March 2012

Tonari Gumi – a Nkkei Treasure

The idea for the creation of Tonari Gumi (Japanese Community Volunteers Association) began in 1973 and 1974 with Jun Hamada and a group of inspired Japanese Canadian youth in Vancouver. Jun and Takeo Yamashiro worked tirelessly in seeking out federal, provincial and local government funds to create a neighborhood benevolent organization that helped to improve the lives of Vancouver Issei who had never recovered from the devastation of the internment. The dream of a home was realized in 1975 with the establishment of the drop-in centre at 573 East Hastings allowing the organization to develop many of the core programs which exists today.

During the 1977 Japanese Canadian Centennial celebrations, I was a volunteer stage hand for the Nikka Festival Dancers; an odori group that travelled to several Japanese Canadian communities. I learned about Tonari Gumi through Takeo Yamashiro who was the shakuhachi performer with the troupe. During the stop-over in Vancouver, I visited Tonari Gumi and was impressed by their outreach programs. A group of Toronto Sansei, inspired by Tonari Gumi and energized by the Centennial, founded the Annex Seniors Drop-in Centre on Danforth Avenue in 1978. After a few years of operation, the Annex Board soon realized that the Nikkei clientele base was very different from those who used the services of Tonari Gumi and voluntarily ceased operations.

Last year, I was informed of the building plans at Tonari Gumi and was pleased to learn from David Iwaasa, Executive Director and member of the NAJC executive, that they have now found a new location on 42 West 8th Avenue.  I understand that Ron Nishimura, President of the Greater Vancouver Japanese Canadian Citizens Association (GVJCCA) and the executive board recently passed a resolution to sell its current building on 511 East Broadway and to contribute those funds to Tonari Gumi for renovations to the new home which will be jointly owned and managed. Each organization is autonomous but the shared accommodation will allow them to work together on mutually beneficial projects. Given the current economic challenges and the changing demographics of our community, this decision makes sense. The Nikkei community of Greater Vancouver will be the beneficiaries of this union.

Tonari Gumi is a Nikkei treasure and continues to be an inspiration to all of us and for that it deserves our support. The volunteers reflect the innate goodness that is in all of us; goodness that can only be manifested when we give selfless and compassionate service towards others. The organization continues to attract volunteers and expand its programs annually. Their reach was evident last year, when individuals and organizations coalesced at Tonari Gumi to raise money for Japan Relief to the tune of over $700,000.

Gokurosama deshita!

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