the Keiro residents are 'Shin-Issei,' Japanese expatriates who have decided to reside in the United States. There is growing demand for senior healthcare facilities, contrary to Keiro's contention that there's less demand. Next, Keiro has never operated 'in the red' but has always been able to fill any expense gaps via fundraising."

One Local Family's Story
30-year-old Kyoko Nakamura is a Japanese-American writer and educator that agrees with Kaji and her own experiences at Keiro corroborate with Kaji's claim that many of the residents are Japanese expatriates. Nakamura's 95-year-old grandmother and her many friends at Keiro were almost all expatriates.

Kyoko Nakamura is very concerned about the fate of Keiro because her grandmother Mitsuko Kazuko Nakamura lived the last 15 years of her life there until she passed in early 2015. Kyoko's grandmother lived to be 95 and had a long and deep connection to Keiro. A member of her extended family was one of the eight founders in 1961. The elder Nakamura was a Buddhist reverend and the founder of the Los Angeles branch of the Rissho Kosei-kai Buddhist church in 1959. She served in the church for over four decades and her son eventually became the reverend as well.

Kyoko Nakamura spent many days at Keiro visiting her grandmother. Her grandmother especially, "felt constant gratitude for the endless care the facility provided her, as well as a deep happiness living out her elderly years amongst other church members and the elderly of the Japanese community in Los Angeles to whom she had devoted her life helping."

Otomisan is the only remaining Japanese Restaurant in Boyle Heights.
Otomisan is the only remaining Japanese Restaurant in Boyle Heights.

Nakamura, like so many in the Japanese American community, is very passionate about Keiro. She explains its importance to both the members of the Japanese Buddhist community and the Japanese American community at-large: "I believe that many of the church members, in the most practical and communal sense, view Keiro as their final home where they can share their last years, like my grandmother, with their fellow Japanese community in a safe thoughtful environment, a place to grow old amongst friends. And it is reasonably priced for the excellent services, making it a viable option for most of the community members. In all honestly, I really do not know where many of them would go if Keiro was sold."

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The Battle to Save Keiro
In addition to his concerns for the quality of care of residents, Jon Kaji also fears for the future of Keiro's employees. "Upon selling the facilities to Pacifica, all employees will be terminated as stated in the Purchase and Sales Agreement between Keiro and Pacifica. There's no guarantee that new management will offer employees the same pay scale, benefits or recognize seniority. Should Japanese-speaking staff decide to leave, the level of care now enjoyed by Keiro residents will immediately degrade," he says.

Kaji believes that Pacifica has pursued the deal for one reason: real estate development. He explains: "Pacifica's website touts the firm as a real estate development company. The purchase price of $41 million is based on an appraisal report that was more than 18 months old when it was submitted to the Attorney General in mid-2015."

Kaji believes that the location of Keiro is a key factor as well. "The main Keiro campus sits on approximately 4.7 acres of flat land overlooking the Downtown Los Angeles skyline," he says. "The Metro Gold Line Mariachi Plaza station is two blocks away. Many believe that the 5-year operation of the Keiro facilities is only a ploy to obtain building entitlements for a dense, multi-family development." Considering other recent new projects in Boyle Heights near the site, many Japanese Americans as well as other Boyle Heights residents agree with Kaji on this.

Kaji and supporters of Keiro have many questions. "Would individual Keiro Board members and management realize personal financial gain should the Keiro properties be developed? Would that be the reason for delivering the Keiro assets to Pacifica at a discounted price, clear of any pesky Keiro residents who won't be able to afford Pacifica's market-rates in five years? Once again, absent of any real need to sell off the assets (e.g., imminent financial disaster), the community can only speculate about the true intent of the Keiro Board and Management. The buyer's interest is easy to understand," Kaji concludes.

For now, the battle continues. The Ad Hoc Committee to Save Keiro states in their official press release: "We ask the community to not give up hope in spite of the recent setback with the Attorney General's denial of our petition to stop the sale and hold a public hearing. We are pursuing other avenues that have come to our attention."

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the battle for Keiro, there's no question about its significance to the Japanese American community. Based on recent trends in not only Los Angeles, but the Bay Area, Brooklyn and other American cities, the fear of redevelopment is rightfully warranted. Members of the Japanese American community like Kyoko Nakamura and Jon Kaji are doing all they can to preserve Keiro for future generations.