Dr. Isao Fujimoto, PhD, professor and community organizer, died peacefully at his home in Davis, California on February 25, 2022. He was 88 years old.
Isao joined the University of California, Davis in 1967 as a founding member of the Community Development program. Throughout his career, he served as primary instructor for over fifty courses and later founded the Asian American Studies department before retiring in 1994. His retirement, however, was in name only. He continued teaching both locally and abroad – spending summers in Kyoto, Japan where he taught his beloved UC Study Abroad course. He also held leadership positions in several grassroots organizations like the Rural Development Leadership Network and the Central Valley Partnership for Citizenship for nearly two decades thereafter.
Despite a distinguished academic career and countless accolades, Isao was perhaps best known for his insatiable curiosity and unparalleled commitment to education, social justice, and the empowerment of marginalized communities. Understanding that knowledge equals power, he developed an unconventional approach to teaching and scholarship that centered justice and collaboration, challenging the hierarchy and culture of traditional academia. In fact, his home in West Davis served as the incubator and original headquarters for cherished Davis landmarks like the Davis Food Co-Op and the Farmer’s Market, both of which were founded by Isao's students.
From an early age, the importance of community was impressed upon Isao. He was born on September 28, 1933, in Wapato, Washington on the Yakama Indian Reservation to Ayako and Taichi Fujimoto, farmers from southwestern Japan. Isao was the first of thirteen children. The family lived in an ethnic enclave on the reservation, where they worked as tenant farmers. Along with 125 other Japanese immigrant families, they circumvented the racist and restrictive Alien Land Law that otherwise prohibited those of Asian descent from owning or leasing land by instead renting from the Yakama, whose land was not subject to such legislation.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Isao’s father was immediately arrested and imprisoned at Fort Missoula, Montana. As with many Japanese Americans at the time, a period of unimaginable injustice and adversity began. Despite eight-year-old Isao’s best efforts, including writing letters to President Roosevelt at his mother’s urging, his father would not be reunited with the family for almost two years.
In 1942, along with his mother and younger siblings, Isao was incarcerated in Heart Mountain, Wyoming, where his father would later be transferred. After being reunited, the family was sent to Tule Lake, the infamous maximum-security internment camp, where they remained until the end of World War II. It was at Tule Lake that Isao was given a stamp collection book by his father, a gift that would change his life. As he pored over images of foreign people and places, his mind was liberated, his imagination flew “over the barbed wire,” and a lifelong quest to learn and appreciate global diversity began.
Upon their release from Tule Lake, the family resettled in California, first in Pleasanton, and then in Morgan Hill, where they worked as sharecroppers and later, as independent strawberry farmers. Although they were forced to rebuild their lives during a time of post war hostility and threats of deportation, the perseverance of his parents was unshakeable, setting a powerful example for Isao that would serve as his ultimate guide.
Isao would go on to lead an adventure-filled life that was often as unpredictable as it was impressive, despite numerous challenges along the way. After receiving his undergraduate degree from the University of California, Berkeley in 1955, where he participated in the Cal Indo project, a collaborative exchange program with student leaders in Indonesia, Isao was drafted and sent to Korea as a U.S. Army correspondent. Upon returning home, Isao reconsidered his original plan of becoming a physician, working briefly as a probation officer and then as a high school chemistry teacher at San Jose High School. It was at San Jose High School that his talent as an educator became impossible to ignore, and he subsequently earned a Master’s in Education from Stanford in 1960. With a career in medicine in the rear view, Isao began to carve a path that was uniquely his own, attending institutes for higher education at the historically Black Howard University in Washington, D.C. and Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
At Cornell, Isao decided to pursue a PhD in rural sociology. He was conducting field research in the Philippines when three of his siblings were tragically killed by a drunk driver back home in California. In the wake of his family's grief, Isao put his dissertation on hold. Soon, UC Davis came calling and, in the years that followed, Isao dove headfirst into his new role, eager and excited to lead in movements for change. But he refused to give up on the work he began almost fifty years before and in 2010, at the age of 76, he finished and successfully defended his dissertation at Cornell, proudly leading his graduating class in the ceremony's procession.
Isao was the proud father of three children, to whom he gave the gifts of curiosity and a healthy appetite for learning. He was generous in his love and wisdom and ensured that his children had every opportunity to explore and engage with those around them. As he did with his siblings, Isao took his children on adventures across the country and around the world. He was always teaching; he couldn’t help it.
More difficult than summarizing Isao’s rich life is attempting to convey all that will be missed in his absence. In addition to his many accomplishments, there is no doubt Isao will also be remembered for his seemingly limitless energy and enthusiasm, his infectious laugh, and the unbelievable love and loyalty he offered to family, friends, and strangers alike.
Isao is preceded in death by his parents, Taichi and Ayako Fujimoto, his sisters Toyoko, Keiko, and Shoko, and his brother Donald. He is survived by his wife of thirty-four years, Christine Fry, and their daughter Esumi; sons Caedmon and Basho and their mother, Linda Wilson; grandchildren Bela Buson, Kodo, and Ruby Umiko; his brother Kazuya (Dorothy), and sisters Yoshiko (Tad), Motoko (Masao), Coleen (Ted), Annie, Janet (Jack), Shigeko, and Tomiko (Pat) in addition to many nieces, nephews, and of course, students, colleagues, and friends.
If you feel moved to donate in Isao’s memory, contributions may be made to the UC Davis Isao Fujimoto Education and Student Support Fund (https://give.ucdavis.edu/CLAS/ASIFGFT).
A public memorial service will be held in Davis on April 21, 2022. Kindly RSVP to email@example.com for additional details. Masks and social distancing will be required.