An angry crowd of more than 300 people gathered in Little Tokyo Thursday night to protest the planned sale of a group of L.A. retirement and nursing homes that cater to Japanese seniors.
Many of the people at the meeting organized by the operator of the homes, Keiro, said they have friends or relatives who live in one of its four facilities. They called Keiro's decision to sell to the Pacifica real estate company a violation of a culture that venerates elders.
Retired maintenance worker Mo Nishida said Keiro is abandoning some 600 senior residents by selling its operations in Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights and Gardena.
"Those elders took care of us," Nishida, 79, said. "Now it’s our turn to take care of them."
Keiro leaders said a big reason for the sale is that demand for Japanese-only housing in L.A. is going down as rates of intermarriage go up, and that seniors are choosing to move away from the Eastside where most of their senior homes are located. They added that Pacifica, as a larger company, is in a better financial position to keep the facilities running into the future.
"Never will I do anything to damage the Japanese community," Keiro Board Chair Gary Kawaguchi told the crowd.
But seniors in the auditorium of the Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple refused to accept Keiro’s explanations. Wearing red ribbons around their necks in protest, they sometimes shouted over board members and the executives who plan on taking over operations. Many worried that Pacifica would stop operating the facilities. They pointed out that Keiro's sales agreement only requires Pacifica to run the homes for five years.
"Why can't they ensure that (residents) will have a home and good care until they die?" said Helen Erickson, who volunteers at Keiro. "They're coming to me and saying I hope I die within the five years."
Aspen Skilled Healthcare will contract with Pacifica to run Keiro's nursing homes after the sale. After the meeting, Aspen's CEO Ryan Case, said he had not known about the discontent in the community until a week ago.
"What I heard was, there were scared people nervous about change," said Case.
Case said after witnessing the "tension" at the meeting, he’ll be sending staff to meet residents at the nursing homes by the end of the month, earlier than planned.
"They’ll have to learn to trust us before they’ll have confidence in us," Case said.
The deal is expected to close early next year. Opponents of the sale said at the meeting they are looking for legal paths to stop it.
Frank Omatsu, a retired banker and the only surviving Keiro co-founder, sat in the front row. He said "it's eating me up."
"When I heard about the sale, I couldn't sleep for over a week," said Omatsu, who is 91. "But we will survive this. All the Japanese Americans in the community, we'll survive."