Fueled by Volunteers, ‘Japantown Prepared’ Strives to Keep San Jose's Asian Seniors Safe

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Rich Saito, Jean Yoshida and Ray Chin are getting ready to patrol the streets of Japantown near downtown San Jose with their group Japantown Prepared. The group started patrolling streets after an increase in attacks against Asian Americans.
Rich Saito (left), Jean Yoshida (center) and Ray Chin get ready to patrol the streets of Japantown near downtown San Jose. Their group, Japantown Prepared, recently started patrolling the neighborhood after an increase in attacks against Asian Americans. (Adhiti Bandlamudi/KQED)

Jean Yoshida lives a few blocks from Japantown near downtown San Jose. She jogs around the neighborhood often, and these days, does so on high alert.

"It really made me think that if I'm feeling this way, I couldn't imagine how the senior population [is] feeling," said Yoshida, a young Asian-American woman. "Just to get out of their house, go to the market, just run their daily errands."

Recent attacks in Atlanta and in various parts of the Bay Area have alarmed members of the local Asian American community and prompted some of them to take measures into their own hands.

Yoshida says she’s been worried about her elderly relatives in Milpitas and her parents in San Diego.

"That was really one of the things that got me thinking I need to be out there, I need to be an extra set of eyes," she said. "If I can help make them feel a little bit safer."

So Yoshida joined Japantown Prepared, a group originally started by a retired San Jose police officer in 2011 to prepare residents for natural disasters. But last year, when attacks against elderly Asian residents began to rise, Rich Saito, who founded the group, grew increasingly concerned.

"I get angry that people take out their aggressions on unsuspecting, undeserving, defenseless people," Saito said. "So, it makes me want to do things. Something!"

The frequency of attacks against Asian Americans more than doubled last year in San Jose alone, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino.

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A few days after the mass shooting in Atlanta on March 16, in which six of the eight people killed were Asian women, Saito expanded his group's emergency response routine to include a patrol unit. Now, volunteers wear bright red vests and walk the neighborhood during the day and night, introducing themselves to everyone on the streets, especially seniors.

"I don't want people to be paranoid, but I want them to be aware of what's around them," Saito said.

Saito is modeling his program after the United Peace Collaborative, a volunteer patrol group based in San Francisco's Chinatown. Leanna Louie started the group early last year after the first spike in attacks against elderly Asian residents there.

"We love to believe that love solves all of the world's problems, but we know that it hasn't. Sometimes, you love them but they don't love you back," Louie said. "And when they come on the offense, you have to have a defense."

For Louie, the mission is personal. Her mother was attacked and robbed three times in the past decade. She now wants to empower Asian elders to speak up and fight back.

"Always be alert. I see people, they're looking at the floor, looking at their phone. They're not paying attention to their surroundings, they're not looking people in the eye," Louie said. "You have to always be alert."

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That's the same advice Saito is giving elderly Asian residents in San Jose's Japantown. Both Louie and Saito's programs focus on de-escalation — an effort to reduce tensions and avoid conflict. But volunteers are also trained to call the police when it becomes clear that a situation is escalating.

"During training, we explicitly tell our volunteers we are looking for unusual or suspicious behavior," Saito said. "To make people feel welcome, I encourage [volunteers] to introduce themselves, explain what we are doing, and ask them if they have any questions or if there is anything we can do for them."

Similar patrol programs have started in Oakland and some other cities across the Bay Area. The San Jose Police Department has also increased patrols in Japantown and in Little Saigon, one of California's largest Vietnamese American communities.

In an effort to spread the word about Japantown Prepared among San Jose's senior community, Saito is working with the Yu-Ai Kai Senior Center in Japantown, which serves about 700 seniors a week.

"The seniors and majority of the AAPI community are feeling on edge with their personal safety as AAPI hate crimes are in the news daily," said Jennifer Masuda, the center's executive director.

"I hope the patrol will give our elders the confidence and freedom to leave their home; to know it is safe to pick up their lunch, grocery shop, go to church — basically to do what they want," Masuda said.

Since Saito recently started his patrol program, he says his email inbox has been overflowing with requests to volunteer.

"I have over 330 emails of people interested in finding out about [the program]," he said. "There's a lot of really good people out there who care about what's going on, and they want to do something about it."