July 17, 2017
James Kanno, the first mayor of Fountain Valley and widely reported at the time as the first Japanese American mayor in the U.S., died Saturday, July 15, at age 91.
Kanno was born in Santa Ana. During World War II, when he was in high school, he and his family were forced to leave their home and moved to the Poston Relocation Center in Arizona.
James Kanno, Fountain Valley’s first mayor and first Japanese-American mayor in California, died Saturday, July 15. He was 91. / Photo by Starr Buck, Orange County Register
After a year in the camp, he caught valley fever, a fungal infection transmitted through the lungs, and spent 18 months recovering, said Dave Kanno, his son. He had to be treated in Ann Arbor, Mich., because of West Coast restrictions for Japanese Americans.
He later attended Marquette University to study engineering and, when allowed to return to the West Coast, he finished his degree at UCLA.
Kanno bought farmland in Fountain Valley, joining a thriving Japanese American farming community, and when the city was incorporated in 1957, he became its mayor.
Although local media at the time reported he was the first Japanese American mayor in the United States, Edmonston, Md., claims Kinjiro Matsudaira, elected in 1927, as the first.
Dave Kanno said his father’s inability to join the military was what got him into politics.
“He couldn’t serve his country, but he could still serve a civic duty,” he said. “I think he was making up for lost time (when he was sick) and in doing so, he left a legacy he couldn’t have by being a soldier.”
James Kanno helped create what is now Mile Square Park, his son said.
“When I was a kid, he had to go to Washington, D.C. to negotiate for the city to be able to lease that land,” he recalled.
After leaving office, Kanno continued to help Japanese-American families in the area and served as chairman of the Japanese American Council of the Historical and Cultural Foundation of Orange County.
James Kanno, who died Saturday, July 15, survived incarceration in a camp in Arizona with his family during World War II, would go on to become the first mayor of Fountain Valley when it incorporated in 1957. Photo by Paul E. Rodriguez, For the Orange County Register
He also visited many schools talking about the Japanese American experience during World War II.
“Because of the things he experienced, he was very protective of me growing up,” Dave Kanno said. “He was very protective and very strict. He wanted people to do things the right way. He was very loving and very protective, and he was great.”
The family eventually moved to Tustin.
James Kanno was also known for being an avid tennis player.
“He only stopped playing last year,” Dave Kanno said.
He also liked working in his backyard.
“He liked being with his family and taking care of his farm,” Dave Kanno said. “He was a farmer for a lot of years and liked that kind of thing, growing plants and working on his backyard. He was a farmer and an engineer. He would work on his backyard and put a tree here or a wall there.”
Dann Gibb, Fountain Valley’s historian, said Kanno’s contributions are becoming even more important as time goes on and as the city’s residents reflect on how Fountain Valley came to be.
“It was a community of farmers and Jim was one of them,” Gibb said. “He was a major player in the city’s incorporation in 1957 during a ridiculous land grab. Everyone (Huntington Beach, Santa Ana and Garden Grove) was grabbing. Incorporation was a defensive move, to save the farms and have a say-so in having a plan for the city.”
A few years ago, Gibb made a video about Kanno and learned that he had been on Voice of America.
“He told me he was urged to go on it to help restore Japanese American relations,” Gibb said. “He was good guy, a nice guy and a smart guy.”
Fountain Valley Mayor John Collins also praised Kanno for his vision in helping to create and organize the city.
Kanno was the one who swore in Collins as mayor in 2007.
“I still remember him swearing me in,” he said Sunday. “He was a founding father of the city. He was a very good man and someone I respected very much.”
Kanno is survived by his wife, Frances; children Dave, Beth, Stephanie and Conrad; and seven grandchildren.
Dave Kanno said his father did not want a big funeral, so anything that is held will likely be just for family.
“He was a great dad and he inspired a lot of people,” he said.