Paul Takeo Bannai, the first Japanese American elected to the California State Legislature, passed away at 99 years of age on Sept. 14.
Born in Delta, Colo. in 1920 to Japanese immigrants Sakui and Shino Bannai, he grew up in small mining and farming towns in Colorado, Utah and Arizona until his family moved to Boyle Heights. After graduating from high school, he tested discriminatory employment practices and eventually succeeded in obtaining a job at a bank.
During World War II, he was incarcerated at Manzanar due to Executive Order 9066. He joined the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and trained with the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion before being assigned to the Military Intelligence Service. He served in New Guinea and elsewhere in the South Pacific, including with the combined U.S. and Australian forces, and interpreted at the formal surrender of Japanese forces in Indonesia.
Upon returning to Los Angeles after the war, Bannai married and eventually resettled in Gardena. He served as a manager at the Downtown Los Angeles Flower Market. He also became heavily involved in the local Japanese American community, having worked at a Little Tokyo bank prior to the war. He regularly participated in community events as an organizer and emcee, notably as a host during Nisei Week. He was also active in the Elks Club.
He went on to a career in real estate, insurance, and banking and was elected to the Gardena City Council in 1972.
Bannai, a Republican, served four terms in the California State Assembly (1973-80) and was then defeated for re-election by Democrat Richard Floyd. He represented the 67th District in his first term but was then reapportioned into the 53rd District. During his tenure, he served on the following committees: Criminal Justice, Finance and Insurance, Veterans Affairs, Ways and Means, and Rules.
Floyd Mori, formerly of Hayward, who served in the Assembly with Bannai, said via Facebook, “Paul Bannai’s passing is the passing of an era of the beginning of ‘inclusion.’ Paul became a close friend and colleague in the California State Assembly. He was the first Japanese American elected to the California Legislature when elected in November 1974. I was elected in a special election in March 1975. He was an R and I was a D but we worked together on many pieces of legislation affecting the minority communities.
“He had a great family and his children have continued to do much good in community service. He had a great sense of humor and always had his camera ready to take a candid photo. May he RIP.”
“Although he was a proud Republican, Mr. Bannai always gave me a thumbs up and even sent me photos that he took of me at community events,” said Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi (D-Torrance). “I regret not taking the time to get to know him better. Mr. Bannai, thank you for your service and for breaking barriers for people like me.”
Bannai was the first director of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, which was established in 1980 and held public hearings in 1981. Its findings were key in awarding redress and an apology for Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II.
Appointed by President Ronald Reagan, he served as chief memorial affairs director at the Veterans Administration from 1981 to 1985. During his tenure, several existing national cemeteries were reopened for burials, while new cemeteries were opened on lands acquired from nearby military bases, including facilities at Fort Custer, Mich.; Indiantown Gap, Pa.; and Quantico, Va. During the same period, three new state veteran cemeteries opened in Maryland, Wyoming and Guam. Bannai earned the VA Administrator’s Exceptional Service Award upon his retirement.
He was also a member of the California Fair Employment and Housing Commission and the first Asian American appointee to the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).
He served as vice chair of the Japanese American National Museum’s Board of Trustees and was recognized with a Nisei Week Pioneer Award and as a Nisei Week grand marshal. From the government of Japan, he was a recipient of the Order of the Sacred Treasure, Gold and Silver Rays, “for contributions to the social welfare and prosperity of Japanese Americans.”
Among his many veteran-related activities, he was the commander of Nisei Veterans Association of Southern California, and chaired Nisei veterans’ reunions as well as a committee that produced a biography of Judge John Aiso, who served in the MIS.
Bannai led and served on numerous civic and community boards, committees, and commissions for Boy Scouts of America, North Gardena (now Faith) United Methodist Church, and Gardena Valley Lions Club, and enjoyed attending community events and gatherings, such as the Fukushima Kenjinkai annual picnic, up until his passing.
He is survived by children Don, Lorraine, and Kathryn; grandchildren Jared, Sean, Eliot, Dana, and Akira; sister Rose; brother Ted; and other relatives. He was predeceased by wife Hideko Bannai, Ph.D., and son-in-law Robert M. Miura, Ph.D.
His family will observe his passing with a private service and family gathering.
Per his family’s wishes, send any gifts or remembrances to the Go For Broke National Education Center, the Japanese American National Museum, and the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute.
IN HIS OWN WORDS
The following is a June 2004 piece written by Paul Bannai, following the death of former President Ronald Reagan.
My first recollection and contact with the late former President Ronald Reagan came during my term as a City Council in the City of Gardena.
Since Reagan had decided to run for governor of California, he called me and told me he needed some help. Because I was known in a highly Democratic district, he wanted as much help from me as he could get. He mentioned that he had changed from a Democrat to a Republican to run for the office. He knew that I had also changed from a Democrat to a Republican. I assisted him in every way I could by contacting people in my district. This he felt had helped him get elected as governor of California.
About two months after his election, he called one day and said that he would like to have me run for Assembly, because the assemblyman in my district, Larry Towndson, had passed away and he (Gov. Reagan) needed someone to fill the seat. Knowing that it was a Democratic district, the office had been held for a great many years by a Democrat.
He said that because I had served a short time as a city councilman I might have a good chance if I ran. I told him that I was retired and did not have too much of a desire to hold a higher office, that the only reason I was a city councilman was because it gave me something to do.
Reagan then commented that because the area was so hard to win as a Republican that I might stay retired anyway. He said that in order to have a chance for the seat, he would come down to the district and help me every way he could by coming to my fundraisers and helping me in obtain votes during my campaign.
Fortunately, because of his coming into the district, and coming to several of my affairs, I was able to win the seat, though only by a slight margin. At that time the district was then the 67th District. It later became the 53rd Assembly District. I was able to win election mostly because of Reagan’s popularity and his help in raising funds.
After going to Sacramento, I stayed in touch with Gov. Reagan and he in turn would call me from time to time relative to legislation that affected Californians. As a result I became a very active assemblyman and was able to retain my seat for four terms until 1980. At that time, Reagan again asked from my help in his run for the presidency, and which I did throughout my district.
Upon his election to the presidency, I was able to go Washington, D.C. to be the executive director of the Commission on Wartime Relocation Reparations, a congressional committee. While serving in Washington, D.C. President Reagan asked me if I could serve in the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and he appointed me to the position of chief of the Department of Memorial Affairs in the Veteran’s Administration.
Because my office was across the street from the president’s office I had the pleasure and opportunity to see him on many occasions, as often as twice a week during my stay in Washington, D.C.
Upon my retirement from the Veterans’ Administration, they held a retirement party for me and at that time President Reagan gave me a belt buckle, which I wear proudly. The reason he gave that belt buckle to me, he said, was because he noticed that I wear various kinds of belt buckles, which I did. My retirement occurred about the same time as President Reagan’s retirement and I kept in touch with him.
When he issued the memorandum to the public relative to his problems with Alzheimer’s, I made several calls to see if I could see him. However, Nancy answered that because of his condition he was not able to remember people, and things had deteriorated to the point where he could not even remember what he had done the day before.
When his death occurred on Saturday and I heard about it, it had a profound effect on me because I valued highly his friendship and all that he had done for me. Like millions of people who have been affected by his life here on Earth, I will miss him greatly. My deepest condolences to his loving wife Nancy and all his family and friends who mourn his passing at this time.
He was a great statesman, a great charismatic leader and warm and wonderful human being. The world will long remember him as they do that of other great American presidents like Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt. May he rest in peace.