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.
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.