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The JABA Legacy Project: Pioneering Jurists in the Nikkei Community

Judge Vincent Okamoto: Fighting for Justice - Part 1

“I was in a position in Vietnam—to be in an arena where men with guns made the rules. And there really wasn’t anything called the rule of law. Those on the battlefield prevailed not because of better argument or because the facts were on their side. They prevailed because they had superior firepower.”

So says Judge Vincent Okamoto who sits on the Los Angeles County Superior Court bench as he begins to explain just how the most highly-decorated Japanese American Vietnam War veteran ended up a Superior Court judge.

In Okamoto’s chambers at the Inglewood Courthouse, fourteen service medals—including a Distinguished Service cross, a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts—sit somberly in their display case. They speak volumes about his distinguished military career in Vietnam, which precedes an equally distinguished legal career as a pioneering jurist in the Japanese American community.

Looking Back on the Camp Experience

The youngest of ten children and the seventh of seven sons, Okamoto—a Nisei—was born November 22, 1943, in the Poston, Arizona, War Relocation Center. He remembers little of his own camp experience.

“I left camp when I was just over two years old, so I have no independent recollection [of it],” Okamoto said. “My perceptions of camp are limited really to what I was told from my older brothers and sisters, because my parents never talked to me about it at all.”

While his older siblings spoke negatively about the camp experience inasmuch as they could recall how their parents lost everything and how they were incarcerated “without charge or trial,” Okamoto’s younger siblings did not necessarily feel the same way. In fact, two of his older brothers looked back on their experience as “kind of fun” because “they got to eat in a cafeteria every day, [and] they didn’t have to eat with their parents,” according to Okamoto. It was not until several decades after World War II ended that Okamoto would hear more about the camp experience from those who carried the memories with them.

“I really didn’t know anything in detail about the camp experience until the 1980s, when the redress movement started, and it was kind of an eye-opener for not just the Japanese American community but the American public at large,” Okamoto said. “For the first time in decades, you had Issei talking about their experience, and you had [Issei and Nisei] talking about their camp experience. And as it unfolded, all this pent-up emotion came out, and was put on the record, and subsequently led to redress.”

Even in the moral murkiness of the mass incarceration of West Coast Japanese Americans during World War II, Okamoto has found a silver lining.

“In my own opinion, I think the greatest positive factor that came out of the camp was that, in the main, the Issei and the Nisei [...] never conveyed or passed on a sense of anger or bitterness to their children and grandchildren,” Okamoto said. “This segues into the fact that the Japanese American soldiers who were finally allowed into the military during the war—the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team—collectively became the most highly-decorated unit in the annals of American military history.”

Speaking to the valor of the Japanese Americans who decided to fight for the United States during World War II, Okamoto highlighted the fierce patriotism that led them to fight for a country that had placed nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans into inland concentration camps.

“Having been denied due process, having been imprisoned behind barbed wire stockades, they still felt love of country and felt it was their duty to go serve and fight for the very country that had confined them,” Okamoto said. “That’s part of the Japanese American experience in this country. It’s something that’s unparalleled.”

The College Years

After Okamoto and his family left the Poston War Relocation Center, they moved to South Chicago. When Okamoto was twelve, the family relocated to Gardena, California. Okamoto graduated from Gardena High School and attended El Camino College before going on to attend the University of Southern California (USC) from 1965 to 1967. He received a degree in international relations from USC in 1967.

As an undergraduate college student, Okamoto never even gave law school a second thought. Furthermore, he remembers not knowing a single Asian American lawyer as a college student; at the time, most Asian Americans steered clear from studying law and mostly gravitated toward the sciences and math, according to Okamoto.

“It was the farthest thing from my mind, as far as law school is concerned,” Okamoto said. “The lawyers, or at least, the perception was, that they were glib-tongued individuals who had a command of the English language who could twist and torture words for the benefit of their clients. There were no role models for younger people growing up.”

During the same two-year period, from 1965 to 1967, Okamoto went through an accelerated Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), after which he received his commission as a U.S. Army Second Lieutenant.

All six of Okamoto’s older brothers served in the military. Two fought in Europe during World War II with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and another brother served with the First Marine Division during the Korean War. This family trend of serving in the armed forces would later influence Okamoto’s decision to volunteer to go to Vietnam in the late 1960s.

Vietnam

After receiving his commission in the infantry in 1967, Okamoto went through fourteen months of intensive combat training. In 1968, he went to Vietnam, where he served in various capacities as an airborne ranger, infantry platoon leader, rifle company commander, and battalion intelligence officer, before he came back to the United States in 1970.

Okamoto recalled the potential deadliness of simply resembling the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese.

“Being Asian in Vietnam did have additional occupational hazards, and that was looking like the enemy,” Okamoto said. “And it was unpleasant if you were on a combined operation and had to work with Americans from different units who didn’t personally know you. It got more unpleasant at night, when it was dark. There’d be a dappled light and some good old boy from Arkansas or some person from Maine who had never before met a Japanese American looks up an sees an Asian face and it could be kind of terminal if they just shot first and asked later.”

Okamoto added that he could not strip down for a bath by himself, because “a naked Asian American running around in the jungle was fair game” for American soldiers. “So I always had to go with a Caucasian or an African American when I went to take a bath in a canal or something like that.”

He quickly came to accept the reality of being Asian in Vietnam.

“You learn, after a matter of weeks, that that’s the way of the world and in the world of Vietnam,” Okamoto said.

Remembering the Veterans

Okamoto’s military service continues to inform his community involvement. He has served in the past as president of the Japanese American Vietnam War Veterans Memorial Committee. In the late 1980s, he led the committee to establish plans for the Japanese American Vietnam Veterans Memorial at what is now the National Japanese American Veterans Memorial Court, located at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (JACCC) in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo. The black granite memorial lists the names of 114 Japanese Americans who were killed in action or are missing in action in Vietnam.

“I consider [the Japanese American Vietnam Veterans Memorial] one of my more noteworthy accomplishments,” Okamoto said. “And once we did that, then the Korean War vets said, hey, we should do the same thing. So two and half years later they put up their monument. Then the World War II guys said, hey, here are these little punks from Vietnam, and our younger brothers from Korea, we should have one for our people.”

With the addition of a memorial for the Japanese Americans who fought in the Korean War and in World War II, the National Japanese American Veterans Memorial Court features the name of all the Japanese Americans who were killed in the conflicts of the United States.

“To me, the significance of that is the Japanese American community, their loved ones and friends, can come there to commune with those that died in the war. But it tells America, and the public at large—hey, all Japanese Americans didn’t go to pharmacy school, or become dentists, or doctors, or engineers,” Okamoto said. “The Japanese Americans paid with their life’s blood to be able to live in mainstream American society, and if you don’t believe me, go on down to the JACCC and look at the names of over twelve hundred Japanese Americans who were killed in America’s wars.”

Additionally, Okamoto has penned two books documenting the stories of veterans. The first, Wolfhound Samurai (2008), is an autobiographical account of the Vietnam War in novel form to minimize the hurt to actual people, according to Okamoto. The second, Forged in Fire (2012), tells the story of Hershey Miyamura, a Japanese American Medal of Honor recipient and distinguished Korean War veteran.

Part 2 >>

© 2012 Lawrence Lan

camps JABA JACCC Japanese American Bar Association judge Judge Vincent Okamoto law lawyer Los Angeles memorial military Poston veteran veterans vietnam war Vincent Okamoto

About this series

The Japanese American Bar Association (JABA) Legacy Project aims to create profiles of prominent jurists in the Japanese American community in the form of written articles and oral histories. In particular, these profiles pay special attention to these pioneering jurists' reflections on JABA, their distinguished careers, and their involvement with the Japanese American community.

Japanese American Bar Association website >>

Read articles from the other JABA Legacy Project series:
“Legal Legends in the Nikkei Community” by Sean Hamamoto
“Two Generations of Pioneering Judges in the Nikkei Community” by Sakura Kato