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Sei Fujii, the activist who defeated a discriminatory land law

By Raymond Douglas Chong, AsAmNews Staff Writer

Just over a century ago, one Japanese American civil rights activist fought the same discriminatory land laws that are being introduced into legislatures today.

According to APA Justice, during the 2023 legislative sessions, 33 state legislatures in America have considered discriminatory alien land bills. Nine states have passed the alien land bills into state laws.

In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis signed the 2023 version of the Alien Land Law. It prohibits immigrants from China, Venezuela, Syria, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and Cuba from owning agricultural lands and real properties. This Florida Alien Land Law now faces litigation.

One hundred and ten years ago, the California State Legislature enacted the 1913 California Alien Land Law. It barred Asian immigrants from owning lands. Subsequent 1920 and 1923 amendments barred land leasing and ownership by American-born children of Asian immigrant parents or corporations controlled by Asian immigrants.

Sei Fujii, Little Tokyo’s civil rights activist, defeated the 1913 California Alien Land Law in 1952.

Sei Fujii v. State of California

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, amidst the era of the Yellow Peril, White Americans unjustly feared Asian immigrants as an economic and cultural threat.

In the American West, Whites authorities fervently debated “The Japanese Question” and “The Chinese Question.” As a result, Congress enacted the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which excluded Chinese laborers from immigrating. Later, Congress agreed to the 1908 Gentlemen’s Agreement that limited Japanese immigration to America.

In California, White Americans vowed to limit the competition of Issei (Japanese immigrants) farmers. The California State Legislature classed them as “aliens ineligible for citizenship” to limit their rights.

In 1913, Governor Hiram Johnson signed the Alien Land Law that targeted the Japanese but also affected the Chinese, Indian, and Koreans. Subsequent 1920 and 1923 amendments barred land leasing and ownership by American-born children of Asian immigrant parents or corporations controlled by Asian immigrants.

With California as a model, state legislatures passed their Alien Land Laws in Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Louisiana, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

Fujii found loopholes in the discriminatory Alien Land Law and devised strategies for the Issei farmers to lease farmlands. He educated them to operate a business in California legally.

Following the legal precedent of the 1949 Kenji Namba v. McCourt case in Oregon, Fujii purchased a lot in East Los Angeles in 1948 to challenge the 1913 California Alien Land Act.

With J. Marion Wright, as counsel, in Sei Fujii v. State of California, they argued in front of the California Supreme Court.

  • 1948 – Fujii, a non-citizen, purchased land in East Los Angeles.
  • 1949 – Fujii filed a lawsuit against the State of California.
  • 1949 – Los Angeles County Superior County ruled that Alien Land Law was valid. Judge ordered the confiscation of Fujii’s land.
  • 1951 – California Appellate Court ruled that the Alien Land Law was invalid, violating the United Nations Charter, Article 17.
  • 1952 – California Supreme Court ruled that the Alien Land Law was unconstitutional, violating the 14th Amendment.

On April 17, 1952, the California State Supreme Court invalidated the California Alien Land Law in violation of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution, Civil Rights (1868). Along with the Haruye Masaoka  v. State of California case, Issei farmers finally could own land in California.

In the light of the foregoing discussion, we have concluded that the constitutional theories upon which the Porterfield case was based are today without support and must be abandoned. [7c] The California Alien Land Law is obviously designed and administered as an instrument for effectuating  racial discrimination, and the most searching examination discloses no circumstances justifying classification on that basis. There is nothing to indicate that those alien residents who are racially ineligible for citizenship possess characteristics which are dangerous to the legitimate interests of the state, or that they, as a class, might use the land for purposes injurious to public morals, safety or welfare. Accordingly, we hold that the alien land law is invalid as in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The judgment is reversed.

– Chief Justice Phil Sheridan Gibson, California Supreme Court

An Extraordinary Life

Fujii led an extraordinary life in America. Until his 1954 death, Fujii defended the establishment of the Japanese Hospital built in 1929, founded the Kashu Mainichi  (Japan-California Daily News) in 1931, and overturned the 1913 California Alien Land Law in 1952. In addition, he crusaded against the Japanese gangsters in Little Tokyo and advocated the civil rights of Issei farmers.

Kashu Mainichi newspaper office, October 1939, via Japanese American National Museum.

Fujii was born, in Iwakuni City, Yamaguchi Prefecture, Japan, on December 22, 1882. He immigrated to America aboard the S.S. Ryojin Maru, a steamer. He arrived at the port of Seattle, Washington, on July 3, 1903. He lived in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles.

In 1911, Fujii graduated with a Bachelor of Laws degree from the University of Southern California Law School. But the State Bar of California denied his license because the expanded laws of the Chinese Exclusion Act barred him from naturalized citizenship and the ability to acquire a professional license.

With J. Marion Wright, a lawyer, and his law school classmate, together as partners, Fujii and Wright defended the civil rights of the Nikkei community in the courts of law.

Jacob Marion Wright and Sei Fujii, via Hiro Hishiki Estate.

In 1928, a group of Issei physicians purchased land to build the Japanese Hospital as a corporation in Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights neighborhood. Japanese were relegated to makeshift hospitals when denied routine care by White hospitals and medical professionals. In Jordan v. Tashiro case, they argued at the California Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court, which ultimately ruled in their favor.

Fujii founded the Kashu Mainichi newspaper in 1931. In addition, he had a weekly radio program on KRKD AM radio station. Furthermore, Fujii influenced the development of the Nisei Week festival in 1934 to showcase Japanese culture in Little Tokyo and traditional ondo dancing.

Fujii vainly exposed the corrupted American immigration officers. He crusaded the rackets of Japanese gangsters who swindled and cheated Issei farmers in gambling and extorted Issei businessmen at the infamous Tokyo Club. On November 25, 1932, Fujii was almost assassinated but successfully fought off his assassins.

During World War II, on February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. As a result, the War Relocation Authority incarcerated all Japanese Americans in an exclusion zone along the Pacific coast. Federal Bureau of Investigation agents arrested Fujii as a “security risk” due to his community leadership on February 19, 1942. He was initially imprisoned at the Tuna Canyon Detention Station in Los Angeles. Then he was then sent to internment camps in Lordsburg and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Fujii was finally released on March 19, 1946.

The 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act (McCarran–Walter Act) deemed Issei and other foreign-born Asians eligible to become American citizens for the first time. The United States District Court granted American citizenship to Fujii on  November 12, 1954. On December 23, 1954, he suffered a heart attack. Fujii died just two months after acquiring his American citizenship, having fought diligently for 51 years for his Nikkei Community. His grave lies at Calvary Cemetery in East Los Angeles.

Sei Fujii’s Legacy

A radio program scene from Lil Tokyo Reporter (2012) via Jeffrey Gee Chin.

Jeffrey Gee Chin, filmmaker and publisher with Leap Man Productions, and Dr. Fumiko Carole Fujita, a retired pharmacist, have honored Sei Fujii’s legacy in America. Fujita was born at the Japanese Hospital and, in her retirement, dedicated her efforts to uncover the history of Japanese health care with the Little Tokyo Historical Society. Through that, it blossomed several initiatives to tell Fujii’s story.

Since 2010, in association with the Little Tokyo Historical Society, Chin and Fujita have made a narrative short film, installed a steel monument, successfully petitioned for a posthumous law license, supported the historic designation of the Japanese Hospital, and authored an illustrated biography.

Lil Tokyo Reporter – A Short Film Based on the Life of Sei Fujii, premiered in Pasadena, California, on September 14, 2012. The short narrative occurs in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo in 1935. Fujii, the newspaper publisher, battles Japanese gangsters who cheat Issei farmers at the Tokyo Club. Academy Award-Winner Chris Tashima starred as Fujii. Chin directed the film, while Fujita produced the film.

Lil Tokyo Reporter DVD is available from Little Tokyo Historical Society – https://www.littletokyohs.org/lil-tokyo-reporter-film-product

On August 1, 2015, the community unveiled the Sei Fujii Memorial Lantern in the Japanese Village Plaza in Little Tokyo. The galvanized steel monument is a beacon, honoring the legacy of Sei Fuji as a community newspaper publisher and civil rights activist.

On May 24, 2017, the California Supreme Court posthumously granted Fujii his law license. They wrote, “Despite being formally excluded from joining the ranks of the legal profession throughout his life, Fujii spent much of his career using the courts to advance the rule of law in California. . . . Fujii’s work in the face of prejudice and oppression embodies the highest traditions of those who work to make our society more just. Accordingly, we hereby grant Sei Fujii honorary posthumous membership in the State Bar of California.”

In November 2016, Los Angeles City Council voted to designate the old Japanese Hospital in Boyle Heights as a City of Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monument #1131.

On November 2, 2021, Chin and Fujita published A Rebel’s Outcry: Biography of Issei Civil Rights Leader Sei Fujii (1882-1954). Their book is Fujii’s life story with detailed photographs, vivid illustrations, and historical documents based on their over a decade of research.

A Rebel’s Outcry is also based on Kenichi Sato’s official biography of Sei Fujii, “Rafu Gigyu Ondo” (1983).  Kashu Mainichi commissioned the biography.

Their publication also won gold for Independent Publisher Book Awards for “Most Outstanding Design,” California Book Awards for “Contribution to Publishing,” and Honorable Mention in the Memoirs/Life Stories category of the 30th Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards.

A Rebel’s Outcry is available from the Little Tokyo Historical Society – https://www.littletokyohs.org/store/a-rebels-outcry

Interview with Jeffrey Gee Chin

Raymond Douglas Chong recently spoke with Chin about his

Q: Why is Sei Fujii a towering figure in Little Tokyo and for Americans?

Chin: Sei Fujii challenged the root of discrimination that impacts immigrant communities today.

Sei Fujii and J. Marion Wright fearlessly fought to establish the Japanese Hospital with U.S. Supreme Court Case Jordan v. Tashiro (1928), providing much-needed healthcare services for the growing Nikkei community. Additionally, he applied his knowledge of the law to aid families in purchasing land under their American Born children’s names and eventually overturned the ‘infamous’ Alien Land Law in 1952.

Fujii’s fight and contributions have been very much unsung for generations, and it is important to remind all Americans of the liberties we benefit from today and the struggles that happened not too long ago.

Q: Why are you so passionate about promoting the forgotten story of Sei Fujii?

Chin: Sei Fujii’s story reminds me of my grandfather, Steven Gee, my ultimate role model. My Gung Gung (grandfather in Cantonese) immigrated to New York City from Toisan in 1937. He worked in the laundry, attended school, and received mentorship from the honorable Dr. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee. She was known as an early suffragette and a fighter for the community after the Tong Wars, establishing a memorial hall and church in her late father’s name.

My grandfather and his cousin, William Jee, led the church after her passing—focusing on helping the community through educational and work opportunities and uniting families by assisting in their immigration process. In later years, my grandfather played a critical role in providing a haven for youth during the Chinatown gang wars and ultimately providing the exact semblance of the family once afforded to him by Dr. Lee.

Sei Fujii similarly put his career and health on the line to provide for the next generation. I hope to one day share my Gung Gung’s story as well.

Q: Why did the memory of Sei Fujii fade away in the Nikkei community?

Chin: I have often discussed this with Dr. Fumiko Carole Fujita, the originator of the research on Sei Fujii with the Little Tokyo Historical Society. Dr. Fujita believes that after World War II, Japanese American families were just focused on resettling, and many of these older Issei were forgotten and passed on around that same time.

Much attention has focused on the unjust incarceration of the Japanese American people, with less attention to breathing life into and honoring the backstories of those who lived through the experience.

Q: Tell us about your journey in discovery about Sei Fujii?

Chin: In 2010, I attended the first National Asian Pacific Islander American Historic Preservation Forum in San Francisco’s Japantown. During that time, I had just finished an assistantship with two Hollywood producers while also producing a new media documentary series for Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation.

At the preservation forum, Jordan Yee, a San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park ranger, introduced me to Fumiko Carole Fujita. Fujita was a retired pharmacist now volunteering her time with the Little Tokyo Historical Society, with a focus on the history of Japanese American healthcare and the historic Japanese Hospital. Fujita was born in a Japanese Hospital and was determined to share the importance of that landmark establishment.

As Fujita discussed her research, I became immersed in Sei Fujii’s remarkable life, winning two major Supreme Court cases for his community and being an outspoken leader as the publisher of the Kashu Mainichi

I was 24 and determined to pursue my career as a narrative director. I decided then that this story would be a worthwhile project to showcase the Asian American community in a way that Spielberg or Scorsese have for their communities.

Q: What have you achieved about Sei Fujii since you began this journey?

Chin: Lil Tokyo Reporter was a 30-minute short film set in the 1930s, starring Academy Award-Winner Chris Tashima. It was my first produced short film, and nothing short of ambitious. I am so grateful for the opportunity that the short film afforded my career and the audiences it reached. (Won over 21 Festival Awards, Screened with U.S. Embassy, Qualified for Cannes Short Film Corner).

Although Lil Tokyo Reporter was a landmark accomplishment, it inspired much more in the community, including a memorial lantern, a posthumous law license, a historic designation of Japanese Hospital, and an award-winning biography, A Rebel’s Outcry.

Thanks to the incredible efforts of Little Tokyo Historical Society members and the Japanese American Bar Association, with leadership by Sidney Kanazawa, Sei Fujii is the first Japanese American to be honored with a posthumous law license in California.

Jeffrey Gee Chin, Sidney Kanazawa, Adam Engelskirchen, Coralie Kupfer, and Fumiko Carole Fujita, by the Sei Fujii Memorial Lantern, August 1, 2015, via Jeffrey Gee Chin.

Q: What has been your most poignant moment in discovery?

Chin: There have been many poignant moments on our path to discovery. I am incredibly grateful to have met Janice LaMoree (J. Marion Wright’s daughter), Mitsue Akiyama (Sei Fujii’s granddaughter), and Janine Macbeth (Hugh Macbeth’s great-granddaughter). I believe personalities are generational, and if you meet a family of individuals, you will see how the historic individual must have been—all of whom have been extraordinarily kind and supportive.

Traversing on a skinny road through the rice fields of Iwakuni (Fujii’s ancestral village), I was honored to return to the home Sei Fujii had left over a century ago and share our discoveries with his descendants. This past summer, we shared our biography with Sei Fujii’s great-great-granddaughter.

Bringing to life this long-lost history is truly a priceless experience.

Q: Share a fantastic story about writing A Rebel’s Outcry.

Chin: In 2011, after finishing Lil Tokyo Reporter’s principal photography, Dr. Fujita and I decided to travel to Sakata, Japan, to meet author Kenichi Sato of Rafu Gigyu Ondo. A formal biography on Sei Fujii was commissioned by the Kashu Mainichi back in 1983. The book’s title roughly translates to “Los Angeles Rebellious Dance.”

Dr. Fujita and I met with Kenichi Sato for a series of days, and after long days of discussions, we ended them with a delicious meal. Then, one day, he ordered a particular sake, “Kudoki Jozu (くどき 上手),” which translates to “Good at flirting, playboy.” A positive way of saying that the person is good at communicating, like Sei Fujii, and a slight nod to his ‘complex’ personal life.

Sei Fujii’s family (from left to right): Nami Norichika (Great Grand Daughter) with Maho Norichika (Great Great Grand Daughter), Mitsue Akiyama (Grand Daughter) and husband Nobuyuki Akiyama, via Jeffrey Gee Chin.

Q: What is your dream to continue the story of Sei Fujii?

Chin: JEFFREY GEE CHIN I have a duty, especially with the endless support I received from the community, extended family, and friends of Sei Fujii, to finally bring his story to the forefront of cinema. I dream of producing a feature film that sheds light on Issei and Fujii’s unique role as community and race relations leaders in the years leading up to World War II.

I also have a graphic novel that has been funded, which we hope to release at the end of this year.

Q: How has the story of Sei Fujii affected the trajectory of your life?

Chin: Whenever I get involved in any project, I think about honoring the legacy of our community. I am constantly reminded of my grandfather’s selfless efforts to help protect the future of  New York Chinatown and how quickly his story faded into history after his passing.

I feel the same for Sei Fujii, who fearlessly confronted injustice in the Nikkei community. I never imagined becoming a published author nor helping in the effort to acquire a posthumous law license. However, I have traveled to places that even many Japanese nationals have traveled to uncover Fujii’s history, and each accomplishment reminds me that I am on a purposeful path, which I find is the key to my happiness.

Q: Do you think Sei Fujii should be considered for the Presidential Medal of Freedom?

Chin: I never thought of it. Still, suppose he had been considered for the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In that case, I hope it set a precedent for all communities to understand the crucial role Fujii and his peers played in ensuring the future of the Japanese American community. First, however, people may recognize Fujii for his great work winning two major Supreme Court Cases, fighting crime, and running the Kashu Mainichi.

Through my research, I discovered Fujii was equally involved in establishing labor unions for farmers across Southern California and leading a Race Relations Campaign with historic attorney Hugh Macbeth. So it is not out of the question that he should receive such an honor.

Close

Sei Fujii was Little Tokyo’s civil rights activist for the Nikkei community in the United States. Despite the myriad challenges, he faithfully pursued the best remedies according to American laws. Fujii successfully overturned the 1913 California Alien Land Law.

Sei Fujii firmly believed in our idealistic American democracy.

He (Sei Fujii) was a fearless, determined advocate for all the rights of all Japanese American, and he advocated that position that there should be rights and justice and fairness for Japanese, even at the peril of his life.

Frank Chuman,, pioneer Nisei attorney

Happy Lunar New Year! Please support our Lunar New Year Fundraising Drive through this link. AsAmNews is published by the non-profit, Asian American Media Inc. We are supported in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.

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