By STEVE AWAKUNI
I first met Vince Okamoto when he ran for the Gardena City Council back in 1975. He was 32 and already very accomplished, a war hero, and a deputy district attorney for Los Angeles County. He was a Gardena boy who “done” good.
While working on his campaign I was amazed by the unwavering support from the local community. He had friends from his high school days, who knew him as a star athlete and student leader. There were folks who watched him grow up in “camp” and knew his family from the South Side of Chicago. They all had come out to support him.
In Vince’s City Council campaign, I volunteered to deliver yard signs around the city. One day Vince joined me on my rounds through the neighborhoods. We carried signs, we talked about the campaign. Vince told me that someone had offered him the endorsement and photo from his campaign rival’s ex-wife. He wanted to know what I thought about it.
After a long discussion we both concluded that accepting the endorsement would humiliate his opponent. It just would not be “cool.” Going against the advice of his campaign advisors, Vince declined the offer. Even though he knew it would be a close race, a negative campaign was not Vince’s style. Win or lose. I knew that this was truly a man of honor.
Vince won a seat on the City Council. He set a new tone in the local government by refusing gifts from “influential” businesses that would bring matters before the council.
Vince went on to establish a successful law practice and a bank, both founded to meet the needs of the community. I was lucky to work with him in banking and the practice of law. Vince was gifted with a flawless memory, a keen legal acumen, and a huge heart that was eager to do the tough work for the good of many.
You learn a lot about someone when you stay up for 24 hours to draft legal pleadings. Get the job done. Do good work. When he became a judge, Vince had one mantra — “Do Justice.” It’s no wonder that he was well respected by his judicial colleagues and truly loved by his court staff.
Vince was in demand as a speaker. He was eloquent and captured everyone’s attention when he spoke. Although he made it appear easy, he spent many hours crafting each speech.
Most people know him as a warrior. Yes, he was that! He was a direct descendant of the famous swordsman Sasaki Kojiro. By birthright, Vince was indeed a samurai. But, sometimes being a samurai had its drawbacks.
Many years ago, we met up with friends to play basketball. Vince tore his Achilles tendon but he refused to go to the hospital. We still had to climb over the fence of the school playground to get home. Somehow we got out of there. His wife called me later when they got home from the hospital. Between fits of laughter, she recounted how she’d accidentally maneuvered his wheelchair, his injured leg extended, right into the counter of the nurses’ station. It sounded like a comedy movie. Vince joked that the pain from the crash at the hospital was worse than being shot in battle.
Like the true warrior that he was, Vince used his period of convalescence to write the draft of his novel. He made the best of it. For years I eased my guilt with deliveries and midnight runs to Tommy’s for the hamburgers and hotdogs that Vince loved.
Vince was a true Renaissance man, soldier, statesman, artist, author, humanitarian, orator, lawyer and judge. But he was also a wonderful son, brother, uncle, husband, grandfather and friend to many people from all stations of life. He was a bright light that drew people close to him.
He truly loved his wife Mitzi. They shared an amazing life and a love of fine food, books, antiques and dogs! Precious weekends were devoted to his son, Darby, and grandchildren, Penny and Derek.
I will miss my wonderful friend and mentor. I met Vince when I was 20 and didn’t have a clue about what I would do with my life. 45 years later I think he was proud of who I had become, knowing that he guided my growth.
One thing I know for sure is that the world is a better place because Vince was here with us and we will all be poorer for his passing.
Steve Awakuni, of the Law Office of Steven I. Awakuni, was a senior vice president at Pacific Heritage Bank and Cal Fed; a member of the Planning and Environmental Commission for the City of Gardena; and a board member of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center.
Catherine Endo Chuck, president, Japanese American Bar Association: The Japanese American Bar Association mourns the loss of Judge Vincent Okamoto of the Los Angeles Superior Court and expresses its deepest condolences to his family. Judge Okamoto was one of the founders of JABA, and served as a member of JABA’s Advisory Council.
After serving in Vietnam and becoming the most highly decorated Japanese American to survive the war, Judge Okamoto attended law school at USC. He served as a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney before entering private practice. Then in 2002, California Gov. Gray Davis appointed him to the bench.
In the 1970s, as more Japanese Americans were becoming attorneys, Judge Okamoto saw the need to mentor them so he became one of the founding members of the Japanese American Bar Association. JABA has always stood for equality and inclusion. From its inception in 1979, and throughout his career, Judge Vincent Okamoto remained committed to JABA and its ideals. He will be deeply missed.
Susan Uyemura, on behalf of the staff of Japanese American Living Legacy and Nikkei Writers Guild: The unexpected passing of Judge Vincent H. Okamoto saddens the Japanese American Living Legacy and Nikkei Writers Guild organizations. The “Judge” was our inaugural author with “Wolfhound Samurai.” His book launched Nikkei Writers Guild in 2007. Eleven various publications later by different writers from the Japanese American community, Nikkei Writers Guild cannot express or repay the gratitude we owe him.
While Judge Okamoto was a highly decorated veteran, community leader, politician, and businessman, he also supported numerous community groups. He was never too busy to help friends. Judge Okamoto was the kind of soul who never flaunted his accomplishments and always seemed uncomfortable in the spotlight no matter how much he deserved it. He was humble, quiet, and man of profound principles.
JA Living Legacy and Nikkei Writers Guild will miss Judge Okamoto, and we send Mitzi and his family our love and appreciation.