Remembering Dr. Isao Fujimoto
Professor Emeritus Isao Fujimoto passed away peacefully at his home in Davis surrounded by family on February 25th, 2022.
In 1967, Isao arrived at Davis, and shortly after helped found the Asian American Studies Program, one of the first Asian American studies programs in the country. ASA officially became a department in 2009. His accomplishments are many, and his loss is felt by an incredibly diverse community.
I knew Isao as a witty, curious, and gentle colleague who I would see at departmental meetings and down the hallway in Hart Hall, asking about my baby daughter and when my next art exhibition would be. There are other faculty members, students and staff in the department including Scott Tsuchitani, a PhD candidate in Cultural Studies and ASA teaching assistant and associate instructor, who worked with him closely and who knew him more profoundly than me. What follows are some faculty reflections and an introduction and poignant tribute to Isao by Scott, whose dissertation in part engages Isao’s extraordinary life. In January 2020, Scott organized a special exhibition at the International House in conjunction with a symposium organized by Professor Robyn Rodriguez; part of a series of events celebrating the Asian American Studies department's 50th anniversary. Both programs highlighted Isao’s vision and his impact on multiple generations of students, the UCD campus, the city of Davis, and communities across the United States, and in Asia, Latin America and Africa.
A memorial service will take place on Thursday, April 21, 2022 on the Davis campus to celebrate his life and legacy. For more information, please contact me and/or Angel Truong, ASA Department Coordinator.
Associate Professor and Department Chair
Remembering Isao Fujimoto
My first contact with Isao came via telephone in 1994. I had volunteered to help make a video for a community-based pilgrimage to Tule Lake, the former site of the concentration camp where Isao had been incarcerated in World War II, as had my parents and thousands of other Japanese Americans. Isao was known in the community for, among many things, his slide show on Tule Lake, so I called him to see if I could use it in the video.
“How are your parents doing?” was one of the first things Isao asked. I had no idea there was any connection, but they had been part of the same Japanese American Buddhist community when he was a student at UC Berkeley in the 1950s. My uncle Tetsuo was his classmate and recalled how exceptional Isao was as a student: the UC medical school restricted Asian student admissions to two students per year, and while many of my uncle’s friends tried hard to get in and failed, Isao was admitted while he was still a junior.
Isao’s resilience and perseverance in the face of structural restrictions was shaped from birth. Due to Alien Land Laws that prohibited Asians from owning or leasing land, Isao was born in 1933 in the town of Wapato on the Yakama Indian Reservation in Washington state, since Indian land was exempt from the reach of the racist state legislation. It was a childhood experience in that ethnic farming enclave that imprinted upon Isao the meaning of community that would become the focus of his life’s work.
Skilled as a carpenter, Isao’s father Taichi led the construction of a kaikan or community hall for the Buddhist temple. Isao recalled, “He spent so much time doing this that our farm was going to weed, just going to pot! Then one day, 50 farmers showed up, and they just cleaned the whole field out. To me that was a good example - my father's helping out the community and in turn the community came to help us out. And I think that's the crux of what it means to build community."
Isao was eight years old when his father was separated from the family by the FBI shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Identified as a community leader for his supervision of the kaikan construction, Taichi was separated from the family for a year and a half. When I met with Isao in 2017 to work on a project to honor his life’s work, he still had in his possession the heartbreaking correspondence with his father from when he was eight years old. Isao began his life in California in the concentration camp at Tule Lake, the most securitized of the ten concentration camps that imprisoned 120,000 Japanese Americans during the war despite the absence of military necessity.
After the war, Isao learned early lessons in perseverance from his mother Ayako, who enlisted Wayne Collins of the ACLU to successfully fight the government’s attempt to deport his undocumented father. The family engaged in share farming in Santa Clara county, eventually joining a community co-op that enabled them to farm land of their own.
In his junior year at Berkeley, Isao led a delegation to Indonesia to make contact with the student movement there. Inspired by this experience, Isao chose not to continue with medical school, and went into education instead. After graduating from Berkeley in 1954 with a BA in biological sciences, Isao earned a teaching credential from San Jose State in 1956 and a Master of Education degree from Stanford in 1959. He taught science at San Jose High School from 1958-1961.
During this time, Isao participated in summer science teacher institutes at Howard and Cornell universities. At Howard, he connected with African American colleagues who taught at segregated schools in the Jim Crow South. While at Cornell, Isao led a literacy program in Honduras, after which he decided to stay at Cornell for a Ph.D. in Rural Sociology. After completing his fieldwork on Indigenous village development in the Philippines, Isao was recruited to join the faculty at UC Davis before completing the Ph.D.
Isao arrived in spring of 1967. He contributed to the development of three new programs at UC Davis: Applied Behavioral Sciences in the College of Agriculture, the graduate program in Community Development, and the program of Asian American Studies. Isao created innovative interdisciplinary courses, such as “Scientific Bias and Social Myth,” that grew enormously popular, from 18 students the first year to 325 two years later, and whose themes remain relevant, for example, in feminist science studies today.
Despite this success, Isao began to receive negative feedback. As the only rural sociologist in a college of agriculture dominated by the interests of agribusiness and one of the few faculty of color, Isao felt unwelcome on campus. “There were no Latino professors here at all. No Black students could get a haircut in Davis. They had to go to Sacramento. This is 1967.”
Isao was involved with the establishment of Asian American Studies as an academic program in 1970. The first Asian American studies course was offered in winter of 1969 and featured Filipino farm labor organizers Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz as guest speakers.
Due to the unwelcoming atmosphere on campus, Isao began to work at home. His home soon became a hub for student activity in newly emerging topics of eco-agriculture and appropriate technology. His back porch became an incubator for organizations such as the Alternative Agricultural Resources Center, the Rural Resources Access Project, the International Tree Crop Association, as well as the Davis Farmers Market and Davis Food Co-op.
After a decade at UC Davis, with tenure in question and ethnic studies programs under attack, Isao took a one year leave and began to perform work on national and international scales. In 1977, Isao served as associate director for National Center for Appropriate Technology. He spent 1983 at the Open University’s Alternative Technology Institute in England, and in 1992, assisted the Micronesian Occupational College in Palau with alternative technology and sustainable agriculture.
Isao returned to UC Davis with senior lecturer status and continued teaching until retirement in 1994, mentoring countless future leaders in the process. His work both on and off campus continued for decades beyond. From 1991-2013, Isao instructed a UC Summer Abroad program in Japan that provided students with direct experience in community development with local activists working on issues from racist discrimination against Burakumin (an outcast group) to sustainable farming. Also in Japan, Isao participated in the Asian Rural Institute where he worked with village leaders from throughout the Global South on sustainable community development.
Isao was proud of his thirty-year involvement as an instructor with Rural Development Leadership Network since its beginning in 1985. Conducting its Rural Development Institutes at UC Davis, RDLN works with rural leaders of color across the country to provide opportunities to gain new skills and academic credentials through Antioch College.
The structural contradiction between the agricultural wealth of California’s Central Valley and the extreme poverty of its cities and towns was a focus of Isao’s work. From 1996-2004, Isao served as project facilitator for the Central Valley Partnership for Citizenship (CVP), working with 20 activist organizations and 150 emerging immigrant community groups across eighteen counties. The work of the CVP was the subject of Isao’s dissertation for his Ph.D. awarded to him at the age of 76 by Cornell University in 2010.
Twenty years after that first phone call in 1994, I met Isao in person for the first time, unexpectedly, at the Association for Asian American Studies Conference in San Francisco. It was spring of 2014, and I had accepted admission to graduate school at UC Davis for the fall quarter. I was presenting on one of those panels where the presenters outnumber the audience members, so Isao’s entrance to the room was hard not to notice. Before the session began, he approached me to introduce himself and invite me to a reception that UC Davis Asian American Studies was hosting later that day.
To put this in perspective, Isao had only spoken to me on the phone that one time, the same year he retired from teaching in the department, twenty years ago. Yet he was the one who went out of his way to find my obscure session and invite me. How he even remembered who I was, knew I was coming to Davis in the fall or that I was presenting at AAAS, I’ll never know, but I was so touched that he did all this in order to make me feel welcome.
Isao's vision of Asian American studies was always deeply grounded in what is now described as “engaged scholarship” and crossed ethnic/racial boundaries to link communities and struggles. I remember how he came to an event that I had organized on campus about the War on Terror, the invasion of Iraq, and the Palestine freedom struggle the very first year I joined UCD in 2003, even though I didn't know him, and he talked to me afterwards to show solidarity. He was a generous, humble and truly radical spirit.
Isao’s nature was one of infinite energy, lifelong curiosity, creative synergies and expansive networking skills. Isao had an abiding love and care for Asian American studies, its faculty, students, staff and alumni over a lifetime. He contributed generously to its development and well-being in many various capacities. He had a love of people and of the land. For him, land was not symbolic. It was family and the people who lived and worked in rural communities that held deep knowledge. He recognized that one could empower communities and foster new understandings of sustainability and embodied connections at the grassroots level. To me, Isao was a living treasure and a caring soul whose thought and action were intimately connected to life, family, work and a collective vision.
Ga Young Chung:
Isao’s life-long commitment to uplift the voices of the oppressed through teaching and organizing helps us reimagine what fundamental values and practices of public higher education and public scholarship we want to engage in. Through his tireless work, he transformed the university into a space where students can open their eyes to the intersectional and transnational struggles of minoritized people in Asia-Pacific and where scholars, students, and community members can create solidarity to achieve racial, social, and economic justice. Isao’s practices and scholarship embody what Ethnic Studies and Asian American Studies have been paving the way for, and his legacy will continue to motivate us to move forward with pride and love for the community.
Robyn Magalit Rodriguez:
Isao Fujimoto has served as my North Star since I joined the Asian American Studies faculty in 2011. After having been employed in a traditional academic department prior to coming to UC Davis, I was excited about working in an ethnic studies department and Isao served as a model after whom I wanted to pattern myself. To me, Isao embodies a unique kind of community-engaged scholarship and teaching that I believe should continue to form the core of Asian American Studies. Isao’s life work has been to lift up the voices of those marginalized by economic, political, and social systems. He pursued this through his community-engaged research on indigenous peoples in the Philippines and farmworkers and immigrants in California’s Central Valley. His undaunted but humble commitment to speaking truth to power along with his teaching and mentorship has inspired generations of students to pursue careers to advance social justice. He will be sorely missed but it is my hope that Asian American Studies at UC Davis will ensure that his legacy is carried on.
Isao represented the best of Davis. One of the most enduring images of Isao for me was seeing him traverse throughout town on his bike. He was so mobile, which in many ways reflected the way he lived his life. He was constantly on the move, always seeking to be present and involved. He was ubiquitous, unwaveringly in attendance, usually by way of his trusted bicycle, at all sorts of meetings, events, and functions on and off campus. His calm presence and cheerful disposition were always comforting. In his tireless work and advocacy, he brought together people from so many different walks of life. His life work, in and out of the academy, was not only community engaged but also intersectional at its core. He understood deeply the interconnections that hold us all together as he sought to bring out the best in all of us. His life was a testament to such an affirmative understanding of people. Through his words and actions, he touched and enriched so many different lives. While he was always so humble and unassuming, he leaves us with an immense legacy of love, care, and compassion. We will all dearly miss Isao. In our mourning, however, we have much to celebrate about him and his extraordinary life.
Remembering Dr. Isao Fujimoto (ASA Obituary for Dr. Isao Fujimoto)
College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences’ Obituary for Dr. Isao Fujimoto
Isao Fujimoto Life & Legacy Digital Exhibition
UC Davis Library's Obituary for Dr. Isao Fujimoto