SENIOR MOMENTS: Notes from the Memorial for Dr. Sanbo Sakaguchi

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By PHIL SHIGEKUNI

Over 200 gathered at the San Fernando Valley JA Community Center for the memorial program in honor of Dr. Sanbo Sakaguchi, who died on May 24.

Dr. Sakaguchi, whose specialty was surgery, practiced for over 50 years in San Fernando, along with his sister, Dr. Mary Oda.

Dr. Sanbo was involved in a number of organizations. Speaking on his behalf and representing the Japanese American National Museum was its president and CEO, Greg Kimura. The recently appointed president of the JACCC, Leslie Ito, was in attendance, as well as Bill Watanabe, recently retired executive director of the Little Tokyo Service Center. Bill spoke personally about growing up in the Valley and having Dr. Sakaguchi as his doctor. A show of hands gave evidence of the many in the audience who had Dr. Sanbo as their personal doctor.

Dr. Sakaguchi earned a black belt in judo, and was an avid fisher of big game fish, such as the swordfish.

Some of the speakers told about his total dedication to the job to which he devoted his life. His sister, Dr. Mary Oda, told me once that Dr. Sanbo enjoyed his work so much that he told her that going to work for him was like going out to play.

Dr. Sanbo Sakaguchi (1917-2013)

Other speakers told of how he gave back to the community.

For over 30 years he served as the team physician for a Valley high school football team.

As the doctor in attendance for the Valley judo dojo, he went with the team when they traveled throughout the country, and overseas. Also, Dr. Sanbo was the volunteer physician at the 1984 Olympics judo meet.

He not only served on the boards of JANM, JACCC and the Little Tokyo Service Center, he gave generously to these organizations. He also gave to the community center.

Marquette University, his medical school alma mater, reports that Dr. Sakaguchi was its largest contributor, and a representative spoke of how his generosity was recognized on a prominent display at UCLA noting the gifts of Dr. Sanbo and his wife, Kay. His giving extended to service organizations at UCLA as well.

To begin our afternoon’s program, a trio from the Asia America Symphony Orchestra performed. It was announced afterwards that Dr. Sakaguchi was a major donor to this organization.

I was listed on the program as the JACL representative. With the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington impending, I focused on how human/civil rights issues had impinged on Dr. Sakaguchi’s life.

In his first year at Marquette University Medical School, Dr. Sanbo’s father, brother and sister died within an eight-month period, most probably due to the harsh conditions they endured at Manzanar. It was his task to travel there to handle their burial arrangements.

Despite being an American citizen, he along with other Niseis were classified 4C. This made him unqualified to get a free medical education. His fellow medical students were given a free education provided they accepted an Army officer’s commission upon graduation.

In 1950, when he settled in the Valley, he was eligible for the draft, and was given a commission and assigned to a hospital in Washington state. When Dr. Sanbo returned and resumed his practice with his sister, Dr. Oda, they found that no Valley hospital would admit their patients. To overcome this discrimination, they founded Serra Memorial Hospital in Sun Valley.

The meeting hall at the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center has been named the Dr. Sanbo Sakaguchi Hall.

It was there that we celebrated the life of Dr. Sakaguchi, who, as a Nisei, by his hard work and determination, not only served the medical needs of  many, and gave back so much to his community and the schools he attended,  but without complaint, overcame the hurdles that were placed in his path.

Thanks are due to Community Center President Nancy Oda, who coordinated this memorable program.

Phil Shigekuni writes from San Fernando Valley and can be contacted at [email protected] The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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  1. John Wooden said, “Make your life a masterpiece.” Dr. Sakaguchi made Southern California his canvas with broad strokes of compassion, hope, and loyalty. It makes one think about what we could do with the time we have left. Although he could have practiced on a larger stage, he returned to minister to the Japanese, Latino, and Black community. His memory continues as people tell me stories. He attended UCLA when only four “orientals” were admitted and graduated in 1939. He was a giant in our midst.

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