Across the waterfront lot filled with boats, baskets and a mountain of oyster shells, Jerry Yamashita chuckles in his tiny office by Burley Lagoon, near Purdy, Pierce County, and...

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Across the waterfront lot filled with boats, baskets and a mountain of oyster shells, Jerry Yamashita chuckles in his tiny office by Burley Lagoon, near Purdy, Pierce County, and predicts his future.

“I think I can live to 90. … I never even think of retiring,” says the 80-year-old oysterman, slightly stooped now but still full of enthusiasm for his lifelong occupation.

Yamashita is a picture of vigorous longevity. He remembers 50-year-old details of his life like they happened yesterday. He runs his Western Oyster Co., which has two huge beds. He speaks with authority and the wisdom of generations.

A Seattle native, Yamashita has a history rich with the culture of his parents’ native Japan. It is a connection that might be a significant factor in his strong mental acuity — a sharpness that is fading in many his age.

Yamashita was one of about 2,000 Japanese-American elders in Seattle who took part in an 11-year study aimed at better understanding human aging — especially factors that might protect against mental decline and dementia. Called The Seattle Kame (“kah-may”) Project, the research was conducted by University of Washington scientists between 1991 and 2002. Kame means “turtle,” a creature that is quite long-lived.

For more information

Detail on The Seattle Kame Project is available on the Web site of Nikkei Concerns, a not-for-profit agency that serves Japanese elders in Seattle. The Web site includes a discussion of dementia and how to communicate with patients.

The Japanese in general are known for their longevity, and Seattle has more than 3,000 Japanese-American elders age 65 and older. Enthusiastic support among community leaders helped persuade about two-thirds of them to participate in the research.

Among the project’s findings:

Elderly Japanese Americans who had strong ties to their heritage were less likely than others to suffer from dementia or cognitive decline. Those who learned Japanese or lived in Japan when they were children were least likely to have mental declines. Having many Japanese-American friends also helped.

“We speculated that the greater social support characteristic of Japanese culture, as well as the role that Japanese language may play in building up more nerve connections in the brain … might explain the findings,” said Dr. Eric Larson, director of the project, along with co-leaders Dr. Amy Borenstein Graves and Dr. Susan McCurry.

Scientists got the idea for the Kame Project in the early 1980s after researchers from Seattle, Japan, Hawaii and the National Institute on Aging (NIA) met under the auspices of the UW Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center.

Previous studies of Japanese and Japanese Americans had yielded insights about risks for heart attacks and strokes and had shown the value of ethnic studies in understanding health issues that affect many.

In the late 1980s, top federal advisers on Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders further endorsed ethnic studies on aging. The UW researchers won the first in a series of NIA grants for the Kame Project that would total $12 million.

Larson made a powerful observation about the general thrust of the Kame data — one that applies to everyone.

“What we found is that most people age quite well, and that part of the secret to aging is adapting to changes everyone experiences with aging. We learned that it is probably helpful to alter expectations a bit and to narrow one’s focus to things that are really important in life, such as relationships,” said Larson, former medical director of UW Medical Center and now head of Group Health Cooperative’s Center for Health Studies.

Findings of the Kame Project, he says, also strongly reaffirm what other research has suggested for healthy aging — the use-it-or-lose-it dictum: Use your mind in active ways, from reading to doing crossword puzzles, rather than watching too much TV. And exercise daily.

Keeping ties to roots

Jerry Yamashita has remained plenty active for all of his years, many of them dealing with difficult times. Through it all, he has stayed close to his roots, drawing strength, wisdom and personal skills from his cultural heritage and experience.

Growing up in Seattle and Bellingham, he spoke Japanese exclusively at home and English elsewhere. His father, Masahide Yamashita, insisted that he learn Japanese so, if needed, he could use it in exporting — a business the elder Yamashita pursued with timber, then later, seafood.

At age 8, Jerry Yamashita and his brother and sister were sent to Japan so they could get to know their ailing grandmother. The language was no problem. Behaving by Japanese standards sometimes was.

“We played and fought all around my grandmother’s bed. We were wild, and that was not good for Japanese kids,” he said.

Yamashita returned to the U.S. at age 13. Several years later, as World War II escalated, he, his parents and siblings were sent to the high desert of Tule Lake, Calif., interned with nearly 19,000 other Japanese Americans. It was a difficult experience, he said, but one he weathered by not being consumed with anger.

The camp became known for its many demonstrations and strikes by prisoners demanding their rights as Americans. Yamashita, a U.S. citizen, did feel anger when asked if he would defend the U.S. and forswear allegiance to any other country. He answered no to each of these questions in a written loyalty oath.

But the 20-year-old did not rail at his captors like many others who marched through the cold, windy camp wearing the white hachimaki, or headband, a symbol of protest. He stayed close to his family and other peaceful internees, drawing strength and courage from them.

His easygoing way has sustained him through many trials, including his struggle, along with his father and brother, to rebuild their oyster business after the war.

“I think this is my nature and that it gives me long life,” Yamashita said, smiling.

Long life is celebrated by the name of the Kame Project itself. The project also honors community in its origin and in its research focus.

The sense of community among Seattle’s Japanese Americans is a vibrant, major force, Larson says.

For 25 years, a not-for-profit called Nikkei (Japanese) Concerns has provided a variety of health-related services, mostly to the elderly. It includes a nationally acclaimed nursing home, a 50-apartment assisted-living facility, an adult day program featuring crafts and cultural activities, continuing education classes, and a day-care center in which children interact with seniors.

The community “has this commitment to providing care and support to one another. It is a quiet, very constructive force that I just marvel at,” said Larson.

A sense of community

Community is fostered in ways large and small.

Shigeko Uno, who also participated in the Kame Project, has thrived in the mostly Japanese-American community groups she helped build. She has lived virtually all of her 88 years in Seattle’s Chinatown International District. Her present condo is in the heart of the district.

Shigeko Uno, 88, in the lobby of her Chinatown International District condo, was a participant in the Seattle Kame Project, which examined why many Japanese Americans age so well. “I live day to day. I enjoy life at the same time,” she says.

On a recent, cool autumn afternoon, she laughed heartily with the small group of friends that meets daily for tea at the Yummy House Bakery. They were bragging this day about the super-thrifty, monthly excursions they take on public buses. A few years ago, they traveled from Seattle to Snoqualmie Falls for lunch and back for 25 cents each.

“That’s the main thing, is to keep on enjoying life,” said Uno, sipping her green tea and talking about other trips and friends she has known for eight decades.

Growing up, Uno spoke Japanese with her mother, who never learned English. Soon after graduating from high school, she visited Japan for three months to learn more about the culture and language. Through the years, she led youth groups, usually from her church, for brief visits.

Her sense of community was built even stronger by her own internment, at the Minidoka Relocation Center in southern Idaho, where 13,000 Japanese Americans were imprisoned. Like Yamashita’s family, hers suffered great hardship.

The family dairy-processing plant at Eighth and Weller streets, White River Dairy, was forced to close, and her parents were unable to sell it. She was sent to the camp at age 27 with her 2-week-old baby, Naomi.

Fierce windstorms blew sand through the cracks in the barracks’ windows and doors. Outside toilets were freezing. Privacy was almost nonexistent. Many could hear tiny Naomi crying at night, including a woman next door who described losing her own child during delivery just before being interned.

But Uno said her family did not complain to one another about their plight — they focused instead on the chores of day-to-day living, and only in quiet, hidden moments would they let down.

After the war, Uno and her husband, Masaru, opened Chick’s Ice Creamery in the Bush Hotel building on South Jackson Street. People loved to stop by and chat, but the business didn’t make much money and closed in 1960. Uno then worked as an office manager, retiring in 1988.

Her community involvement and ties to her heritage, as always, have remained strong. She was the first woman president of the Japanese American Citizens League, which helped win reparations for internment. Today, she stays active in the Japanese Baptist Church, serves on the board of Nikkei Concerns and belongs to Tomono Kai, a social club for widows and widowers. She attends occasional reunions of Minidoka’s “Block 26” living unit, enjoying the friendships forged during those trying years.

Uno also tries to take care of herself in other ways. Her balcony and living room are filled with plants. She walks to her grocery store, bank and elsewhere. She smokes, but only a few cigarettes a day, fearing “fines” from her daughter. Having a book going all the time helps keep her sharp mentally.

Most of all, Uno sees life as a friend, to be embraced and relished, not filled with worry that is so common to so many.

She admires the deep colors in her flowers, newly discovered after cataract surgery a year ago. She talks lovingly about her four daughters, son and late husband. She speaks of her great network of friends and of a deep Christian faith.

“I just don’t worry about the future,” Uno said. “I live day to day. I enjoy life at the same time. I have wonderful friends who are really good to me.”

Kame researchers learned much from study volunteers like Uno. Data from the study will continue to fuel scientific inquiry into the nature of aging.

UW scientists, for example, are using it as a springboard for more studies on mental decline, and on how personal health habits influence physical decline.

“The data we collected,” Larson said, “is a rich source for unlocking the mysteries of aging and culture.”

Warren King: 206-464-2247 or

TOMORROW: One of the toughest challenges — managing chronic diseases.