Utah Judge Raymond Uno, whose life took him from a Japanese American concentration camp to the state bench, dies at 93

Raymond Uno speaks at the grand opening of the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center in 2011. photo courtesy of Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation

The Ogden native served in World War II, was a civil rights activist going back to the early 1960s, and remained active in Utah’s Japanese American community throughout his life.

By Robert Gehrke
The Salt Lake Tribune

Judge Raymond Uno, who spent the early part of his childhood in a Japanese American concentration camp and went on to be the state’s first minority judge, died March 8 at the age of 93.

Uno left an important legacy, from his military service to his time on the bench, his advocacy for social justice and his iconic role in the state’s Japanese American community.

“I considered myself an average person but I worked a lot harder than the average person and took risks,” Uno wrote of his life. “Often my life has been like a samurai warrior suffering a series of some big cuts and a lot of small cuts. It has been filled with many extraordinary opportunities and challenges embedded with luck, pluck and destiny.”

Uno was born Dec. 4, 1930, to Clarence Hachiro and Osako Teraoka Uno, in a yellow cab on its way to the hospital in Ogden. His parents named him after the driver, Raymond Harris.

Uno’s family moved to California, where he attended segregated schools before they were imprisoned and relocated to the Heart Mountain Japanese American concentration camp near Powell, Wyo., during World War II.

“The only thing we could take is what we could carry in our two suitcases and what we wore,” Uno said in an interview in 2018, when he received an honorary degree from the University of Utah law school. “It was a big loss for the Japanese community and for our family.”

Uno’s father, who had helped to earn his citizenship by fighting in Europe during World War I, died of a heart attack nine months into the family’s three-year confinement in the camp.

When the family was released, he said, they were given $25 and a ticket anywhere in the country. He, his mother and two siblings returned to Ogden, where Uno worked a series of jobs — as a dishwasher, a farm worker and a laborer who laid track for the railroad at the age of 15.

He said that the challenge in finding work led him to enlist in the U.S. Army, where he served as an interpreter in the 319th Military Intelligence Service and later as a special agent in Tokyo for the 441st Counterintelligence Corps.

Uno attended the University of Utah on the G.I. Bill, where he earned bachelor’s degrees in political science and law, a master’s degree in social work and his juris doctorate. Uno became an attorney in 1958, with his first job as a referee in the juvenile court before he worked in the Salt Lake County attorney’s office — the first minority in the office — and later the Attorney General’s office.

He ran for state Senate in 1968, losing by 150 votes, and went into private practice.
In 1976, then-Mayor Ted Wilson appointed Uno to the Salt Lake City court bench. In 1983, Uno ran for a position as a state judge — one of the last to be elected before the system changed to gubernatorial appointments — and won the seat on the bench.

He spent six years as an active 3rd District Court judge and another nine years on senior status before retiring in 2002.

“My 25 years on the bench were some of my most exciting, challenging, rewarding and stressful times of my life; particularly, during my term as a district court judge,” Uno wrote. “It was the crown jewel of my life on this earth and I would not exchange it for any price.”

At a recent ceremony recognizing Judge Uno, one of the defendants who he had sentenced spoke and told the audience that the judge had kept in touch with him throughout his life, said Jani Iwamoto, a former state senator who was mentored by Uno.

“He checked in with him and cared about him,” Iwamoto said. “He made a difference in so many lives. He was just so caring.”

Uno was a civil rights activist going back to the early 1960s and remained active in the Japanese American community throughout his life, helping to start the Minority Bar Association (serving as its first president), the Asian Chamber of Commerce, leading the National Japanese American Citizens League and the Utah Citizens Committee for Civil Rights and working to help preserve Japantown and Japanese culture in Salt Lake City until the final days of his life.

“I remember when he retired, I’d constantly see him in a suit dressed nicely going somewhere all hours of the day and in the evening, too,” said Mark Uno, one of his five sons. When Mark Uno asked why he was so busy, the son recalled, his dad told him “‘My problem, Mark, is I can’t say no.’ I said, ‘Why not, dad?’ [He said] ‘Because if they didn’t need my help, they wouldn’t ask. If they ask, I need to help.’”

Iwamoto said that, despite his accomplishments, “he was humble and he wanted everyone else to succeed. He was so humble. … He was more than just a mentor, he was my family.”

Mark Uno said his father had told the family recently that he didn’t want a funeral after he died.

“He was so humble. He didn’t like to take credit for anything,” Mark Uno said Monday. “He feels time is so precious, he didn’t want people spending time or wasting time remembering him.”

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