Volunteers in red vests signal relief, reinforcement for seniors in San Jose's Japantown

SAN JOSE, Calif. (KGO) -- Volunteers in red vests signal relief and reinforcement for seniors in San Jose's Japantown.

It's part of Japantown Prepared -- the all-volunteer Community Emergency Response Team -- with newly-established foot patrols focusing on preventing attacks against the elderly Asian community.

"They're very exposed, very vulnerable," Rich Saito told ABC7 News. "So I thought, you know, we had to do something to try to improve their safety."

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Saito is a retired San Jose Police Department officer.

He explained the March 10 attack of an Asian woman at Diridon Station led him to launch the effort.

"We've seen an increase in anti-Asian hate crimes across the country," he shared. "But here in San Jose, when the woman was attacked, on March the 10, underneath the train station tracks... that's about a mile and a half from Japantown. That really hit close to home."

Early on, Saito said he received more than 300 emails from people interested in volunteering. Currently, 65 volunteers have been trained and are taking on the task.

"I was training between 10 and 20 at a time," he shared. "So, walking around Japantown with a big group of people, talking about what to look for, what to be aware of, and how to respond and handle certain situations."

One of the first people to answer Saito's call to action was Franco Imperial.

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"When we first started volunteering, we got a lot of 'Thank yous' and, you know, sighs of relief that there were folks that had their back," Imperial said.

He admitted there have been some "exciting" days. Although, he said the effort mainly consists of assisting with lunch or grocery pick-up.

"We have a lot of seniors," Saito added. "We're getting to know them personally. We can call them by name."

He said volunteers have come from all over the Bay Area as well.

"I've had volunteers come from as far away as San Francisco or the East Bay," Saito told ABC7 News. "They're all walks of life, all ages. There are a lot of high-tech people, you know, homemakers, and retired people. All races, all religions. There's a lot of really wonderful people out in the South Bay."

Imperial added Japantown is no stranger to racism either. He pointed to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

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"There is an awareness of our history, and the willingness of very kind hearted, warm hearted people to step up and do things," Imperial said. "Like to volunteer for Japantown Prepared or to donate to causes that are important to them."

According to Saito, the patrol has "interrupted a couple things."

"Not necessarily hate crimes," he elaborated. "But just kind of your normal, run of the mill, urban-type issues."

He's optimistic these lengths to keep seniors "safe from hate" will ease once the pandemic is over.

"I'm hoping, kind of maybe optimistically, that as people become vaccinated, we get herd immunity, the pressure on society, you know, the lack of jobs, lack of social contact, the masking, this social distancing... as that subsides," Saito said, "I'm hoping that the pressure that people feel that they have to lash out subsides."

He continued, "And if it gets to the point where we feel that the community is safe again, we can end the patrols. But we're committed to staying with it as long as it's beneficial."

If you're interested in volunteering for Japantown Prepared: Safe from Hate, click here.

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