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The JABA Legacy Project: Pioneering Jurists in the Nikkei Community

Judge Vincent Okamoto: Fighting for Justice - Part 2

Rear Part 1 >> 

Law School 

It was in Vietnam that Okamoto first started thinking about the rule of law, and the lack thereof around him at the time. 

“I really did say to myself—and it sounds kind of corny—that if I am fortunate enough to live through this experience, then when I get back to the world—to America—I’d like to go through something that has rules, where people don’t throw grenades at each other and shoot at each other,” Okamoto said. “So I gave [law school] a shot.”

For Okamoto, law school proved to have its own challenges and shortcomings. Coming back from three years in the U.S. Army—two of which were spent overseas—to law school at USC took some getting used to.

“I certainly didn’t set the legal academic world on fire when I was in law school,” he said. Having never associated with “study-mongers” in a classroom context, he “really had to work [his] tail off to survive academically.”

There was also the issue of the disparity he felt between himself and his classmates, who were usually several years younger and had never served in the military.

“It was hard for me to come back from Vietnam and then listen to some young, twenty-four-year-old prodigy out of Harvard or Yale who’s talking about life experiences,” Okamoto said, recalling that disconnect with his law school peers when it came to lived experiences.

The professors at USC did not make things any easier.

“To me, half the professors were what I would call intellectual bullies,” Okamoto said, citing instances where law professors would lord their intelligence over students. “If you look, most of the law professors never become trial lawyers, because most of them aren’t accustomed to speaking to normal people and having to—instead of telling people what to do—convince them [that] they’re right.”

On the whole, law school proved to be less than enjoyable for Okamoto. But that did not deter him from going on to establish himself as a lawyer and, later, a judge.

“I hated law school,” Okamoto said. “In fact, I still look back and think law school was, other than Vietnam, probably the most unpleasant period of my life.”

Establishing Himself as a Lawyer

Fascinated by the prospect of criminal law, Okamoto entered the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office right out of law school.

“I found criminal law more to my liking than taxation, constitutional law, or torts, certainly. And I wanted to be a trial lawyer,” Okamoto said. “Going into private practice or trying to get into a big law firm was something I never seriously considered.”

He found a mentor and role model in Morio Fukuto, who worked in the district attorney’s office before going on to be appointed to the Municipal Court, elevated to the Superior Court, and then elevated again to the Second District Court of Appeals, according to Okamoto.

“[Fukuto] was a deputy DA, [and he] was in charge of central operations for the entire county downtown. He was a real craftsman as a trial attorney,” Okamoto said. “At one point, he had put away forty percent of the convicts awaiting execution on death row. I mean, he was good. And he was a good man. He took me under his wing.”

Though there were relatively few trial lawyers who were role models for Japanese Americans in the early 1970s, the few who were around helped the up-and-coming wave of young Japanese American attorneys.

“There were a few, and fortunately, those few worked hard, were well-thought of, so new guys like me were the beneficiaries of their positive appearances,” Okamoto said. “I look back on [being a deputy district attorney] as some of the better times of my life.”

Okamoto prosecuted criminal cases under the aegis of the deputy district attorney until 1978, when he started practicing private law with a former law school classmate.

“I wanted to make some money,” Okamoto said, explaining why he eventually decided to start his own practice. “Another former deputy DA that I’d gone to law school with, we left the office together, we opened up shop, put out a shingle.”

As relatively new and young lawyers with their own practice, they struggled initially to find clients and to establish themselves. Eventually, though, they made a name for themselves as a firm, and went on to represent notable clients like the port of San Pedro, according to Okamoto. He practiced with his firm until 2002, when he was appointed to the bench.

“It was a learning experience, starting down at the bottom rung of the ladder and having to climb up,” Okamoto said. “It took us a couple years before we actually made a profit, so it was tough on us, it was tough on our families, but it’s a rite of passage.”

The Japanese American Bar Association

In the mid-1970s, as a young deputy district attorney, Okamoto took part in the founding of the Japanese American Bar Association (JABA). Speaking to the reasons for his role in the formation of JABA, Okamoto emphasized the need for role models for the younger people in the community.

“At the time, I thought, in the event [that] more Japanese Americans become attorneys, we’re going to need some kind of organization—some mentoring, if you will. And that’s what [JABA] started out to be,” Okamoto said.

One of the early hurdles for JABA was its size. When it was founded, JABA consisted of only about thirteen attorneys, according to Okamoto. As a result of its small membership, organizational projects were limited in size and scope. There were not enough people or financial resources “to really take on any big projects,” according to Okamoto.

“I think at the first or second installation [dinner], we had a total turnout of forty people. And that’s with families, and spouses, and all that,” Okamoto said. “You go to the JABA installations now, and multitudes [and] legions of people come out—some very, very prominent in politics, some in the legal community.”

Indeed, JABA installation dinners now boast attendance in the hundreds and prominent guests from the legal community. Speaking to the growing ranks of JABA and its accomplishments since its inception, Okamoto lauded the direction of the organization.

“You got enough people to actually form committees, where it’s not just one or two people trying to push through a project. There are much more diversified interests.”

In 1977, during JABA’s second year, he served as one of the two vice presidents of JABA, according to Okamoto. The other vice president was Ernest Hiroshige, who would later serve as president in 1978.

“Initially, we were just a bunch of Japanese Americans who got together and [said], maybe we can help each other, maybe we can help the up-and-coming young attorneys, and maybe—if we grow big enough in the future, we can start helping the Japanese American community at large,” Okamoto said. “So that was the idea. And I think time has proven it to be remarkably successful.”

Onto the Superior Court

In 2002, Governor Gray Davis appointed Okamoto to the Los Angeles County Superior Court bench. Okamoto had submitted an application for judgeship at the encouragement of his mentors, role models, and friends in the Japanese American legal community.

“I was fortunate enough to get an exceptionally well-qualified rating, and then I had to go to Sacramento to be interviewed,” Okamoto said. “I think I just lucked out, or maybe I fooled them. I’m not quite sure. But after about four or five months, it was kind of neat. I get the call from Burt Pines [the appointments secretary], then he says the governor’s on the phone, and bingo, with a stroke of his pen, I’m a judge.”

Davis personally swore Okamoto in as a judge on August 26, 2002, at the Nisei Veterans of Foreign Wars facility in Gardena. Since then, Okamoto has enjoyed his role on the Superior Court bench.

“I’m a fan of trial courts, and what I’m doing now as a judge is probably the best job I ever had in the world,” Okamoto said.

© 2012 Lawrence Lan

attorney JABA Japanese American Bar Association judge Judge Vincent Okamoto law lawyer Los Angeles Morio Fukuto veterans vietnam war Vincent Okamoto

このシリーズについて

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