ac•tiv•ist, noun: a person who works to bring about political or social change
By Warren Furutani (Warren Furutani: 2022, 272 pp., $21, paperback)
For some 50 years, Warren Furutani has been one of the spokespeople for the Sansei generation, starting with his notoriety as an activist at the dawn of the Asian American Movement to his later incarnation as an elected official in California. “ac•tiv•ist” is a self-published memoir that conveys his life story in a colorful if uneven manner.
Born in 1947 and mostly raised in Gardena, Calif., Furutani first gained notoriety as a student at the College of San Mateo in 1968, when a rally he spoke at led to his arrest. Honing a talent for public speaking, he was involved in many of the touchstone moments of the Asian American Movement, leading opposition to the Vietnam War, being one of the founders of the Manzanar Pilgrimage, and contributing to the seminal movement newspaper Gidra. Later, he became the first Asian American elected to the Los Angeles School Board and was elected to the California State Assembly, where he championed legislation to award diplomas to Japanese Americans denied them by their wartime incarceration.
Not quite a traditional memoir, “ac•tiv•ist” is largely episodic, with each chapter taking on important themes or time periods in Furutani’s eventful life. The style, length and quality of the chapters vary widely, with the earlier chapters on his youthful activism generally faring better than the later ones on his political career. Furutani captures the excitement and idealism of those times well, whether his arrest, his encounter with the draft and the Vietnam War, and his years as a staffer for the Japanese American Citizens League. A particular highlight is a chapter about being dispatched to New York to deal with local activists who were threatening to disrupt the 1970 JACL convention that proved to be life changing in more ways than one.
But other chapters that try to tell broader stories beyond what he was directly involved in — the Anti-War Movement or the Redress Movement, for instance — fare less well. Later chapters — and even some earlier ones — read as if written with political considerations in mind. The chapter on his and other young activists’ departure from the JACL, a key moment in the history of that organization, is relegated to just two pages, with key figures in the story not even named. He mostly doesn’t name enemies or go into detail about political conflicts. While one can appreciate his decision not to dish the dirt on the one hand, the historian in me wants to know these things on the other.
The book is also marred by numerous factual errors (e.g. getting the dates of JFK’s assassination and the Kent State massacre wrong or misnaming NCRR as “Nikkei Commission on Redress/Reparations”) and much repetition from chapter to chapter, as if chapters had been written at different times or as stand-alone pieces. These issues might have been a byproduct of the decision to self-publish rather than go through an established publisher, where professional fact checkers, copy editors and proofreaders might have caught them.
Furutani’s strength has always been his personal charisma and public speaking ability, neither of which really come through in the written format. Though “ac•tiv•ist” is still certainly worthwhile, one wonders whether a different medium such as film/video might have been a better way to tell a remarkable life story.