Born in Seattle, James Y. Sakamoto became one of the leaders of the local and national Japanese American community during the critical era just before and after the start of World War II. He was a founder of the important organization, the Japanese American Citizen's League (JACL) and started the first English-language Japanese American newspaper.
He showed the promise of leadership at an early age. At 17, he testified before a Congressional committee investigating immigration laws, avowing his rights as an American citizen.
A graduate of Seattle's Franklin High School, Sakamoto played semi-pro baseball and became a professional welterweight boxer in New York. In 1927, he returned to Seattle, blind because boxing blows to his face had injured his eyes.
A Pioneering Newspaper
In 1928, Sakamoto founded the Japanese American Courier, the first English-language Japanese American newspaper in the United States. He would type items on a typewriter, and his wife, Misao, would help him with all other aspects of layout and printing to get the paper out.
The Courier sponsored numerous sports leagues and teams in the Seattle area, connecting hundreds of young people in baseball, football, and basketball. As the community newspaper of record, the Courier and Sakamoto espoused a dual, if sometimes conflicting message.
On the one hand, Sakamoto promoted the philosophy of good citizenship and opportunity and the desirability for Nisei (second generation Japanese Americans) to become "one hundred percent Americans." On the other hand, the Courier was known for promoting understanding and better ties with Japan, and initially supported Japanese imperialist forays into China and Asia.
Japanese American Citizens' League
In 1930, Sakamoto helped to establish the Japanese American Citizens' League (JACL). The JACL, founded in Seattle, was the first national organization of Japanese Americans in the country and its focus was on sharing with the larger community the educational and business achievements of the Nisei. It was also a way for Nisei to socialize, meet, and pull together as an ethnic community.
The JACL emphasized the American way of life, American citizenship, and so on. From 1936-1938, Sakamoto served as the organization's second national president.
Pearl Harbor and the Attack on the Japanese American Community
When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Sakamoto and other JACL leaders became defacto community spokesmen and acted as liaisons between the U.S. government and the Japanese community. Sakamoto headed the JACL Emergency Defense Council, which translated government regulations for distraught immigrants, conducted first aid classes, and gathered and distributed food.
The Council preached cooperation above all else and helped the government conduct an orderly "evacuation" and imprisonment of 9,600 Japanese American residents of Seattle and King County. At a temporary prison camp set up at the Puyallup fair grounds, Sakamoto became "Chief Supervisor" and wielded considerable power over the day-to-day operations of the "assembly center," where Japanese Americans from King County were forced to gather.
The JACL position went beyond acquiescence; it actively opposed dissent. In the months after Pearl Harbor, Clarence Arai, a Seattle lawyer who was an early leader of the JACL and a community leader during internment, reported subversive activities in the Japanese community to the FBI. Later, the JACL refused to back draft resisters in the inland concentration camps.
The JACL line was not representative of the community as a whole. Seattle Nisei attorneys Shinao Masuda and Kenji Ito openly challenged the JACL's and Sakamoto's authority, contending that the JACL administration was undemocratic because its leaders were not elected, and that the JACL was a tool of the U.S. government. Although the JACL received a vote of confidence in an election in Camp Harmony (the camp at the Puyallup fairgrounds), by the time the community was relocated to the internment camp called Minidoka in southern Idaho, the tide of opinion had turned against Sakamoto and other JACL leaders. As a result, they had little say in how Minidoka was run, though Sakamoto did help recruit Nisei for the U.S. Army in 1943.
A Tragic End
After the war, the Sakamotos couldn't afford to restart the newspaper. They lived on government assistance until he found a job conducting a telephone solicitation campaign for the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store. He died on December 3, 1955, after being struck by an automobile on his way to work.