LIFE LESSONS from JSS Board Member, Toke Suyama

Secrets for a Happy Life: Don’t Fight Change & Never Stop Learning
Meaghan Tanaka, JSS Board of Directors

Tokugi Suyama and Friends at Gala

Tokugi Suyama and Friends at the 2018 CMC-AO Outstanding Community Pioneer Awards Gala

Lao Tzu wrote, “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes…. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”
Japanese Social Services Board Member Tokugi (Toke) Suyama shares Lao Tzu’s “Go with the flow” philosophy if not his eloquence. On May 22, Toke turned 92 years old. When asked on his birthday what his secrets are for living a happy life, Toke answers, “I never had any ambition.” He jokes, “That’s why I never got anywhere!” When Toke finishes chuckling, he adds, “I always loved learning new things. Once I learned what I wanted to learn, I was ready to move on to the next challenge”. It is clear when looking at Toke’s life that he has always been up for a challenge.
Toke’s involvement with Japanese Social Services started in 1991. At the time, the agency was known as Japanese Family Services (JFS). Toke was 65 years old and had just retired from being owner and chef at L’Intime restaurant on Avenue Road. He was already donating his culinary skills to his Buddhist temple and the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre, when he was asked to make sandwiches for a golf fundraiser benefiting JFS. Toke began volunteering in the JFS office, became a member of the Board of Directors, Chaired the Program Committee, and started spearheading fundraising campaigns like the Toronto Challenge 5K Walkathon.

Toke and his brother at the 2018 Toronto Challenge

Toke and his brother at the 2018 Toronto Challenge

What many people did not realize was that this retiree from the restaurant business was returning to his roots.
After being evacuated at the age of 15 with his family in 1941 from their home in Cumberland B.C on Vancouver Island, Toke lived in the stables at Hastings Park in East Vancouver. From there he was sent to live in a tent in Slocan before eventually moving into a crude cottage hastily built in Lemon Creek.
In 1946 when the rest of his family chose to move to Japan, Toke ventured alone east of the Rockies. He put himself through school and earned a degree in Social Work from the University of Toronto. He worked for the Children’s Aid Society in Toronto visiting foster homes all across the City and witnessing the effects of poverty and abuse.
In 1961, two old acquaintances asked him to help them out at their restaurant. The husband and wife had met Toke years before when he was working in the kitchens at the Park Hyatt Toronto on the corner of Bloor Street and Avenue Road. They needed his help last minute for a special event. Toke was shocked when after the event they asked him to take over their restaurant. Toke had no experience running his own business, never mind a restaurant — one of the most risky ventures for entrepreneurs — but it seemed like a good challenge. So, Toke left his secure job in social work and became an entrepreneur.
Toke ran the restaurant successfully for 30 years.
Toke has been just as successful as a retiree. His efforts have helped to sustain and grow JSS over the past 27 years. Each year, Toke contacts more than 200 people and raises thousands of dollars for JSS through the Toronto Challenge 5K. He even convinces fellow seniors like his best friend and generous donor to JSS, Mits Ito to walk the route with him. His fundraising efforts are essential to JSS and the community it serves.
On May 6 the Japanese Canadian community honoured Toke by awarding him the “2018 Outstanding Asian Canadian Award” presented by the Canadian Multicultural Council – Asians in Ontario (CMC-AO) at the Outstanding Community Pioneer Awards Gala. Mits was by Toke’s side at dinner, as were the Consul-General of Japan, Takako Ito, and many other prestigious members of the Japanese community in Toronto.
Toke may claim that he “never got anywhere” in life, but clearly the Japanese community feels he has accomplished a great deal.