Naomi Okamoto’s Japanese parents were keen for their only child to learn the language of their homeland and embrace her Asian cultural heritage.
“They sent me to Japanese school on Saturdays, which I absolutely hated,” Okamoto, 65, recalled. “When you’re a kid you do not want to be sitting in the classroom from 9 to 3 on a Saturday. “
When she was around 20 years old her parents dispatched her to Japan for a year.
Today, the daughter of a homemaker and wholesale seafood distributor who can read and write grammar school-level Japanese regrets not taking her language studies more seriously.
Okamoto grew up in a predominately white neighborhood and Marshall High School, her alma mater, had a predominately white, Jewish and Asian student body. But Okamoto said she was keenly familiar with the various ethnic enclaves that peppered the city’s landscape.
Okamoto reveled in the diversity, but she also remembers facing some discrimination.
“When we would go to the swimming pool, there would occasionally be those who would chase you around and call you derogatory names,” she said.
During World War II her parents evacuated to Colorado in an attempt to avoid being forcibly relocated or incarcerated in an interment camp, as was the fate of most people of Japanese ancestry living in California. But her father still ended up being sent to various camps for those considered “dangerous,” Okamoto said.
When her parents returned to Los Angeles after the war there were restrictions on where they could buy a home. They settled in the Silver Lake and succeeded in leading prosperous lives, Okamoto said.
She earned a master’s in single-subject art from Long Beach University and later owned a small graphics company. She marvels at the level of diversity of today’s L.A. and is happy and proud to be a resident of the city.
“We don’t have to watch our backs as much as if we were living somewhere else,” said Okamoto who, now retired, teaches fly-tying in her spare time. “We are free to intermingle with whomever we like. “
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