The Japanese government on Nov. 3 announced the recipients of its Autumn 2017 Decorations. Two individuals from the jurisdiction of the Consulate General of Japan in Los Angeles will be awarded.
Kitty Sankey, 70, of Los Angeles will receive the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays for contributions to promoting the status of the Japanese American community and friendly relations between Japan and the U.S.
Thelma Press, 90, of San Diego will receive the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays for contributions to promoting friendly relations and mutual understanding between Japan and the United States.
The conferment ceremonies for both recipients will be held on a later date. Details will be announced separately.
Following are profiles of the recipients.
Kitty Sankey is a third-generation Japanese American who was born in Tokyo. After graduating from Kubasaki High School, located on a U.S. military base in Okinawa, she attended UCLA and received her bachelor’s degree. She was a teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District until her retirement in 2009.
In addition to her career as an educator, she has participated actively in the Japanese American community. She has a strong sense of justice, and as a leader in the community she was a significant contributor to the fight for redress from the U.S. government on behalf of Japanese Americans who were incarcerated in camps during World War II.
She has served numerous community organizations, including the Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Southern California, Japanese Women’s Society of Southern California, Japanese American Optimist Club, and the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL)-Downtown Los Angeles Chapter, and has gained the strong trust of the regional Japanese American and Japanese communities.
Since 1992, Sankey has been actively involved in the enhancement of goodwill and welfare in the Japanese and Japanese American communities and the promotion of Japan-U.S. mutual understanding through membership in the Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Southern California. Her appointment as president of the chamber in 2016 was groundbreaking as she became not only the first female president, but was also the first whose mother language is English.
She has created the foundation necessary for the strengthening of bridges between Japan and the U.S. through deepening relations with the regional community. In addition to appealing to an increased number of Japanese Americans to join the chamber as members, through her networks in American society she helped realize events between the chamber and organizations such as the Port of Los Angeles and chambers of commerce of other communities.
During her term as president of the chamber, Sankey served on the Japan House Los Angeles Steering Committee, which was formed to provide advice on the projected opening of the Japan House in the fall of 2017, and participated in discussions as a representative of the local Japanese American community.
Since 2006, she has been involved in the Japanese Women’s Society of Southern California, which implements activities that promote friendship among Japanese-heritage women and social welfare projects, and contributes greatly to the advancement of women. She has served as vice president since 2008, and has also served in various other positions such as chair of the Scholarship Committee, and has initiated visits to Japanese American seniors in the community. She led a collaboration with the JACL–Downtown L.A. Chapter, of which she serves as vice president, to annually recognize the contributions of “Women of the Year.”
Since 2005, Sankey has also served as vice president of youth of the Japanese American Optimist Club, which aims to foster fellowship in the Japanese American community and the healthy development of young people. She manages the organization of the JAO’s annual Halloween and Christmas parties for children in the community. In addition, with the support of numerous volunteers, she plays a central role as director of other youth events.
Sankey has also served for many years as president of the JACL–Downtown L.A. Chapter, and actively worked to lobby the U.S. government for redress concerning the Japanese American internment during World War II. Through her involvement in the JACL she has also contributed greatly to the larger community, including Skid Row, where due to the large homeless population many children are unable to get an adequate education. In 1989, she was chair of her JACL chapter’s 60th anniversary celebration, which concurrently was a fundraising dinner to raise scholarship funds for Ninth Street School, which many Skid Row children attended. This fundraising effort led to an increase in awareness of the plight of the children, and became the impetus for the establishment of a scholarship mechanism for Ninth Street School.
Thelma Press was born in Darjeeling, India when it was part of the British Empire. She studied geography at Loreto College in Calcutta, where one of her teachers was Mother Teresa, now Saint Teresa of Calcutta. After the end of World War II in 1945, when Press was traveling by ship through Asia to the U.S., she was exposed to the misery and wreckage from the war and the plight of children in refugee camps. She resolved that children should not be punished for the sins of adults, and that she would do anything she could to help.
Thereafter she developed a strong commitment to world peace. Her strong will and passion, commitment to volunteerism, and untiring energy venturing into uncharted areas attracted many supporters, and she became a pioneer of the sister-city movement in the U.S. She has been recognized for her contributions on numerous occasions. Sister Cities International honored her with the Ruth Hashimoto Award in 2009 and in 2012 she was assigned the organization’s highest designation of “Global Envoy.”
Press has thus far received 62 awards from various organizations for her achievements, including an honorary doctorate in business administration in 2011 from California International Business University for her work in international relations.
After settling in San Bernardino, she co-founded the San Bernardino-Tachikawa sister city relationship in 1959, the first within the city of Tokyo (Tachikawa is a district of Tokyo) and the 27th formed in Japan. Between 1965 and 1974, she served as the chair of the San Bernardino-Tachikawa Sister City Committee, along with her husband, Louis.
The high school student exchange program, a core program of the relationship, remains active to this day. Over 200 students from the two cities have participated to date and include Japanese students who were welcomed into the Press home and became part of their extended family.
Mrs. Press also served for close to 20 years as the cultural and international affairs director for the Mayor’s Office, and in 2013 to commemorate the over 50 years of the sister-city relationship, the City of San Bernardino dedicated a plaque at City Hall in honor of Mr. and Mrs. Press.
In 1972, Mrs. Press was appointed as the state representative for California of Sister Cities International, and was elected to the national Board of Directors in 1977. Her achievements, leadership, and great knowledge of sister cities became well known nationally.
She also became deeply involved with the San Diego sister cities program while living in San Bernardino. She became a board member of the San Diego-Yokohama Sister City Society in 1981, later served as vice president, and then as president from 2013 to 2015. During her presidency, she not only strengthened exchanges in people-to-people relations and culture, but also in trade and education through realizing economic exchanges with the City of Yokohama and sister-school ties.
In 1994 Press became a member of the Board of Directors of the Japanese Friendship Garden Society of San Diego, and she has served as first vice president since 2013. In overseeing the expansion project of the garden, which included the opening of the Inamori Pavilion in 2015, she was a key member of meetings on a broad range of aspects including fundraising and design, to ensure Japanese tradition was authentically reproduced.
The garden actively features Japanese seasonal events and exhibits continually throughout the year such as New Year’s celebrations and Cherry Blossom Festivals, and Press continuously dedicates her efforts to introduce and promote Japanese culture to the many visitors who visit the garden from throughout the world.