Paul Bannai, first Japanese American to serve in California State Legislature, dies at 99

Former California State Assemblyman Paul Takeo Bannai, the first Japanese American elected to serve in the California State Legislature, peacefully passed away in Los Angeles, Calif. on Sept. 14, 2019. He was 99.

Bannai was born on July 4, 1920, 180 miles northeast of Denver, in Delta, Colo. He grew up in other towns in Arizona and Utah.

During World War II, Bannai and his family were incarcerated in the Manzanar concentration camp in California. Bannai would go on to join the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, traveling to New Guinea and other places overseas. According to a biography, he trained with the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, before being assigned to the U.S. Army Intelligence Service.

He would eventually get married to Hideko Bannai, where they would resettle in Gardena, Calif.

After establishing his own insurance company, the Bannai Realty and Insurance Company, he would run for the Gardena City Council in 1972, and in 1973, was elected to the California State Legislature, serving four terms from 1973 to 1980 as a Republican representing the 67th and 53rd Districts.

According to his biography, he was the first Asian American appointee to the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).

Bannai also received the Order of the Sacred Treasure, Gold and Silver Rays from the Japanese Government “for contributions to the social welfare and prosperity of Japanese Americans.”

“We all knew Paul Bannai growing up in Gardena as the first Japanese American legislator in the State Legislature. But what we viewed as a pioneering politician was too narrow a perception of a man with diverse interests, strong convictions and a great sense of humor,” Dale Minami, a community activist and attorney said in a statement. “We have now come to know him as all of those but with a depth and breadth of life and a devotion to the Japanese American community which leaves a wondrous legacy.”

Bannai became the executive director of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians in 1980, a federal commission that studied the root causes of the wartime incarceration of the Japanese American community. A year later, he was appointed as chief director of the Memorial Affairs Department of Veteran Affairs by President Ronald Reagan.

Japanese American Veterans Association (JAVA) President Gerald Yamada stated that Bannai will be missed dearly and he “will be remembered for his contributions to the work of the Redress Commission and for his support of veterans as a political appointee” in the Department of Veteran Affairs under President Ronald Reagan.

Bannai is survived by his children Don, Lorraine and Kathryn; along with grandchildren, Jared, Sean, Eliot, Dana and Akira; his sister Rose; brother Ted; and other relatives. Bannai was predeceased by his wife, Hideko Bannai.

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