The Quad: Reflecting on legacy of UCLA’s first Japanese-American varsity baseball player
(Courtesy of UCLA Asian American Studies Center Library and Reading Room)
Feb. 25, 2019 8:44 p.m.
Kiyoshi Patrick Okura was a varsity athlete before World War II.
But afterward, 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 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 hitch-hike 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, that was hard to find on a campus with few Asian student representation.
With little Asian student representation, there was a smaller percentage of minorities who participated in sports. Even before World War II prejudices against minorities were prevalent, concrete references of Okura’s time with UCLA baseball are inconsistent.
Okura was the first Japanese-American to play on UCLA’s varsity baseball team and was a member of the Blue “C” Society that was known as the Honorary Major Sport Letterman Organization. Blue “C” Society consisted of only five varsity sports: football, basketball, baseball, track and tennis. 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 in 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 since his freshman year, a few yearbooks did not include his name. Captions under varsity photos and the Blue “C” Society page often disregarded his participation.
Shortly after graduation, Okura took up a job at the LA City Civil Service, administering qualification exams for the city. When World War II came around, he was eventually accused of being an Irish spy, because his legal name was inaccurately recorded as “O’kura.” He was shortly thereafter accused of being unfair in the process of the examinations.
“(The government believed) he had infiltrated the Civil Service Department with Japanese-Americans and that his plan was for them to take over the department,” Kugel wrote.
After a forced resignation, Okura and his wife Lily Arikawa were sent to the Santa Anita racetrack in 1941, a relocation center where Japanese people would then be separated into different internment camps. Luckily for Okura, he was able to find work as a psychologist by Father 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 on in his life, he was involved with community organizations and received several awards. He was the executive director of the Japanese American Citizens League in LA in 1962, the oldest and largest Asian-American civil rights organization. Among other accolades and achievements, Okura also served as the national president of the League from 1962-1964 and the director of the National Institute of Mental Health in 1971.
Combining his $20,000 reparations with his wife’s from the U.S. government by 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 Library Studies Center and Reading Room, said Okura was an important figure in the Japanese-American community because of his devotion to service. She added that his determination to create a better environment for Japanese-Americans also led to his founding of the Japan-America Student Conference – a student-led exchange program where students from the U.S. and Japan study and analyze U.S.-Japanese relations.
The Day of Remembrance on Feb. 19 memorializes the Japanese community affected by the war. Okura pulled the Japanese-American community together during this time when there was little advocacy for Asian people 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, and that’s just what he did.”
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