Chiyoko Sakamoto

Name Chiyoko Sakamoto
Born June 30 1912
Died December 2 1994
Birth Location Napa, California
Generational Identifier


Chiyoko Sakamoto Takahashi (1912-94) earned the distinction of being the first Asian American woman admitted to the California State Bar as well as the first and only Nisei woman to practice law in California into the early post-World War II period. While she was incarcerated at Amache during World War II, she worked on the legal aid staff and advised fellow incarcerees on pending legal affairs on the West Coast. She continued her law career after the war by working alongside noted civil rights attorney Hugh E. MacBeth . She later established her own practice while she also served as legal counsel to her husband's produce distribution company, KITTYS Vegetable Distributors, Inc. in Los Angeles. She also participated in early meetings that led to the establishment of the Japanese American Bar Association.

Early Years

Chiyoko Sakamoto was born in Napa, California, on June 30, 1912. Her father Hisamatsu Sakamoto and mother Kume Sakamoto immigrated to the United States from Japan in 1903, along with their eldest daughter Taye. Chiyoko, her older brother Gene Akira and younger brother Richard Kiyoshi were US citizens by birth while their older sister Taye was not able to become naturalized until 1952, despite living in her adopted country since she was a toddler. In comparison to their older sister, the types of opportunities that Chiyoko and her brothers had access to appear to have differed based on their citizenship status.

In 1917, the Sakamoto family relocated to Southern California. They settled in Boyle Heights, a historically multiethnic neighborhood east of Downtown Los Angeles with a sizeable Japanese American community. From a fairly early age, Chiyoko took on a significant amount of responsibility, especially following her father's sudden passing in 1925. In order to help support her family, Chiyoko began working as a secretary while she continued to excel in her studies at Los Angeles Polytechnic High School. Following graduation from high school in 1930, she continued working as a legal aid for Katsuma Mukaeda, a prominent leader within Los Angeles's Japanese community. Despite attending USC, Southwestern University of Law, and earning a law degree from American University, Mukaeda was unable to take the bar exam or represent his clients in court given his citizenship status as an Issei . [1] He worked around this limitation by offering legal consultation and Japanese translation services to his clients. This early work with Mukaeda and his inability to practice law likely influenced Chiyoko's decision to attend law school. As a US citizen, Chiyoko had a significant advantage over her mentor, which she did not take for granted. In 1934, she began studying law on scholarship at American University, which was located in Downtown Los Angeles. During the four and a half years she was enrolled there, Sakamoto was the first and only woman as well as student of color. [2] She continued to work for Mukaeda during the day while she attended law classes at night. Shortly after earning her law degree in 1938, Chiyoko received admittance to the California State Bar in December of the same year. [3] At a time when it was extremely rare for a woman to gain admittance to the California State Bar let alone pursue a career in law, Chiyoko Sakamoto became the first Japanese American woman to attain both of these significant achievements. [4] In the late 1930s, and at just 27 years of age, Chiyoko Sakamoto, navigated discriminatory barriers that continued to severely obstruct the social mobility of people of color as well as women within US society.

As Chiyoko began navigating her early career, she and her younger brother Richard were living in an area of Los Angeles known as "Seinan," which translates as "southwest." Without racial housing covenants enforced in this area southwest of Downtown Los Angeles, many of the neighborhood's residents were people of color, mainly Japanese and African American. Chiyoko and Richard lived on 29th Place, just a mile from Hugh Ellwood MacBeth, a prominent African American attorney who would later become her mentor and colleague.

By 1940, Chiyoko established her law practice in Mukaeda's office, located in the Nishi Hongwanji Temple building at 331 First Street in Little Tokyo. [5] She practiced civil law, assisting a mostly Japanese American clientele. Sakamoto observed that since most of her clients hoped to settle outside of court, she acted as a mediator. Most of her cases involved business matters, including leases. She noted much later in her career that among these early cases, very few were domestic disputes or divorce cases, suggesting: "[in her early days of practicing] law was not that exciting, not the type of thing they have now. We didn't fight about money because we had no money." [6] Even though Sakamoto downplayed the significance of her work and credited her mentor for helping her to develop a client base, she was in a class on her own as a Japanese American woman practicing law.

War Years

With the impending uncertainty that clouded over Japanese Americans immediately following Pearl Harbor, Chiyoko's older sister Taye moved her own family to Los Angeles after her husband Yoshikichi Sasano was picked up by the FBI and sent to Tuna Canyon detention center in Tujunga, California. The Sasano family joined Chiyoko and Richard at their Los Angeles home so that they would not be separated. Members of the Sakamoto family were sent first to the temporary detention center at Santa Anita in Arcadia, California. In September 1942, the Sakamoto and Sasano families were transferred to Amache (Granada) in Colorado, one of ten American concentration camps.

Within a month of arriving at Amache, Chiyoko joined the staff of the legal aid office established there. Under Project Attorney Donald T. Horn, Sakamoto and her colleagues Masao Igasaki and Frank Ito provided legal counseling to fellow incarcerees, pertaining to insurance matters back on the West Coast. According to a reminder from Sakamoto included in the November 14, 1942 edition of the Granada Pioneer , incarcerees who maintained property in Los Angeles County remained responsible to pay taxes that month. [7] Sakamoto and the other legal aid staff members were available to field questions or provide legal advice. A few months later, an issue of the Granada Pioneer announced that Sakamoto, of the legal aid office at Amache, would be traveling to nearby Trinidad, Colorado on business for a few days. [8] That Sakamoto's trip was worthy of mention in the camp newspaper is evidence of the importance of her work in the legal aid center. In a February 1943 memorandum from project attorney Donald Horn to a fellow colleague in the WRA, he inferred that Chiyoko as well as other employees from the legal aid office left Amache on occasion on business. It's likely that the legal aid office employees' work created the need for them to travel for days, sometimes weeks at a time, although it's not entirely clear from Horn's memorandum. What remains certain was Horn's great admiration for Sakamoto. He saw significant potential in her career ahead, possibly in a government position. He expressed concern to his WRA colleague that Sakamoto felt "her chances of practicing law again [following incarceration] are gone, which is regrettable in view of the time and money preparing herself for this vocation." [9] Reflecting much later in life on incarceration during World War II and loss of civil liberties, Sakamoto reprised the frustrations she expressed to Horn in 1943, lamenting: "I was terribly disgusted. I thought I would never practice law again. It didn't seem fair. There was a lot of prejudice against the Japanese and women. It was very depressing." [10]

In his February 1943 memo, Horn predicted that Sakamoto would leave Amache soon since her brothers and two friends were obtaining indefinite leave clearance to farm in nearby Hoehne, Colorado, not too far from Trinidad and Pueblo. The following month, Chiyoko's partner Tooru received indefinite leave clearance to resettle in Hoehne, where he intended to farm. From several letters that Sakamoto sent to Horn, throughout 1943, she appears to have been on temporary leave from Amache for much of the year, helping Tooru with farm operations in nearby Hoehne or Trinidad. [11] On October 11, Chiyoko and Tooru married in Raton, New Mexico. [12] According to the WRA's final accountability roster, Sakamoto officially received indefinite leave from Amache on February 2, 1944. [13]


Chiyoko and Tooru moved to Cleveland, Ohio, in 1945, where they remained for two years. In 1947, they decided to return to Los Angeles, where they originated from and where their families had resettled. Chiyoko and Tooru moved into the same house where she and her brother resided before the war. Following indefinite leave from Amache, Chiyoko's mother Kume and sister Taye were both adjusting to life in Los Angeles on their own. In support of her family, Chiyoko invited her mother, sister, nieces and nephew to live with her to ease the daunting process of restarting their lives.

Although it was extremely difficult for Japanese American professionals to find employment after the war, Chiyoko continued to practice law. The Rafu Shimpo , the Japanese newspaper in Los Angeles, announced Sakamoto's recent return to the region, touting her stature as the "the only Nisei woman lawyer in the state and one of the three in the United States." [14] The article further detailed that Hugh E. MacBeth, a well-known civil rights attorney and champion for Japanese Americans leading up to and during the forced removal and subsequent incarceration, had hired Sakamoto for his law firm. A listing for her in a 1949 Japanese American directory lists her as "attorney-at-law" sharing an office with MacBeth at 524 S. Spring Street. Her business card indicated that the "Law Office of MacBeth Sakamoto MacBeth" also had an area office south of Downtown Los Angeles. [15] Given the inter-racial composition of the staff in the law office, Sakamoto likely worked with a more diverse client base in comparison to her prewar practice.

Following MacBeth's death, Chiyoko opened a law practice on West Jefferson and Crenshaw in Southwest Los Angeles, where she provided Japanese translation services and assisted couples headed for divorce to negotiate settlements, especially when young children were involved.

While Chiyoko devoted her career to law, her husband Tooru focused on farming. He became interested in farming opportunities in Culican, Mexico, where he lived for three years before he opened a produce distribution company called KITTYS Vegetable Distributors, Inc. in Los Angeles in 1958. Chiyoko traveled back and forth between Los Angeles and Mexico while Tooru worked there. In addition to running her own law practice, Chiyoko served as the legal counsel for KITTYS. In 1982, she eventually assumed the role of President of KITTYS when Tooru passed away unexpectedly while undergoing heart surgery. [16] Two years later, at the age of 72, Chiyoko announced her retirement from KITTYS and the imminent sale of three divisions of the company after twenty-five years in operation. [17] Despite retirement from KITTYS, she maintained her legal practice, continuing to work with some of her longtime clients.

Sakamoto participated in early meetings that led to the establishment of the Japanese American Bar Association (JABA) and the California Women Lawyers (CWL), both of which were formed in the 1970s. Sakamoto and her colleagues founded JABA in 1976 to provide a pipeline for Japanese American lawyers to positions on the bench. More broadly, JABA worked to promote the interests of the Japanese American legal profession and the Japanese American community by supporting civil rights issues. JABA is one of the oldest and most diverse bar associations in the nation. The intention of the California Women Lawyers was similar in that it intended to promote the professional advancement of women, another underrepresented demographic in the legal profession.

Over the course of the ten years of her retirement, Chiyoko traveled the world and spent time with her family. She passed away on December 2, 1994.

Authored by Kristen Hayashi , Japanese American National Museum

For More Information

Hayashi, Kristen. " The Sakamoto-Sasano Collection: Bringing New Meaning to Family Mementos. " Discover Nikkei , Nov. 14, 2019.

"Obituary: State's First Nikkei Woman Lawyer Dies." Rafu Shimpo , Dec. 5 1994.


  1. "Katsuma Mukaeda; Founder of Japanese American Center," Los Angeles Times , Nov. 8, 1995.
  2. "Obituary: State's First Nikkei Woman Lawyer Dies," Rafu Shimpo , Dec. 5 1994.
  3. "Japanese Woman Passes Bar Examinations in California," Spokane Daily Chronicle , Oct. 26, 1938.
  4. Many sources note Chiyoko Sakamoto as the first Japanese American woman to become an attorney, but she also appears to be the first Asian American woman to earn that distinction. Emma Lum was the first female Chinese American attorney in California, graduating from Hastings Law School and passing the California Bar Exam in 1947.
  5. "Attorneys - Chiyoko Sakamoto," 1940 Los Angeles City Directory , Los Angeles: Los Angeles Directory Co., 1940, accessed on May 8, 2020 at .
  6. "Obituary: State's First Nikkei Woman Lawyer Dies."
  7. Granada Pioneer , Oct, 28, 1942.
  8. Granada Pioneer , Feb. 27 1943.
  9. Donald T. Horn, Granada project attorney, weekly report to Philip M. Glick, solicitor, War Relocation Authority, Mar. 23, 1943, Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Records, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley, BANC MSS 67/14 c, folder L1.61:2, accessed on May 11, 2020 at .
  10. "Obituary: State's First Nikkei Woman Lawyer Dies."
  11. Chiyoko Sakamoto, letters to Donald Horn, Feb. 25, 1943; Mar. 5 1943; Apr. 22 1943; May 20, 1943; Sept. 3, 1943, MS 0011 Records of Attorney Donald T. Horn, Tutt Library, Colorado College.
  12. Pacific Citizen , Nov. 13, 1943.
  13. According to the entry for "Takahashi, Tooru" and "Takahashi, Chiyoko (nee Sakamoto)" in the WRA's Final Accountability Roster for Granada/Amache, Chiyoko Takahashi received indefinite leave on February 2, 1944.
  14. Rafu Shimpo , Feb. 27 1947, 1.
  15. Japanese American National Museum, Sakamoto-Sasano Collection (Gift of Scott and Jennifer Yoshida, 2018.10.150b)
  16. "Personal History of Tooru Takahashi," July 30, 1982, Japanese American National Museum, Sakamoto-Sasano Collection (Gift of Scott and Jennifer Yoshida, 2018.10. 150c).
  17. "KITTYS Vegetable Distributors, Inc. press release," 1984, Japanese American National Museum, Sakamoto-Sasano Collection (Gift of Scott and Jennifer Yoshida, 2018.10.150d).

Last updated Jan. 22, 2021, 1:52 a.m..