"Radio exercise. Let's begin!" the familiar male voice said in Japanese. As the unseen teacher spoke, 15 senior citizens lined up on the grounds of the Venice Japanese Community Center and obeyed the instructions to "take a deep breath and stre-e-etch."
After completing the "rajyo taiso" (radio exercise) routine, they joined 15 other senior citizens for a hot lunch of beef teriyaki, broccoli cuts, fruit and rice. Some stayed after lunch for a free lesson in ikebana-- Japanese flower arranging--while others took bridge and Japanese craft classes. They play bingo in Japanese every Friday.
The lunch and activities are part of a Senior Nutrition Program that is offered at nine locations in Councilwoman Pat Russell's 6th District. The program is federally funded and administered by People's Coordinated Service, a nonprofit agency in Crenshaw.
Each of the nine sites is run by a volunteer staff and one paid manager, according to Evelyn Knight, executive director of People's Coordinated Service. Each develops its own programming and the agency provides funding and guidance for the nutrition program, she said.
The Venice chapter, run by Japanese-Americans from the Venice and Mar Vista areas, attracts mostly first- and second-generation Japanese, according to volunteer Frances Kitagawa.
Japanese food is served every weekday at the 15-year-old multipurpose center, near Braddock Drive and Centinela Avenue. The center houses, among other things, two Japanese-language schools, a bonsai (miniature landscaping) club and several martial arts clubs. (Another site, the Israel Levin Center in Venice, serves kosher food.)
Many of the diners would eat a non-nutritious meal of ochazuke (rice and tea) or ramen (noodles) if the hot lunches were not available, said volunteer Shigeko Fujihiro, 64. But Kitagawa said most of those who eat at the community center are more interested in seeing their friends than in the food.
When the Venice program started three years ago, some Japanese were hesitant to come because they thought the meals were only for low-income people, Kitagawa said. She said being poor is a source of shame in the Japanese culture.
But word spread that the program was for anyone over 60 years old and the community center soon became a popular rendezvous spot for elderly Japanese in the Venice area, Kitagawa said. Today, between 25 and 40 come for luncheon every day and about 190 are registered for the program. In addition, about 10 meals are picked up and two are delivered to homes.
"In the past, whenever federal programs were established, the Japanese were never interested," Kitagawa said. "(The Japanese) would say, 'We don't need it. We're pretty self-sustaining and we don't want to be embarrassed because we need it.' "
At 10 every morning, volunteers, mostly senior citizens themselves, place thermoses of boiled water for hot green tea and chopsticks on the tables. Greetings of "Ohayogozaimasu," or "Good morning," fill the small classroom soon after 11 even though lunch doesn't start until noon.
Kitagawa said many of the participants are widowed. "Older people are pretty lonely and lots of our people come out because they have friends (here)." She said that widows and widowers who used to come with their spouses continue to come alone.
Mary Ishizuka, a widow, said she enjoys chatting with her friends at the community center. Ishizuka, 61, said the elderly Japanese-Americans' common experience of racial discrimination in America binds them together.
"They cling to the Japanese way because they don't want to be hurt. They feel comfortable within their own group," volunteer Elizabeth Nishikawa, 74, said.
Though the group shares a common history in America, Chiyoko Sakamoto Takahashi said definite differences exist between the first- and second-generation Japanese. "We have to guard against cliquishness because the English-speaking sit together and the Japanese-speaking sit together."
A $1 donation is asked for each meal. Kitagawa said the money box rarely comes up short because Japanese are proud of being financially independent and caring for themselves. Many individuals and organizations in the Japanese community donate money and gifts to the program in keeping with a tradition of caring for the elderly, she said.
Recently, a basketball team from a Japanese-American youth league donated pounds of omochi (rice cakes) that the team made at its annual New Years mochitsuki (rice cake-making) event.
The local karaoke (singing to taped music) group sponsored a singer to entertain the group at its annual Christmas program.
Volunteer Fujihiro, who donates two hours every day, said her Buddhist upbringing in Japan trained her to take care of senior citizens.
"The Buddhist teachers taught me all the time to take care of older people. They told me to be compassionate toward them so that when I get old, somebody will take care of me," Fujihiro said.