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Sakaye Aratani Is Remembered for Philanthropy, Leadership, Vision

She and George Aratani Established IBS, BCA Programs; She Passed Away at 104


For more information about the life of Sakaye Aratani, go to:

Should you wish to make a donation in her memory, please consider JANM, Keiro, Japan America Society, or JACCC.


Sakaye Aratani, the elegant matriarch of the Aratani family, was recalled for her philanthropy, leadership, and support of numerous institutions that left an indelible mark on the Japanese American community — as well as impacting the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA) and Institute of Buddhist Studies (IBS).

Sakaye Aratani, the wife of the late George Aratani who founded Mikasa china and the Kenwood Electronics corporation, passed away March 18 at the age of 104. A private memorial service was held on March 27 in Los Angeles.

Bishop Rev. Marvin Harada and Institute of Buddhist Studies President Rev. Dr. David Matsumoto issued statements on the passing of Sakaye Aratani, praising her and George Aratani for their contributions to the BCA and IBS.

"The Buddhist Churches of America has been most fortunate to be the recipient of the generosity and spirit of dana from George and Sakaye Aratani over many years,” Rev. Harada said. “Through their generosity, our Buddhist education programs, the Institute of Buddhist Studies, and our BCA Endowment has been able to expand and develop. We are truly indebted to the Aratanis for all they have done not just for the BCA, but for the greater community as well."  

Rev. Dr. Matsumoto added: “George and Sakaye Aratani were visionaries who established groundbreaking IBS (Institute of Buddhist Studies) and BCA programs dedicated to making Jodo Shinshu understandable and relevant for people today.”

The Aratanis founded the Center for Contemporary Shin Buddhist Studies at IBS in order to create scholarly programs, publications, and educational opportunities. In 2008, they established the George and Sakaye Aratani Professorial Chair Endowment Fund to enable IBS to offer Shin Buddhist instruction and research from a contemporary perspective for our future ministers, scholars, and the public. 

Today, the GSA Professorial Chair Endowment is fully funded and will support an IBS professor into perpetuity.

“Being appointed the George and Sakaye Aratani Professor of Contemporary Shin Buddhist Studies was one of the greatest honors I have received in my life,” Rev. Dr. Matsumoto said. “Mr. and Mrs. Aratani, and the Aratani Foundation, have been instrumental in allowing IBS to foster the understanding and development of Shin Buddhist thought in engagement with the issues and perspectives of contemporary life.”

George and Sakaye Aratani supported a number of institutions that are a part of the Little Tokyo district of Los Angeles. Among the institutions named in their honor are: Japanese American Cultural and Community Center's Aratani Japan America Theatre; the Japanese American National Museum's George and Sakaye Central Hall; and the Union Center for the Arts's Aratani Courtyard.

Sakaye Aratani was born on Dec. 11, 1919, to Eijiro and Katsu Inouye and grew up in Gardena, where her parents were in the nursery business.

She was sent, along with other Japanese Americans, to the mass incarceration camp at Poston, Arizona, during World War II. She met George Aratani a few years before the war. He was interned at Gila River, near Phoenix, Arizona, and enlisted in the Military Intelligence Service as an instructor teaching Japanese to U.S. Army personnel. 

Before leaving for Minnesota to report for duty, he proposed to Sakaye. She and her future mother-in-law traveled to Minnesota to join him. The couple were married in 1944 among close friends in Minneapolis.

After the war, the family moved to Boyle Heights in Los Angeles. It was during this time that Aratani became involved in philanthropy. Her first involvement was with a group of women in Los Angeles, both Japanese and Caucasian, whose mission was to help starving war widows in Japan. They reached out to women’s groups and churches throughout the United States, requesting discarded nylon hosiery. The group sent the hosiery to the war widows, who created thread and ornaments to sell in order to survive.

Aratani was a board member of the Japan America Society, holding the post for 20 years. She organized the first JAS golf tournament, which continues today. 

In a statement on its website, Japan America Society said Aratani had a profound influence on the organization and its mission: “Sakaye’s heart was always devoted to serving others and was a lifelong advocate for the Japan America Society that promoted building U.S.-Japan relationships. Her kindness and generosity knew no bounds, even welcoming a JAS member recently to her home and providing a full tea-ceremony service even though she was weak from age.”

In the early 1950s, she and a group of women golfers organized the first Nisei Women’s Golf Club, which met monthly to play and socialize. She was its first president.

She helped form a group of women from Japan who created a forum for young musicians to perform in an orchestra, now known as the Asia America Symphony Association. Many Japanese youth have had the opportunity to perform under conductor Dr. Akira Kikukawa. Aratani was one of the founders of the Asia America Symphony Women’s Guild, which organizes fundraising events to support the association.

Aratani was also one of the founders of the Japanese American Montebello Women’s Club, a philanthropic group that organized many fundraisers for the City of Hope, and raised money to purchase wheelchairs for Keiro Nursing Home.

“There were about five or six of us who got together and decided we should form a club  because there's nothing like that over there in Montebello,” Aratani recalled in a 2017 interview with Densho. “So we decided, well, we'll make plans to raise funds and get the ladies interested. And I think even till this day, there's no club like the Montebello Women's Club. We were so active, we did so much for the community, and I'm so proud of being part of it.”

During the 1960s, Aratani helped Miki Sawada, an heiress to Mitsubishi Japan, to create a large orphanage for biracial children born after the war. They were shunned by society. Sawada took them in and created the Elizabeth Saunders Home. When she decided to transport many of these children to South America, where they were guaranteed work on the coffee plantations, she was very concerned the children would not have shoes. Aratani immediately went to work collecting discarded shoes from schools and gymnasiums. Sawada found that Aratani had fulfilled her request beyond what she anticipated.

At UCLA in 2004, the Aratanis endowed the first academic chair in the United States to study the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans and their efforts to gain redress. The late Lane Ryo Hirabayashi was the first to hold the endowed chair. 

In 2013, the Aratanis supported the UCLA Department of Asian American Studies, creating the Aratani Endowment, which is designed to promote projects to benefit and advance the Japanese American community and strengthen ties between the community and UCLA. The couple also endowed the George and Sakaye Aratani “Community Advancement Research Endowment,” or Aratani C.A.R.E., Awards. 

Aratani was the first Japanese American woman to be recognized by the Japanese government, receiving a Kunsho in 1963. In her later years, she served as president of the Aratani Family Foundation, following in the footsteps of her husband George Aratani, who died in 2013 at the age of 95.

In her leisure time she enjoyed chigiri-e, the art of paper-tearing. She also excels in sumi-e and has won several awards for her work.

In lieu of gifts, the Aratani family has suggested making a donation to the organizations that were a large part of Sakaye's life: Japan America Society of Southern California,  Japanese American National Museum, Keiro, or Japanese Cultural & Community Center. You can find links to donate to these organizations from her guest book page:

This article was based on several news reports that appeared in The Rafu Shimpo and the Wheel of Dharma. 



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