Biography honors USC Gould alum’s fight for civil rights
Yulia Nakagome • December 9, 2021
New book on life of Japanese American newspaper publisher and community leader Sei Fujii launched with celebration in Little Tokyo
The launch of a new book on the life and legacy of Gould alum Sei Fujii was the focus of a Little Tokyo celebration in November.
A new biography honoring USC Gould School of Law graduate Sei Fujii (JD 1911), an influential Los Angeles newspaper publisher and civil rights activist, was celebrated at the Little Tokyo Historical Society on Nov. 2.
Written by USC School of Cinematic Arts alum Jeffrey Chin (MFA 2016) and Fumiko Carole Fujita (PharmD 1965) with key source material from author Kenichi Sato, A Rebel’s Outcry details Fujii’s life as founder of Kashu Mainichi (Japan-California Daily News), his efforts to overturn the California Alien Land Law in 1952, and his experiences as an immigrant and community leader.
“Our book has been a passion project with the Little Tokyo Historical Society for over a decade, where we’ve incorporated historic photographs, illustrations and original documents,” Chin said.
Janice Marion Wright LaMoree, the daughter of J. Marion Wright (JD 1913), who was Fujii’s law partner, was featured in a video at the launch about the relationship between her father and Fujii. Wright’s granddaughter and great-grandsons were in attendance.
“At one point, Fujii and Wright were on opposite sides of an immigration issue,” she said in the recording. “This was the first time they had been on opposite sides. But somehow or another, it just got smoothed over after they had a meeting. I just had the feeling that my father explained it, told a good joke and they all went home happy.”
From Left to Right: Adam Engelskirchen (great-grandson of J. Marion Wright), Jason Engelskirchen (great-grandson of J. Marion Wright), Alice LaMoree (granddaughter of J. Marion Wright), Coralie Kupfer (daughter of Owen Kupfer), Jeffrey Gee Chin (publisher and filmmaker), Naomi Hirahara (editor), Saeko Higa-Dickinson (translator)
Chin’s dive into Fujii’s history began after connecting with Fumiko Carole Fujita, followed by getting in touch with Janice Marion Wright LaMoree in Medford, Ore. Wright LaMoree had shown Chin and Fujita the 1983 book Rafu Gigyu Ondo, an official biography commissioned by Fujii’s newspaper and written in Japanese by author Kenichi Sato. At that time, Chin was planning to develop a short film on Fujii, eventually released in 2012 as “Lil’ Tokyo Reporter.” The short film stars Academy Award-winner Chris Tashima as Fujii, the publisher-turned community leader fighting corruption in Little Tokyo in 1935.
While the film was being produced, Chin and Fujita received permission from Sato to adapt his book into English. With grant money from Union Bank and UCLA Asian American Studies Center and the George and Sakaye Aratani Community Advancement Research Endowment, they begin translating the biography with the help of independent translator Saeko Higa-Dickinson.
Naomi Hirahara — former editor of The Rafu Shimpo, the largest Japanese-American daily newspaper — assisted Chin and Fujita with editing and design of A Rebel’s Outcry.
The book traces Fujii’s journey through school and includes historical photos from Fujii’s granddaughter, Chin said. There were some interesting discoveries along the way, including details about Fujii’s death.
“We had interviews with first hand sources, such as Bill Nishimura, whose father went to school with Fujii in Yamaguchi-ken,” he said. “We were also able to meet Hidekichi Nagamine, who knew him for many years. Fujii gave a eulogy at Nagamine’s father’s’ funeral, but he had a heart condition which forced him to collapse and die during the funeral. As a result, we have a photo of his last speech.”
Back row, left to right: Shawn Iwaoka, Emiko Mita, Cynthia Tanaka, Jonathan Tanaka, Jerry Nakafuji, Miya Iwataki, Stephen Nagano, Patty Nagano, David Nagano, Marisa Nakada, Kristen Hayashi
Front row: Adam Engelskirchen, Jason Engelskirchen, Alice LaMoree, Jeffrey Gee Chin, and Michael Okamura (President of Little Tokyo Historical Society and USC alumnus)
The book highlights Fujii’s work to advance civil rights issues, especially of disadvantaged people.
“He found a workaround to allow the Japanese to purchase land,” Chin said. “He knew how to work with different communities in race relations campaigns and had a forward-thinking mindset to fight amongst them for equal rights.”
His sacrifices included refusing to become a U.S. citizen in order to overturn the California Alien Land Law of 1913.
“Fujii lived and fought in the U.S. for 51 years, but he was only a citizen for 51 days before he passed away,” Chin said. “He was a hero who exemplifies minority groups. He was a part of the legacy before civil rights movements we know today.”
There have been several other efforts to honor Fujii throughout the years.
“We designed a monument in Little Tokyo in Fujii’s honor, acquiring historic designation for the iconic Japanese Hospital,” Chin said. “In 2017, we also got him a posthumous law license from the California State Bar.” Fujii is the first Japanese American to be honored with such a license in California.
Chin hopes A Rebel’s Outcry is not seen only as a historical archive.
“Fujii’s life represents a path toward equal rights for all communities,” he said. “Young activists, regardless of race, can look to someone who was unable to practice law, who eventually won two major Supreme Court cases. When he didn’t have a voice in the courtroom, he had a newspaper to help less educated people to protect their rights.”