The year was 1958. Fountain Valley elected its first mayor and made
history with 31-year-old Jim Kanno, the first Japanese American mayor in
the United States.
But before he became a founding father of Fountain Valley and an
inspiration to minorities, Kanno had to overcome his share of struggles.
Born in Santa Ana of Japanese immigrants, he grew up on his family's
asparagus farm. But in 1943, the Kannos were forced to evacuate to a
Japanese internment camp in Arizona.
Kanno -- now 74 -- remembers debating in his high school civics class
that the Japanese evacuation would never take place because of America's
"Three months later, I was gone," he said.
He stayed at the camp for a year, living in barracks that measured 25
feet by 25 feet and had cracked floors and walls. Private restrooms did
not exist, but rattlesnakes and scorpions did. He contracted valley
fever, which kept him hospitalized for more than a year.
He remembers being treated like a second-class citizen -- being refused
admission at theaters, restaurants and barbershops.
"We were even kicked out of the beaches," he said.
Still, Kanno went on to help shape a new city in the country that was
shutting him out.
When the government reopened California to the Japanese, Kanno returned
to work on the farm. His family had purchased property that extended to
present-day Fountain Valley. While working at the farm, he earned a
degree in agricultural engineering at Santa Ana College before attending
By 1957, home builders were quickly moving into the area.
"Rather than being bothered by developers, we though we'd plan our own
city and our own infrastructure," Kanno said.
After its incorporation in June 1958, the city of Fountain Valley elected
Kanno as its first mayor. His election was reported across the country
"I didn't feel anything other than that I was protecting my real estate
investments in the city," he said.
The founding council, comprised mostly of farmers, drafted a general plan
for the city. That plan is still used today to delegate zoning.
During his term, Kanno traveled to Washington, D.C., to negotiate the
release of Mile Square Park from the federal government. It was due to
his efforts that Mile Square Park was turned over to the county, with
plans that it eventually be phased into a city park.
The racial discrimination that Kanno grew up with continued as an adult,
"As mayor, I received poison pen letters saying things like 'Why don't
you go back to where you came from?"' Kanno said.
Kanno ignored them.
"We were forming a city and trying to do something positive," he said. "
I didn't want any negative impacts."
He had faith that there were other supporters who would counteract those
opposed to his post.
Kanno served on the City Council until November 1966, when he moved back
to Santa Ana. Six of his years on the council were spent as mayor.
He continued to farm throughout his service on the council until he sold
his last piece of property in Fountain Valley. He then worked in real
estate and has since served on numerous boards around the county,
including the Orange County Performing Arts Center formation committee,
the South Coast Repertory Theater board; the Japanese American Council
and the Orange County Community Foundation board of governors.
In June, Kanno was awarded an honorary diploma from Santa Ana High
School, something he was deprived of during his World War II internment.