By MICHELLE MURAKAMI
Kiyoshi Patrick Okura (1911-2005) was a varsity athlete before World War II. But afterwards, he became a civil rights leader.
With a number of laws put in place to create anti-Japanese and anti-Asian American sentiment at the time, Okura struggled with both professional and athletic opportunities throughout his lifetime – the beginning of World War II only put him at a further disadvantage.
Okura was born in Los Angeles in 1911 and graduated from UCLA in 1933 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Two years later, he became the first Asian American to graduate with a master’s degree in psychology at UCLA.
Okura faced adversity in school and sports even before anti-Japanese sentiment reached its peak in the U.S.
In a book titled “Victory Without Swords,” Robert B. Kugel wrote that while Okura was attending UCLA, the school’s residential restrictions made it so that Japanese American students could not live in close proximity to the school.
“Okura was not allowed to live in the area where the university was located,” Kugel wrote. “He had to live elsewhere and to hitchhike eight miles to school every day.”
During Okura’s time at UCLA, he founded the Japanese American Bruins Club along with several other Japanese Americans. The club pulled together the few Japanese American students on campus and provided them the opportunity to be around a group of people who may have similar cultural traits — something that was hard to find on a campus with little Asian student representation.
There was an even smaller percentage of minorities who participated in sports. Even before World War II, prejudices against minorities were prevalent, but concrete references to Okura’s time with UCLA baseball are inconsistent. (Along with his participation in collegiate baseball, Okura loved to play golf with his soon-to-be father-in-law, Sadao Tom Arikawa.)
Okura was the first Japanese American to play on UCLA’s varsity baseball team and was a member of the Blue “C” Society, which was known as the honorary major sport letterman organization. Blue “C” Society consisted of only five varsity sports: football, basketball, baseball, track and tennis. Sweaters designated towards the organization were given to the players but Okura’s sweater, which was donated to the Morgan Athletics Center in 1997 in preparation for its opening, has been denoted as lost.
The most notable member of this society is Jackie Robinson, who was UCLA’s first four-sport letter winner.
Okura played as a second baseman in 1929-1930, but he broke his arm the following year and was not able to play that season. However, he returned to play in 1932-1933. There are limited records of Okura’s baseball statistics but they can be found within the archive at UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center Library and Reading Room.
Although Okura was part of the Blue “C” Society from his freshman year, the sports and baseball team sections in the UCLA yearbooks did not include his name. Captions under varsity photos and the Blue “C” Society page often disregarded his participation.
Shortly after graduating and receiving his master’s in psychology from UCLA, Okura’s first job was with the County of Los Angeles. Just before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he got a job with the City of Los Angeles Civil Service Department as a personal technician.
Subsequently, city officials eventually suspected Okura of committing subversive acts and he was also accused of falsely presenting himself as Irish with the last name of “O’kura.” He refused to resign his employment as requested by then Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Bowron but was ultimately forced to take a leave of absence. After the war ended, the city would not allow Okura to return to his job.
It wasn’t until decades later that the City of Los Angeles issued a resolution of apology to Kiyoshi P. Okura and other Japanese American employees terminated due to the city’s wartime suspicion. In 1984, Okura was invited to return to Los Angeles to formally accept the apology signed by Mayor Tom Bradley and the City Council.
Okura and his wife Lily Arikawa (1919-2005) were sent in 1942 to the Santa Anita Racetrack, an assembly center from which Japanese Americans would then be separated into different internment camps. Luckily for Okura, he was able to find work as a psychologist by Father Edward Flanagan at Boys Town, a home for boys in Omaha. This opportunity would take him and his wife out of the relocation center and into a state where they could live in a house and work regular jobs.
“He responded to adversity by going into a field of work that seeks to understand and to heal. He went into psychology and mental health,” Kugel said. “He went into a field that calls upon one to give to others.”
Okura saw his work as a psychologist as an opportunity to engage friends and family and help patients feel less alienated and more comfortable with their mental illnesses.
Later in life, he was involved with community organizations and received several awards. He was the executive director of the Japanese American Citizens League — the oldest and largest Asian American civil rights organization — in L.A. in 1962. Among other accolades and achievements, Okura also served as the national president of the JACL from 1962 to 1964 and the director of the National Institute of Mental Health from 1971 to 1981.
Combining his $20,000 in reparations with his wife’s from the U.S. government as a result of the the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, they funded the Okura Mental Health Leadership Foundation to advance human services within the health field. They later founded the National Asian Pacific American Families Against Substance Abuse.
Librarian and archivist Marjorie Lee, who is in charge of the Okura Collection at the UCLA Asian American Studies Center Library and Reading Room, said Okura was an important figure in the Japanese American community because of his devotion to Japanese Americans and advocacy for community mental health resources for the Asian American and Pacific Islander community.
She added that even as a college student, he was determined to foster stronger relations that eventually led to his leadership in the 1934 Japan-America Student Conference, which is today one of the most successful student-led exchange programs where students from the U.S. and Japan study and analyze U.S.-Japan relations.
The Day of Remembrance on Feb. 19 memorializes the impact of the war on the Japanese American community. Okura pulled the community together during this time when there was little advocacy for Asian Americans in the mental health field.
As a student-athlete who faced racial discrimination and was interned during World War II, Lee said, Okura encapsulated leadership and dedication with a legacy to be remembered.
“(Okura) dedicated his life to mental health and the Japanese community,” Lee said. “The war, the internment camps, the discrimination, he wanted to prove that none of those obstacles would discourage him. (Okura) didn’t want to get revenge, it was to get even through advocacy and leadership, and that’s just what he did.”
From his early years as a student-athlete to becoming a federal employee as a mental health administrator with the National Institute of Mental Health, Kiyoshi Patrick Okura symbolized leadership and dedication with a legacy to be remembered.