Masakazu Jack Fujimoto, a lifelong college educator, promoter of Japanese language instruction, and author of a book about Sawtelle Japantown, passed away on Nov. 26. He was 93.
Services were held on Dec. 7 at West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple with Rev. Koho Takata, the temple’s resident minister, as officiant. The Dharma message was given by Rev. Marvin Harada, bishop, Buddhist Churches of America, in English and Rev. George Matsubayashi, minister emeritus, BCA, in Japanese. The chairperson was Connie Yahata, president of the temple.
Fujimoto was born on July 19, 1928 in National City to parents Morizo (Issei from Hiroshima) and Emi (Nisei born in Glendale). At the age of 13, he was evacuated from Encinitas along with his parents and siblings and sent to the Poston War Relocation Center in Arizona. The family was released from Poston in 1945, and resettled in Encinitas.
Following his graduation from high school, Fujimoto volunteered in the U.S. Army, where he was trained in counter-intelligence and served in Japan during the Korean War.
Coming from a farming background, he was expected to follow the tradition of the oldest son following the patriarch. However, he was released to be the first in his family to pursue a college education and obtained his A.A. degree at Pasadena City College and his B.S., M.B.A., and Ph.D. at UCLA.
Fujimoto’s specialty in the Japanese language carried forth in his life. He taught Japanese for 12 years at Venice Gakuen, a private community school at the Venice Japanese Community Center. He worked closely with Los Angeles Unified School District and Culver City Unified School District schools to get credit for Venice Gakuen Japanese language students to meet the language requirements for the University of California institutions. Today, that credit recognition continues for all private Japanese language learners who pass a credit test.
In 1969, Fujimoto was selected as a dean at Los Angeles Pierce College in Woodland Hills. In 1977, he became the president of Sacramento City College, making him the first Asian American to become the president of a mainland U.S. community college. In 1979, he accepted the position as president of West Los Angeles College.
In 1986, stating falling enrollment figures, Chancellor Leslie Koltai recommended to the trustees of the Los Angeles Community College District that Fujimoto be removed as president. But due to an intense lobbying effort by Asian American community groups, he was retained as assistant to the chancellor by the board president.
He became president at Los Angeles Mission College in San Fernando Valley in 1989 and served until 1996. From 2002 to 2003, he was interim superintendent-president of Imperial Valley College in Imperial County.
Fujimoto was the eldest of the six siblings: Jack, Fumie, Yoko, Takashi, Judy, and Eiko. He met his wife, Grace Fusaye Toya, while he was working at a gas station in the Sawtelle area. He married her at West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple on Oct. 7, 1956. They had four children: Crystal, Randall, Jolene, and Maya; and four grandchildren: Matthew, Jaxon, Hailey, and Tess.
Fujimoto visited Japan many times in addition to his time there during the Korean War. He was able to visit various universities as well as the Ministry of Education. For 30 years, he served as advisor to Kobe Women’s University in Kobe and also taught at the Language Institute of Japan in Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture.
From 1983 to 1995, he chaired the Board of Trustees of the Institute of Buddhist Studies, a graduate seminary affiliated with the Berkeley-based Graduate Theological Union.
From 1986, Fujimoto was involved with the Japanese Institute of Sawtelle in West Los Angeles. He orchestrated the merger of the institute and its language school, Sawtelle Gakuin, and in 2000 became its founding chairman and president, a position that he held until 2005 when he chaired the 80th anniversary of the institute and gakuin. In 2007, he authored the book “Sawtelle: West Los Angeles Japantown,” a pictorial history of the neighborhood.
After his retirement from the Los Angeles Community College School District, Fujimoto and his wife spent many years traveling to other parts of the country. One of their greatest accomplishments was to visit all 50 states. Their travels also took them to Europe and to Japan to visit relatives at least once a year. Throughout all of their travels, Fujimoto maintained his blogs to document their visits.
In June 2020, after the arrival of the pandemic, he started to feel the effects of the idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis that he had been diagnosed with a few years earlier. He had trouble breathing and went to the ER. In July, the couple moved to Torrance to be closer to their children.
Even in his weakened condition, Fujimoto continued to be a prolific writer. His goals were to finish biographies of his parents. The first was achieved when he finished the draft of “The Morizo Story” last January. The book was officially published by Friesen Press in November and is now on Amazon and other online book sites. He was nearing completion on the life of his mother, Emi, when he passed away.
His family remembered him as “a loving husband, Dad, and Gampy, whose life was guided with compassion, gratitude, and humility.”