An interview with the Japanese Community Volunteers Association during Asian Heritage Month.


I lined up the edges to make a perfect fold, proudly showing my mother that I too, could make dumplings just like her. She smiled while noting that the corners could be a bit tidier.

Growing up, making dumplings was a weekly activity in my family. It didn’t occur to me that my mother was passing on important cultural values and traditions. I never understood the significance of these customs until I became a mother. I now realize how important it would be to pass down the teachings and values of my Asian heritage. I want my son to be proud of his heritage while being curious and celebratory of other cultures.

As I celebrate Asian Heritage Month, it is important for me to continue to learn about the journeys of the diverse culture and history of Asian communities to foster a more inclusive society. At Vancity, we value communities and are proud to spotlight the Japanese Community Volunteers Association (Tonari Gumi) for their commitment to volunteerism and community service. Recently, I had the privilege of interviewing their Executive Director, Masako Arima. It is my hope that through this interview it will provide a glimpse of the wonderful work this organization has done for the Japanese Canadian community.

Q: Can you tell us how you first got involved with Tonari Gumi?

MA: I became involved with Tonari Gumi around 2008 when my mother came to Canada. Since she could only speak Japanese and found it lonely to live a daily life with only English, I felt the need for interaction with Tonari Gumi. My mother joined their exercise programs and had lunch with them. My mother was very happy with the kindness shown by the staff at that time. As a daughter, I felt grateful to Tonari Gumi. While running my own business, starting in 2010, I volunteered during lunch breaks, engaging in activities such as delivering lunch boxes, being a volunteer instructor for brain training classes, and being a telephone buddy. From 2014, I had the opportunity to work part-time as a Tonari Gumi staff member, and in 2018, I quit my own business and began working full-time at Tonari Gumi.

Q: How did this organization start?

MA: After the forced Japanese internment during and following WWII, the first-generation Japanese immigrants were faced with challenges — they had lost everything and needed to rebuild their lives. In the 1960s, Jun Hamada, who was studying at Simon Fraser University at the time noticed that his Japanese Canadian community needed help. He was inspired to act and thanks to the federal government’s Local Initiative Program, Jun and four other volunteers began building relationships with the Japanese seniors through activities. This was the early beginning of Tonari Gumi — the Japanese name for the organization. In 1974 and 1975, it became officially, the Japanese Community Volunteers Association dedicated to help improve the well-being of Vancouver’s Japanese Canadian community.

Q: What does Tonari Gumi mean?

MA: “Tonari” in Japanese means neighbour — it’s the heart of what we do, and “Gumi” means association, which means making connections and building community.  Here, we bring people together from all generations, making a safe space for members to make connections with others and celebrate Japanese culture. We run many programs in-person and because we have members who are not as mobile, we have programs through phone and Zoom. We offer many activities, including meditation by telephone, learning Japanese, singalongs, and fitness classes. We also host seminars called Senior Life Seminars, where we teach members about health, and the public transit system and also offer support for filing tax returns, applications for pensions or government assistance and so many more. 

Q: How many members do you help?

MA: Currently, we have an average of 300 members.  Our most dedicated members are Japanese-speaking seniors aged 70+. And among this group, there are 65 who have no family members. So you can see, there’s a real need for this organization.

We can’t forget about our volunteers of course. Currently, we have about 200 volunteers and they’ve been the heart of our organization. They deliver the programs and help promote the independence and well-being of Japanese Canadians. Not only are they helping, but they also learn about Japanese history and culture. This is important for the young Japanese Canadian generation as we preserve Japanese traditions and language.  In total, we have some 900 individuals on our newsletter mailing list.

Q: Can you tell us about some of the organizations that you have partnered with?

MA: Yes, we are so grateful for our partnerships. We recently started a partnership with University of British Columbia’s student nurses to offer volunteer support to our members. Students can share their knowledge and answer medical-related inquiries to help our members. And students can gain hands-on experience while helping the community. 

Additionally, through Meals-on-Wheels, our kitchen prepares boxed meals with Japanese menu items each week. Our dedicated volunteer drivers then deliver the meals to seniors who have limited mobility.

Q: Can you tell us about your experience with Vancity as a partner?

MA: Vancity has been an incredible supporter for us as a partner and business advisor. In 2019, Vancity’s community grant came to our rescue. We were able to provide meals for our home-bound senior members which was a huge relief for us and the community. They have continued to support us not just financially but supporting our daily operational needs. Through Vancity’s Community Service Package we’ve been able to reduce our operational expenses which allows us to allocate more resources towards fulfilling our mission. We also benefit from earning reward points with Vancity’s enviro™ Visa* cards which can be converted to more value for our organization.

Q: For those interested in supporting Tonari Gumi, what are some ways they can contribute?

MA: You can make a donation or become a volunteer. Some volunteer positions include delivering bento lunches to homebound seniors, activity instructors for in-person or virtual recreational activities, office and administration and event volunteers at the Powell Street Festival.

You can also purchase our cookbooks. Proceeds from the sale will help support our programs and services. We have three different volumes: 

1) the “Home Away from Home” cookbook, which was our first;

2) “Our Edible Roots” cookbook and gardening guide which will help readers to grow and enjoy heritage Japanese vegetables, and

3) “From the Sea and Shore” which is our latest cookbook, containing over 65 recipes reflecting the fishing and food culture of the Steveston Japanese community.  These cookbooks can be purchased on-line via our website.

Learn more about Vancity’s Not-for-profit support.

* enviro™ is a trademark of Vancouver City Savings Credit Union. 

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