When Japanese-Americans proposed a telephone crisis line for community members, Bill Watanabe was skeptical.
The executive director of the Little Tokyo Service Center thought the service was needed, but he doubted the community would use it because of centuries of "cultural reserve."
"The concept of shame is very strong (in Japanese-Americans), so you don't want to bring shame to yourself and to your family, and that means that you keep problems to yourself," he said.
"It's (also) impolite to cast your burdens onto somebody else and upset them, so if you have burdensome things, you don't talk about it with other people."
Now Watanabe says the bilingual Nikkei Helpline, one of the few telephone services in the nation providing advice and referrals to Japanese-Americans, has been received much more enthusiastically than he anticipated. (Nikkei means a person of Japanese ancestry.)
The phone sitting on a box on a desk in the Service Center's downtown office rings several times a day with questions from some of the approximately 150,000 Japanese-Americans in the Los Angeles area.
Watanabe says his office has publicized the phone only in a few stories and advertisements in the Japanese-American press, and that once the center finds funds to announce the service regularly, he is sure calls will increase.
Callers to the number (1-800-Nikkei-1), have included a Japanese woman worried that if she complains about problems in her marriage to an American, she'll be deported.
Hard to Adapt
Businessmen phone when they find it hard to adapt to American culture, and a penniless Orange County woman used the Helpline's toll-free number to ask how she could feed her children. Counselors signed her up for Aid to Families with Dependent Children.
Although calls from first-generation Americans predominate, the Service Center also hears from members of families who have lived here 75 years, Watanabe said.
It was a first-generation American, Fumiko Kimura, who provided impetus for the 24-hour helpline when she waded into Santa Monica Bay and killed her two children in an aborted suicide attempt.
The details of Kimura's desperate try to kill herself, including a statement to a deputy probation officer that she had no one to confide in, and an article in a local Japanese newspaper advocating a help line convinced community leaders that the service would be helpful.
'It's a Little Bizarre'
"She found out her husband was having an affair and she was very embarrassed," Watanabe said. " . . . And part of Japanese culture was that it's wrong to abandon your children. So it's a little bizarre, and may seem bizarre, but she thought it's better to take her children with her. . . .
"It was not like she had done this as an act of murder," Watanabe said of Kimura, who was sentenced to five years' probation, "but it was something caught up in a tremendously intricate cultural perspective."
In September, 1985, eight months after Kimura's tragedy, the Helpline was begun. Social workers including Yasuko Sakamoto Kowalchuk field calls each day and trained volunteers help on nights and weekends.
Watanabe and other counselors say the service has been successful because callers remain anonymous, satisfying concerns about shame and privacy.
"It allows them to maintain that reserve and yet to talk freely," Watanabe said. "It's a very strong cultural trait. It continues into the second and third generation. It's weakened, but it's still there."
A toll-free number also helps, he said. "A lot of these people are having financial problems. They're facing eviction or their husband deserted them and they have no money so they call because there's no charge."
No Bilingual Services
Dr. Thomas H. Okamoto, a Japanese-American psychiatrist in West Los Angeles who consults for the Helpline, said Japanese-Americans have ignored mental health services for other reasons than cultural reserve.
"A lot of it was that there haven't been services that were bilingual, that could be bicultural, that could be sensitive to the specific needs," he said at a training session for help line volunteers in the basement of a downtown church.
Today, he said, more Japanese-Americans are entering the mental health field and more government money is being spent to provide counseling.