Lily Okamoto


Name Lily Miyamoto Okamoto
Born December 1 1932
Died April 2 1989
Birth Location Honolulu, HI
Generational Identifier

Sansei

A Hawai'i-born, politically active Sansei who was the first woman in the Islands to be both a certified public accountant and licensed attorney.

Family Background and Early Political Activism

Lily Miyamoto was born on December 1, 1932, the eldest of four children of Takaichi and Misayo Miyamoto. Her father was a successful businessman who rose up through the ranks of the plantation hierarchy to eventually purchase Haiku Plantation from his former employer; he subsequently subdivided and sold the land. Takaichi Miyamoto was one of the first Nisei members of Hawai'i's Democratic Party and according to one author, "his strong principles, independent philosophy, dedication, and active behind-the-scenes role in the party structure aided in building the foundations for social change that would sweep the Islands," as part of the Revolution of 1954.[1] He was a member of the unofficial "kitchen" cabinet of Honolulu Mayor John H. Wilson and helped to influence city policy.[2] Due to her father's participation in numerous political campaigns, Okamoto was exposed to politics from an early age, shaping her later support for the Democratic Party.

When Okamoto was a young girl, her father tried to enroll in her in public school but officials denied her application as she only spoke Japanese. Okamoto thus enrolled in private schools beginning at Island Paradise School where she learned English and later at Hawaiian Mission Academy, and finally at Punahou School. At seventeen, Okamoto entered the University of Hawai'i and became interested in both accounting and law. She would eventually graduate with a B.B.A. in accounting but never forgot about her interest in the law as according to Okamoto she "had observed that one had the opportunity to take care of himself because he knew his rights. In addition, law provided a variety of interest and is such an important part of our lives."[3] Following graduation, Okamoto attended the University of Michigan Law School—one of the first institutions in the nation to admit women—and graduated in 1956 after enrolling in an accelerated program. After attaining her law degree, Okamoto returned to Hawai'i, was admitted to the Hawai'i bar, and was licensed to practice on December 12, 1956. She became the last woman to be admitted to the Hawai'i bar prior to statehood. In 1960, she also became the first Japanese American woman certified as a public accountant in Hawai'i and ultimately was the first woman in the Islands to be both a certified public accountant and licensed attorney.

Professional Career

As a result of racial and gender barriers in private firms, Okamoto began her career in government service and in 1957 was a law clerk for Hawai'i's Supreme Court. In 1958, she worked as an auditor for the accounting firm of Peat, Marwick, and Mitchell and two years later, she worked with the Legislative Reference Bureau. In 1961, she was a deputy corporation counsel for the City and County of Honolulu and was an attorney for the House of Representatives for the 1961 and 1962 Hawai'i State Legislature.

During this time, Okamoto met her future husband Koozo Okamoto who was also a certified public accountant and attorney. They married on January 27, 1962, and while Okamoto was serving as deputy comptroller in the State Department of Accounting and General Services for the State of Hawai'i, she also bore five children. She became the youngest woman to hold a subcabinet position in Governor John Burns' administration and with her appointment as deputy director of the Department of Regulatory Activities became the only woman to hold two subcabinet positions.

Controversy and Achievements

During the 1970s, Okamoto became embroiled in controversy, the first involving her work as a council auditor as she had investigated all city and county departments' auditing procedures. During her investigation, Okamoto discovered irregularities in standard auditing procedures at the Honolulu International Center's box office. In an internal confidential memorandum, Okamoto criticized the lack of strict accounting procedures. She suggested that all box office proceeds go directly to the city treasury where they would be subject to the internal controls of the city. After Senator Walter Heen released this memo to the media, box office manager Elroy Runnels sued Okamoto alleging libel and slander after the report disclosed that $65,000 was missing from the box office.[4] However, the state Supreme Court affirmed a lower court’s decision that Okamoto was simply doing her job as a council auditor.

In 1978, Okamoto returned to become a trustee of the Hawai'i Employees Retirement System, a position that she had left to become the first female director of the First Federal Savings and Loan Association. However, the Hawai'i State Ethics commission soon started to investigate Okamoto following complaints that she had solicited institutions and individuals with whom the Hawai'i Employees Retirement system had business dealings with to purchase campaign fund raising tickets for George Ariyoshi's gubernatorial candidacy and other democratic candidates. Okamoto did not deny these charges, explaining that, "I'm not ashamed to say that I have sold tickets like so many other people in this town" and alleged that other trustees who she had disagreements with had initiated the investigation.[5] Ultimately, the commission imposed the maximum penalty on Okamoto who continued her political and community activism undaunted by these charges. She later made unsuccessful bids for a seat on the Honolulu Council.

In her later years, Okamoto obtained professional licenses in a number of fields. In addition to working as a lobbyist for the trustee of the bankrupt THC Financial Corporation, she was licensed as a life insurance agent, real-estate broker, property and casualty insurance agent, and stockbroker. She owned her own real-estate company, Lee, Okamoto, and Associates, Inc., as well as her own insurance company, Lily M. Okamoto, Inc. Okamoto passed away at the age of fifty-seven due to a massive coronary. Her life was aptly summed up by Thelma Chun Hoon Zen, a director at Queen's Medical Center who stated: "Lily Okamoto's life story is the community and involvement in its political process. Her father, T. Miyamoto, is remembered for his active nurturing of grass roots political participation in the 1940s and 1950s. She, fortunately, has inherited these qualities and lives them daily."[6] As a career woman, Okamoto broke many barriers in the workplace and was committed to living to her fullest potential.

Authored by Kelli Y. Nakamura, University of Hawai'i

For More Information

Matsuda, Mari J., ed. Called from Within: Early Women Lawyers of Hawai'i. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1992.

Footnotes

  1. Mari J. Matsuda, Called from Within: Early Women Lawyers of Hawai'i (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1992), 311.
  2. "Takaichi Miyamoto," Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Mar. 10, 1981, A-18.
  3. "Sansei Working Woman: Lily Okamoto," Hawai'i Herald, Mar. 2, 1973, 4.
  4. "Okamoto, Mrs. Lily M. (Deputy State Comptroller) 2," University of Hawai'i at Mānoa Hamilton Library, Microfiche 98050, Part 2.
  5. "Okamoto, Mrs. Lily M. (Deputy State Comptroller) 2," University of Hawai'i at Mānoa Hamilton Library, Microfiche 98050, Part 7.
  6. Matsuda, Called from Within, 321.