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Obituary: Eunice Sato, 99 — First Female Mayor of Long Beach

LONG BEACH — Eunice N. Sato, the first Asian American woman to serve as mayor of a major American city, passed away of cardio-pulmonary arrest on Feb. 12, 2021. She was 99.

Sato served as mayor of Long Beach for two years in the early 1980s, the first woman to lead the city, guiding it through a period of economic turmoil. She was also a member of the Long Beach City Council, representing the 7th District, from 1975-1986. After leaving office, she continued to be active in the community for many years.

During her tenure, Long Beach went through a period of rebuilding of the downtown core into a vibrant zone with high-end hotels and other developments. Sato was proud to see Kajima Construction Company invest in the World Trade Center on the city’s shoreline.

In 1996, the Japanese government awarded Sato the Order of the Sacred Treasure, Gold Rays with Rosette for her work advancing U.S.-Japan relations.

Eunice Sato greets Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko in Los Angeles in 1994. Photos courtesy of Charlotte Sato.

In a 2011 interview with The Long Beach Press Telegram on her 90th birthday, Sato looked back at her time leading the city, saying, “I think Long Beach is where it is today because of the groundwork we laid 20 years ago.”

Eunice Sato.  Photos courtesy of Charlotte Sato.

Sato was born on June 8, 1921, one of six children who grew up on a farm in the small town of Livingston, near Modesto. After President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942, the family voluntarily evacuated to Colorado. Her brothers Joe and Art served in Italy with the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team and she kept the letters they wrote from the frontlines of battle.

Sato remained forever grateful to Gov. Ralph Carr of Colorado, who welcomed Japanese Americans to his state, where she graduated from the University of North Colorado with a B.A. and a teaching credential. She earned her Masters Degree from Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York.

In an essay written during her time at Columbia, Sato reflected on being the child of Japanese immigrants.

“It isn’t necessary or required that I reveal my (Nisei) background, but I do that because I am neither ashamed of it nor afraid to face any obstacles or discrimination as a result,” she wrote. “I am convinced that if one community is too narrow and prejudiced to have me because of my cultural background, there will be another somewhere that believes in true democracy and desires to see it in action as well as in words.”

Eunice Sato at a celebration of the Long Beach-Yokkaichi sister-city program in 2013. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

In 1991, Sato quietly donated her entire redress payment to the JACL Legacy Fund for education of the public about Executive Order 9066 and the dangers of discrimination.

She wrote in her autobiography, “I was criticized for saying the monetary compensation was not appropriate – I believe it was demeaning to think our country could use dollars to make up for its illegal conduct. Stripping one’s freedom cannot be bought off. I believed it was critical that I put my money where my mouth was.”

In 1948, Sato traveled to Yokohama to teach at a private school for young women. She met her future husband Thomas Sato, who was serving in the U.S. occupation of Japan under Gen. Douglas MacArthur. The couple had three children, Charlotte, Daniel, and Douglas. The family returned to California in 1956, and Sato began her volunteer work for the PTA and her church. She also became president of the Long Beach Council of Churches.

Because of her extensive community involvement, Sato was asked to run for a seat the Long Beach City Council, which she won in 1975.

Sato was just 4’10” but to her many admirers, she was a dynamo with limitless energy for volunteering and helping others.

In a scrapbook from the 1930s, Sato kept two yellowed clippings, entitled “Rule for Life” and “It Isn’t the World – It’s You.” These odes to positive thinking were touchstones for Sato throughout her life.

Eunice Sato listens during a City Council meeting in February 1979, the year before she became mayor. Photos courtesy of Charlotte Sato.

Beth Fujishige said Sato was a mentor who was steadfast in her support for young people, her Christian faith and Republican politics. She first became acquainted with Sato through JARS (Japanese American Republicans).

“Eunice was a titan among great leaders of her generation, Fujishige said. “Tireless as a volunteer, steadfast in upholding her political beliefs and devoted to the youth of the community. As a friend she was never too busy to call or send a note. Her Oshogatsu feasts were legendary.”

Eunice Sato wearing a kimono. She was recognized by the Japanese government for promoting U.S.-Japan relations. Photos courtesy of Charlotte Sato.

Although she was a cancer survivor as well as a victim of robbery at least three times in Long Beach and Los Angeles, Sato was not cowed by these incidents. Her personal experiences caused her to emphasize the accountability and responsibility aspects of the definition of self-esteem that provided the foundation of the Self-Esteem Task Force’s report in 1990.

Appointed by Gov. George Deukmejian, she was one of 26 members of that statewide task force. Sato was also appointed to the National Advisory Council on Educational Research in 1991 by President George H.W. Bush.

In 2015, the Long Beach Unified School District honored Sato with the naming of the Sato Academy of Mathematics and Science, the first school in the district to be named for an Asian American.

Current Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia closed the council’s meeting on Tuesday in her honor.

Sato made “amazing and groundbreaking contributions to the community,” Garcia said, “especially for women and Asian Americans.”

Sato is survived by her daughter, Charlotte Sato, and sons Douglas and Daniel Sato. No funeral service is planned at this time.


*This article was originally published in the Rafu Shimpo on February 20, 2021.


© 2021 Gwen Muranaka / Rafu Shimpo

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