three people outdoors, two wearing leis

Blazing Trails for Asian American Health and Well-Being Social Welfare alumni Bill Watanabe and Yasuko Sakamoto are honored for legacy of leadership

By Mary Braswell

Alumni, faculty, staff and friends of UCLA Luskin Social Welfare gathered in Little Tokyo this month to celebrate two trailblazers whose life’s work centered on making the Asian American and Pacific Islander community thrive, in Los Angeles and beyond.

Bill Watanabe MSW ’72 and Yasuko Sakamoto MSW ’83 were recognized as the Joseph A. Nunn Social Welfare Alumni of the Year for their decades of leadership in strengthening ethnic neighborhoods and training generations of social workers who would carry on a legacy of service.

Watanabe and Sakamoto were two of the three original staff members of the Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC) when it opened in 1980, and they served together for more than three decades.

The nonprofit now employs more than 150 people, providing culturally sensitive social services, affordable housing, support for small businesses, and programs for children, families and seniors. The June 8 alumni celebration took place in the recently opened Terasaki Budokan, a community sports and activity center 30 years in the making.

Over the years, the service center has also served as a learning site for more than 120 social welfare interns, 60 from UCLA — including three current  faculty, Susan Lares-Nakaoka MSW ’99 UP PhD ’14, director of field education; Toby Hur MSW ’93 and Erin Nakamura MSW ’12.

A group of former interns nominated Watanabe and Sakamoto for this year’s award, and many delivered moving tributes to their mentors.

“Bill was well-known for his visionary leadership, unwavering ethics and persistence in pursuing social justice goals … and also, the way he just always does the right thing,” Lares-Nakaoka said of Watanabe, who served as the center’s founding executive director for 32 years before retiring in 2012.

three young people in historic B&W photo

LTSC’s three original staffers: Yasuko Sakamoto, left, Bill Watanabe and Evelyn Yoshimura. Photo courtesy of the Little Tokyo Service Center

Born in the Manzanar incarceration camp during World War II, Watanabe went on to complete his education and rise to several leadership positions at organizations that serve marginalized populations and fund community development. His efforts to save and restore historic places significant to the AAPI community earned him a “hero award” from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. And as a past UCLA Luskin Senior Fellow, he has mentored graduate students in leadership and career development.

“You can see his massive reach, both locally and nationally,” Lares-Nakaoka said.

Alumna Hiroko Murakami MSW ’09 spoke of Sakamoto’s lasting impact as LTSC’s director of social services until her retirement in 2016. Programs to provide counseling, reach out to isolated members of the community, support families dealing with Alzheimer’s and provide transitional housing to survivors of domestic abuse are among those designed and launched by Sakamoto.

Murakami said Sakamoto was a creative leader, even initiating a series of tofu cookbooks “to introduce healthy eating to a wide audience, with the funds raised going to emergency services and domestic violence counseling.”

Sakamoto advocated on behalf of new immigrants and reparations for detained Japanese Americans, and has been a frequent speaker in both the United States and Japan, where she was born. She has received a commendation from the Consulate General of Japan in Los Angeles.

Despite numerous accolades over the decades, the two honorees never prioritized building up egos or empires, instead keeping their focus on community needs, the afternoon’s speakers noted. That outlook was evident in their comments to the gathering.

“This recognition is due to a collective effort, not just Bill and me,” Sakamoto said. She expressed gratitude to Evelyn Yoshimura, the third original LTSC staffer, and other employees, volunteers, partner agencies and places of learning like UCLA that sent budding social workers into the heart of Little Tokyo.

“Personally, I have always felt the student interns who I worked with were my great teacher. … They guided me to become a better social worker and effective supervisor,” she said.

Watanabe personally thanked Nunn, a UCLA Luskin professor emeritus who is the namesake of the annual alumni award and was present at the celebration.

“The name of Joe Nunn is a very highly honored name in the school of social welfare at UCLA,” he said. “And so to receive this recognition in his name is a very, very big deal for Yasuko and myself.”

He said UCLA was “perhaps the most courageous school of social work in the country” for opening its doors to him in the 1970s.

“I wrote a heartfelt autobiographical statement basically saying, if I get accepted, I commit myself and dedicate myself to work in this community to try to make a change,” Watanabe said.

“So I want to thank UCLA for taking a chance and allowing people like myself and Yasuko — who was much more qualified than I — to be able to be trained and educated so that we can serve the community.”

View photos from the celebration

Social Welfare Alumni Awards 2024

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