Warren Furutani


Name Warren Furutani
Born October 16 1947
Birth Location San Pedro, California
Generational Identifier

Yonsei

Warren Furutani is a fourth-generation Japanese American and former politician. Before being elected to the California State Assembly, he served on the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education and the Los Angeles Community College District Board of Trustees. As an assemblyman, Furutani sponsored legislation to organize graduation ceremonies for Japanese Americans who were evicted from their college campuses during the war. He also spearheaded legislation to make January 30 an official day for honoring Fred Korematsu.

Early Years

Furutani was born on October 16, 1947, in San Pedro, California; he earned his undergraduate degree from Antioch University (Los Angeles). His maternal grandparents worked in agriculture in Elk Grove as sharecroppers picking hops and fruit. His paternal grandparents worked and lived in Hawai'i. As was the case with a significant number of Nikkei, Furutani's parents met in a wartime prison camp (in this case, Rohwer, Arkansas). After their relationship developed, Furutani, Sr., left Arkansas to fight with the U.S. Army. Upon his return, the two got married in New York and made their way back west by way of Chicago and Minnesota, eventually settling in Gardena, California.[1]

During the mid-1960s, Furutani became more politically minded, in large part because of his own family's history. As was the case for so many Japanese Americans, he began to realize that "it [internment] was always a reference point"—the place to start a conversation when meeting another Nikkei for the first time. He noticed that his parents and people their age, for example, frequently greeted one another with the question: "What camp were you in?" In combination with frequent conversations with his best friend, Julie Jefferson, who was involved with the Black Power Movement, questions such as this inspired him to begin studying race relations.[2]

In order to help mobilize Asian Americans, Furutani combed through autobiographical accounts by black writers who addressed many of the major intellectual, social and political issues facing not only blacks in particular, but also other marginalized groups. He read, for example, Claude Brown's Man Child in the Promised Land (1965), which narrated the experience of growing up black in Harlem during the 1940s and 1950s; Elridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice (1968), a broader meditation on being black in America, which Cleaver wrote from Folsom Prison; and Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man (1952). By contrast, the only book that Furutani could find during those same years (the late 1960s) about Japanese American experience was America's Concentration Camps by Allan Boswell (1967).[3]

During this same period, Furutani and his friend Victor Shibata (then a student at UCLA) were en route to Oceanside to participate in an anti-war protest at a Marine base. They stopped somewhere to have breakfast and reflected on the anti-war protest, deciding that Asian Americans would benefit from a march, akin to the Farm workers March in Sacramento and the Poor Peoples March in Washington, which would provide an opportunity to talk about Asian American identity as such. As a result, they spearheaded the first annual pilgrimage to Manzanar in 1969.[4] Along with Sue Kunitomi Embrey, Furutani founded the Manzanar Committee, an organization that organized further pilgrimages and advocated for state and federal recognition of the Manzanar site.[5]

In the late 1960s, Furutani joined the staff of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), working out of the Pacific Southwest District office in Los Angeles. Worried about its aging membership and various problems faced by the Sansei generation, the JACL hired Furutani and other young activists Shibata, Ron Hirano, and Ron Wakabayashi in an effort to reach the new generation. As national community involvement coordinator, he instituted various programs aimed at younger Japanese Americans and wrote a column for the Pacific Citizen, the JACL's newspaper. But Furutani and the other young staff clashed with more conservative JACL members over their support for Cesar Chavez's United Farm Worker's Union and other causes. The conflict came to a head in 1972 with the appointment of a new JACL national director whom the group saw as a continuation of the status quo, leading to their resigning en masse.[6] While with JACL, Furutani emerged as, in the words of Michi Weglyn, "spiritual head of a growing number of Sansei and Yonsei... activists intensely resentful of society's inequities, past and present," being interviewed for a December 12, 1971 60 Minutes segment on Japanese Americans and for the 1972 NBC documentary Guilty by Reason of Race.[7] After leaving the JACL, Furutani took a position at the UCLA Asian American Studies Center as a student adviser and community liaison.

Political Life

Though he spent much of his youth as an activist, Furutani only later realized he "needed to be where votes were being taken in a political body" if he wanted to heighten, and act on, political awareness of Asian American issues. As a result, in 1987, he agreed to run for the Los Angeles Board of Education, becoming the first Asian American to sit on the board. Soon after, a friend of Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga (his mother-in-law) asked if, in his capacity as a board member, Furutani could help wartime internees obtain their high school diplomas.[8]

Although Furutani had long been involved in helping Japanese Americans obtain their diplomas retroactively, he moved from ad hoc efforts to a programmatic approach once he was elected to the California State Assembly, eventually writing and sponsoring Assembly Bill 37. The bill authorized postsecondary educational institutions in the state of California to confer honorary degrees to Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during the war.[9] Furthermore, this piece of legislation mandated coordinated efforts to find those eligible to receive diplomas and offered community resource support for administrators and educators to organize meaningful ceremonies for recipients and their families. Furutani won approval of the bill at least partly due his decision to emphasize the educational value of AB 37. That is to say, Furutani, with support from the Japanese American community, designed the bill in part to encourage an exchange between elderly recipients and current students graduating alongside them.[10]

Wartime incarceration would also be central to another piece of legislation Furutani authored and sponsored. In February of 2010, he introduced California Assembly Bill 1775, which had the main goal of declaring January 30 as Fred Korematsu Day. Furutani designed the bill to "emphasize the constitutional rights afforded to all Americans regardless of race or ancestry, particularly the rights to due process and life, liberty, and property" and to "uphold the civil liberties... especially in times of real or perceived crisis."[11] California Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the bill into law on September 23, 2010. More than simply a day to remember the life of one individual, January 30 now serves as a designated day having special significance for educational institutions to contemplate the nation's historical relationship with civil liberties and their preservation.

After leaving the California State Assembly in 2012, he ran unsuccessfully for Los Angeles City Council and was briefly appointed to the Los Angeles Board of Public Works in 2013.

Authored by Karen Inouye, Indiana University, Bloomington

For More Information

Amerasia Staff. "An Interview with Warren Furutani." Amerasia Journal 1.1 (1971): 70-76.

Kurashige, Lon. Japanese American Celebration and Conflict: A History of Ethnic Identity and Festival, 1934-1990. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Murray, Alice Yang. Historical Memories of the Japanese American Internment and the Struggle for Redress. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008.

Footnotes

  1. Karen Inouye interview with Warren Furutani, Sacramento, California, June 26, 2012.
  2. Furutani interview, 2012.
  3. Furutani interview, 2012.
  4. Furutani interview, 2012.
  5. Alice Yang Murray, Historical Memories of the Japanese American Internment and the Struggle for Redress (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008), 268-270.
  6. Bill Hosokawa, JACL in Quest of Justice: The History of the Japanese American Citizens League (New York: William Morrow, 1982), 325–30; Lon Kurashige, Japanese American Celebration and Conflict: A History of Ethnic Identity and Festival, 1934-1990 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 160–63
  7. Michi Weglyn, Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America's Concentration Camps (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1976), 278.
  8. Furutani interview, 2012.
  9. California Assembly Bill No. 37, signed into California State Law on October 11, 2009.
  10. Furutani interview, 2012.
  11. California Assembly Bill No. 1775, signed into California State Law on September 23, 2010.