Friday, May 25, 2012

The Kannos: Orange County pioneers, Talbert, and the creation of Fountain Valley, California

LEFT: Superintendents Willis Warner (in car), C.M. Feather and William Hirstein, with Mayor A.A. Hall of Santa Ana and Mayor James Kanno of Fountain Valley at a Warner (former Wintersburg) Avenue bridge dedication in 1961.  Kanno and his family were congregants at the Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Church.  (Photo, Los Angeles Herald Examiner)

~Updated July 2017

     Among the congregants of national note of the Wintersburg Japanese Mission, is James Kanno, the first Nisei mayor in California and the first mayor of Fountain Valley (the former Talbert), California.*

   Maki Kanno, mother of James Kanno, was interviewed in 1983 for the Honorable Stephen K. Tamura Orange County Japanese American Oral History Project, jointly with the Japanese American Project of California State University - Fullerton (CSUF) Oral History Program.

Maki and Shuji Kanno
   Maki Kanno's family was from the village of Toyano, Japan, now part of present-day Fukushima.  Born in 1898, Maki Kanno's family was Samurai and her father was a large landholder, growing rice and silkworms.  As a young woman, Maki went to nursing school in Fukushima, then later studied midwifery in Tokyo.  During her time as a midwife, Maki helped deliver children of some of Japan's nobility. 

   Her future husband, Shuji Kanno, arrived in the United States in 1904.  When he returned to Japan in 1923 to get his wife, Maki, he was 34.  They had never met.

   Maki recalls Shuji had "came back to his village, Akaza (close to Toyano)...and it's a very small village, so everybody knew a man thirty-four years old, single, a man is here," laughed Maki, "and a twenty-five year old 'old maid' is in this village."

   Describing herself as a "liberated woman," Maki borrowed a wedding kimono for the Japanese country wedding ceremony, but skipped the traditional elaborate wig to simplify things.  Maki's new husband, Shuji, liked her style.

LEFT: A young Shuji Kanno, a charter member, elder and clerk of the Wintersburg Mission. (Photo, courtesy of Wintersburg Church) © All rights reserved.

   The Kannos made the two-week journey by sea on the Taiheiyo Maru.   Maki told her interviewer that her husband "was very sweet. Because she was afraid of being seasick, he chose a big ship and paid second-class fare for her."

   When she arrived in the United States, it was Easter, 1924.  Shuji was already Christian and upon their arrival in San Francisco, Maki was baptized.  Like many new Japanese wives, she arrived in a kimono and immediately went shopping for Western clothes.  She remembered the outfit during her interview almost sixty years later, "a blouse and a gathered light brown skirt."

  Maki was impressed with her new husband.  

   "A lot of the Japanese men told many lies in front of the brides-to-be, so they dreamed a big dream," she explained in her 1983 interview, "but when they arrived here, they found a tiny house awaiting them. Mr. Kanno, though, didn't tell her anything false."

   The Kannos traveled by train from San Francisco to Orange County, to Shuji's ranch in Greenville, now part of present-day Santa AnaShuji Kanno leased acreage from German American Antone Borchard, and grew asparagus.  The Kannos lived on the Greenville ranch for fifteen years, and their sons, George (1924) and James (1925) were born there.

RIGHT: Reverend Junzo Nakamura and congregants of the Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Church near the manse / social hall, circa 1924. (Photo, courtesy of California State University - Fullerton, Center for Oral and Public History)
© All rights reserved.

Memories of Wintersburg Japanese Mission
   Maki Kanno remembered the Smeltzer Japanese Association in present-day Huntington Beach, but said she preferred her involvement with the Wintersburg Mission.  Traveling from his asparagus farm in Greenville (Santa Ana), Shuji attended night school at the Wintersburg Japanese Mission before getting married in order to learn English.  He eventually became an elder with the Mission, and taught in the Saturday Japanese Language School in Costa Mesa supported by the Mission. 

   Maki recalled Rev. Junzo Nakamura visiting "house after house...when Reverend Nakamura saw somebody working on their farm, he just walked over and talked with them. He didn't mind if his shoes became dirty." 

   "Mrs. Nakamura was a very, very nice person," said Maki, "She didn't have her own children, but she would baby-sit the other people's children. When there was a problem she was ready to help them. Both Reverend and Mrs. Nakamura were the center of the Japanese community. In that way, the church expanded."

   Maki explained the importance of the Wintersburg Japanese Mission to her family.  Shuji "was a Christian and he had a family, and he thought that to educate their sons in that Christian atmosphere was very important, so the Kanno boys were sent to the Sunday school classes at the church."  

   In addition to regular school during the week and Sunday at the Wintersburg Japanese Mission, the Kanno boys also attended the Saturday Japanese Language School where their father taught.  During her 1983 interview, Maki told the interviewer, laughing, that her sons "are still very nice boys."  By then, George was 59 and James, 58, had already served as mayor of Fountain Valley.

LEFT: Both George and James Kanno attended Santa Ana High School, while attending the Mission and Sunday school in Wintersburg Village. (Photo, Santa Ana Public Library)

Forced removal and confinement
   Both George and James Kanno were interviewed as part of the CSUF Oral History Program Japanese American Project.  They revealed in their interviews that it was probably their father's part time teaching work at the Japanese Language School that led to him being picked up as part of an early sweep of Japanese community leaders by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) after the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan.  

   Japanese Language School teachers, landowners, judo club owners and members of local Japanese associations were among the first taken by the FBI.  Among those picked up in Wintersburg Village were Gunjiro Tashima, owner of the Tashima market, and landowners Charles Furuta and Tsurumatsu "T.M." Asari, both crop and goldfish farmers on Wintersburg Avenue.  Both of whom had lived in the United States for close to 40 years.

   Shuji Kanno was first taken to the Orange County Jail, then to the U.S. Army's Lordsburg Alien Enemy Internment Center in New Mexico, while his family was taken to the Colorado River Relocation Center, Poston, Arizona.  By then, Shuji Kanno had been in the U.S. for 38 years.  In a Los Angeles Times interview in 1988, Shuji Kanno told reporter Santiago O'Donnell he was "plowing land on May 12, 1942, when FBI agents and sheriff's deputies pulled up in a car and made the arrests." James Kanno was 16 years old at the time.

RIGHT: There were two internment camps in New Mexico, Lordsburg and Santa Fe.  The 2002 plaque above at the former Santa Fe camp notes, "no person of Japanese ancestry in the U.S. was ever charged or convicted of espionage throughout the course of the war."  (New Mexico Office of the State Historian)

   While there is no mention of it in the Kanno oral history interviews, the conditions at and the management of the Lordsburg camp were troubling.  The New Mexico Office of the State Historian explains, ".... a protecting third power, in this case Spain, enforced the provisions (of the Geneva Convention at the camp). During their tenure at Lordsburg, Japanese prisoners appealed to Spain saying that they were being mistreated."  

   Escalating tensions led to a camp guard shooting two men in July, 1942, during the time when Shuji Kanno (as well as Charles Furuta and Gunjiro Tashima, both of Wintersburg Village) would have been at Lordsburg.

   When Maki, George and James Kanno departed Orange County for Poston, they were taken to Huntington Beach with other local Japanese Americans and then, by bus, to Poston, Camp I.  They leased their asparagus farm to a neighbor, who returned their farm when the Kannos came back to Orange County.

   Shuji Kanno was confined at Lordsburg for one year, before being transferred to join his family in Poston.   Maki told the oral history interviewer that she called upon her Samurai resolve to get through that period, telling herself "this is a war" and that "as long as both of them were healthy, they would just have to wait and see...she believed in the government of the United States; the government would not do anything bad to them." 

 George Kanno
   During World War II incarceration, seventeen-year-old George Kanno took a work furlough thinning sugar beets in Colorado.  During his oral history interview--conducted over 45 years ago in 1966 for the CSUF Japanese American Program--he describes the predominantly German farming community of Fort Morgan as welcoming the Japanese.
LEFT: John Fukushima and Masayaki Tashima, a Wintersburg Village resident on work furlough from Poston, thinning beets in Milliken, Colorado, circa November 1942.  (Photo, University of California - Berkeley, Bancroft Library)

   "...they understood our position because they were in Colorado during World War I, you see," explained George.  "The Germans were treated pretty rough during that war, and they were real understanding of our predicament, and we got along fine. They had four churches in Fort Morgan that conducted services in the German language.  They conducted services in German, and also in English for the younger generation who was raised there. (laughter) So in several respects, they were similar to the Japanese. Certain things fit, you see, so they were better able to understand our position." 

   George Kanno later enlisted in the U.S. Army, sustaining a gunshot wound in his leg while guarding a supply train in Europe.  When the Kannos sold their farm land, George became part owner of the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas and the Sierra Produce Company,  the largest produce supplier for hotels and casinos in Las Vegas.   

   "Remembering Dad: The Life of George Kanno," a 2010 memorial by his son, John, with early Orange County photographs, can be viewed at

RIGHT: James Kanno, first mayor of Fountain Valley (formerly Talbert) and first Nisei mayor in the mainland United States.

 James Kanno
   James Kanno was still in high school prior to World War II incarceration.  By then, the family was farming in Talbert (present day Fountain Valley).  Interviewed by the Huntington Beach Independent in 1999, he recalled "debating in his high school civics class that the Japanese evacuation would never take place because of America's democratic values."  Three months later, Kanno and his family left for incarceration at the Colorado River Relocation Center, Poston, Arizona.

   Kanno graduated from the high school in Poston--although hospitalized for a year with "valley fever"--and then was allowed to go to Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  When the family returned to Orange County, James attended Santa Ana College and then UCLA, while helping with the family's farm in Talbert.

LEFT: Teachers for the Poston Camp II High School 1942 - 1943, including Orange County teacher George Day Robertson (center front row in hat).  Robertson's book, based on her experience at Poston, was published when she was 100 years old. Read more about Robertson at   (Photo,
   Interviewed in 1971 for the CSUF Oral History Program Japanese American Project, James Kanno described his reaction when asked about the family's incarceration.

   " idea was that there were many people on the outside that realized that the evacuation was wrong, and because of the war and hysteria, through economic pressures and some other things, this evacuation came about," commented Kanno.  "But a good example was The (Orange County) Register, the newspaper in Santa Ana. Editorially the owner, Mr. R. C. Hoiles, indicated that this evacuation was wrong."**

RIGHT: Painting of R.C. Hoiles, owner of the Santa Ana Register, now Orange County Register.  (Image, Orange County Register)

   James continued, "for a person right in the middle of the war to come out with this type of editorial was quite admirable. I probably wouldn't have had the nerve or the guts to do what he did. So when you see somebody like this on the outside, you realize that the good people, or the thinking people, those that are sophisticated, who thought about it, would realize that this was wrong. So I felt that this was a mistake. Like anybody, the country made a mistake."

LEFT: Shuji Kanno, home again in Orange County after returning from internment at the Lordsburg Alien Enemy Internment Center and Poston Arizona Relocation Center, Sept. 12, 1945. (Photo, University of California - Berkeley, Bancroft Library)
Creating a city
   In 1956---after receiving an engineering degree from UCLA while continuing to help the family's growing farm holdings---James was asked to serve on the committee to incorporate the Talbert area farmland into a new city.

   He recalls, "people were starting to come into that area, and trying to develop it: buying up some of the property and putting it into housing, commercial and industrial uses. Several of the farmers got together and decided that for our own protection it might be a good idea to incorporate that area and form a city."

   James Kanno was urged on by his wife, Fran, "I attended several of their meetings, prompted by my wife, who kept insisting, 'Gee, we've got property here, so you better attend those meetings.'

   The incorporation of Fountain Valley became a reality in 1957.  James explained during his oral history interview, "the two questions that were asked on the ballot: 1. Do you want to form a city, yes or no? 2. If so, who would you want as councilmen for the city? There were nine people running for the five council positions. I don't know what happened, but I ended up with the most votes." 

   With that vote, James Kanno became the first Nisei mayor in the mainland United States and the first mayor of the newly incorporated Fountain Valley.

RIGHT: Dedication of Fountain Valley's first supermarket, Alpha Beta, at Magnolia Street and Warner (former Wintersburg) Avenue, May 18, 1964.  James Kanno is in the front row, third from the left. (Photo, Orange County Register)

   Jim Kanno's election and subsequent appointment as mayor made news around the world.  Voice of America, U.S. News and World Report, and Japanese media were among the news outlets that descended on the once quiet farming community.

   "...the 'Voice of America' radio show heard about this and they came over to see me," recalled James.  "In fact, they asked me to cut a tape interview with them, and I said, 'Well, gee, this is just a small farming community, and it's really nothing.' But they said, 'We're not asking you whether you will or not; we're more or less telling you to do so.' I said, "Well, gee, how come?

   The 1995 Orange County Almanac noted that "one Tokyo magazine pointed out that Kanno was elected despite the city's modest Japanese American population.  The magazine said Kanno's election 'proves that there is still room for success in America.' "
   With Kanno's assistance, the young community of Fountain Valley developed zoning standards and built the infrastructure that made farming land more valuable for investors.  Having increased the family's land holdings, the Kannos--like many of Orange County's farm families--eventually sold or traded land for other investments.  

LEFT: Buffums Department Store at the Westminster Mall, circa 1975. The large goldfish farm of Wintersburg's Akiyama family was originally at the mall site. The Akiyamas traded the property for land and a retail center in Vista. (Photo,

   The Los Angeles Times reported in 1987 that James Kanno had acquired the Buffum's Department Store in the Westminster Mall, a Ferrell's Jr. ice cream parlor, a Bank of America branch building and a Carl's Jr. restaurant.  James Kanno continued to manage his real estate investments, a result of his family's farming efforts, through retirement. 

Looking back
   James Kanno was philosophical about the experience of California's Japanese Americans during his oral history interview in 1971, understanding the position taken by his father and other Issei.  

   Shuji Kanno had advised others incarcerated at Lordsburg who were preparing for their interrogations, " matter what happens, America is where we came to and this is where we want to raise our children. So in spite of what happened, I feel that during this interview you better not say anything damaging, because we cast our lot. We came to America; this is where we want to raise our family; this is where we want to stay."

ABOVE: James Kanno was interviewed by the Los Angeles Times in 1984 and earlier by California State University Fullerton for the Japanese American oral history program. (Image: Los Angeles Times, September 2, 1984)

Looking forward
  James Kanno also relayed during his 1971 interview, a moment when his young son showed him the difference a generation makes.  His son, David, planned to run for student body president at his high school.

   "Why are you going to run for president instead of athletic commissioner or something like that?" James asked him.  "He said, 'Well, there are only three running for student body president, and the odds are better.' So then I proceeded to tell him, 'Well, David, we just moved into this area, and people really don't know you. Some of the kids went all through grammar school together, so they're well known."

   "Besides, you have to remember, you're Japanese American and it might be a little tough to get in.' Of course, I was the overly concerned parent; I was sort of preparing him for the defeat," explained James, "But he said, 'Well, Dad, you know because I am Japanese American, it's helpful.' I said, 'How's that?' And he said, 'Because everybody notices me. I stick out. So that's how come I'm going to get elected and become president.' So I said, 'Okay.' "

   "Well, to make a long story short, he was elected student body president and was well accepted. So I guess sometimes we worry too much about the racial issue." 

   UPDATE JULY 18, 2017:  James Kanno--instrumental in the creation of present-day Orange County--passed on July 15, 2017.  

Read the Orange County Register obituary at

Read the Los Angeles Times obiturary at

*The first reported Japanese American mayor in the United States is thought to be Kinjiro Matsudaira in Edmonston, Maryland, in 1927. 

**Excerpt from Opinion written by R.C. Hoiles, then owner of the Santa Ana Register, October 14, 1942:
   "The question we should consider is whether or not this evacuation will in the long run really help us win the war. If it will not, we should make every effort possible to correct the error as rapidly as possible. It would seem that convicting people of disloyalty to our country without having specific evidence against them is too foreign to our way of life and too close akin to the kind of government we are fighting. We need all the manpower we can obtain. To remove the Japanese from the place where they could serve our country by helping us furnish food and doing useful services weakens us in our defense by that amount. We must realize, as Henry Emerson Fosdick so wisely said, 'Liberty is always dangerous but it is the safest thing we have.' That, also, in reality, means that true democracy is always dangerous but it is the safest thing we have. If we are not willing to run any risks and cannot have faith in humanity and regard people innocent until they are proved guilty, we are on the road to losing our democracy."

All rights reserved. No part of the Historic Wintersburg blog may be reproduced or duplicated without prior written permission from the author and publisher, M. Adams Urashima.  

No comments:

Post a Comment

The Historic Wintersburg blog focuses on an overlooked history in Huntington Beach, Orange County, California, in the interest of saving a historic property from demolition. The author and publisher reserves the right not to publish comments. Please no promotional or political commentary. Zero tolerance for hate rhetoric. Comments with embedded commercial / advertising links or promoting other projects, books, or publications may not be published. If you have an interesting anecdote, question or comment about one of our features, it will be published.