For John Okamoto, dedication plus education led to ‘the greatest job’
By James Tabafunda
Northwest Asian Weekly
Countless generations of parents stress the importance of education to their kids.John Okamoto wants these parents to know that the teachers in this state also care deeply about teaching kids.
Okamoto is the executive director of the Washington Education Association. Washington’s teachers, support staff in education, and college professors are among the 82,000 members in the union — the state’s largest public employee union.
For all of his contributions and commitments, Okamoto will be honored on Dec. 4 as one of Northwest Asian Weekly Foundation’s 2009 Top Contributors to the Asian Community.
“For me to be considered in that category is one that I still have a hard time believing, but one that I accept graciously and humbly,” he said.
Born and raised in Seattle, Okamoto, 55, is committed and has a “deep affection” for the Emerald City. He said, “Since I’m going to live here, hopefully for the rest of my life, I know that the decisions I make and impacts that I have … I’m going to have to live with it.”
He earned both his bachelor’s degree in psychology and his master’s in public administration from the University of Washington.
Okamoto demonstrated a commitment to his own education by attending Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in 1988.
“Since then, I’ve been back to some executive programs [in professional and leadership development] at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern [University] this year and in 2008,” he said.
He has been married to his wife Sharon for more than 30 years. He is also committed to his daughters, Charissa and Shawna.
The Okamotos share a commitment to Japanese culture. When a visitor from Japan stayed with them, he said, “She noticed that I, as well as my wife, carried on a lot of traditional Japanese values that have since passed, but were carried over during a period of time called the Meiji era, when my grandparents came over.”
His career began as the human resources director at the City of Seattle in September 1991. He later became the director of its engineering department in November 1994. In July 1996, he continued his management career at the Washington State Department of Transportation until January 2003.
His previous job was at the Port of Seattle as its chief administrative officer, a position he held for five years.
When he applied for the port’s top job of chief executive officer in 1996, the Asian Pacific Islander Roundtable — made up of Rita Brogan, Elaine Ko, Alan Kurimura, and Ruth Woo — gave him its endorsement. Its mission is “to promote the participation of API communities in civic life, and educate and advocate on issues of concern to API communities.”
In the Dec. 16–Dec. 22, 2006 issue of the Northwest Asian Weekly, the organization wrote, “Outgoing CEO Mic Dinsmore is leaving an unparalleled legacy, and we believe that Okamoto is the individual who can carry on and build upon this legacy.”
“Selecting John Okamoto as the Port’s CEO will represent a clear statement in several regards. It says that the Port commissioners believe in cultural diversity in leadership at the highest level.
It says that the Port commissioners are ready to support a proven leader from our local community. And it says that the Port commissioners understand both the external and internal needs of the Port and that it is ready for a fresh, new direction.”
Even though Tay Yoshitani was eventually named CEO in January 2007, Okamoto still views the endorsement as a “gracious” gift. “It meant a lot because it was really an unsolicited support that I received from the Asian American community, and I just felt overwhelmed by that support and advocacy on my behalf,” he admitted.
Okamoto’s hobbies include working out and improving his own physical fitness. He enjoys international travel and has visited Japan eight times in the last six years, China five times, India, Bangladesh, and “Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, at least a half dozen times.” He now possesses a respect for the differences among these Asian cultures.
“The business of education, though, is much more complex than anything I’ve worked on in the past. We’re in the midst of, at least in my lifetime, the worst recession, and we’re in a raging, unresolved debate about what is it that we want out of our public education system, and in the midst of that, it makes managing an organization just a real challenge, but a real thrill,” he said.
“I have the greatest job in the world.” ♦
For more information about the Washington Education Association, visit www.washingtonea.org. For more information about Top Contributors to the Asian Community or to buy tickets to the event, visit top.nwasianweeklyfoundation.org.
James Tabafunda can be reached at email@example.com.