Nikkei activist Ernest Iiyama, 99, dies

Ernest S. “Ernie” Iiyama

Ernest S. “Ernie” Iiyama, a resident of El Cerrito, Calif., died on June 15, surrounded by his family and friends. He was just months short of his 100th birthday. Iiyama’s life was marked by political activism in the Japanese American community and broader society, a love of travel, walking, and good food, and participation in a large and loving family.

Born in Oakland, he returned to Japan with his family when he was young and he attended high school there. After graduation, Iiyama moved back to the U.S. and later attended the University of California at Berkeley. He helped found the Oakland chapter of the Japanese Americans Citizen League (JACL) in 1934 as well as the Nisei Young Democrats of the East Bay.

In 1942, Iiyama, along with more than 110,000 persons of Japanese descent, was ordered into a concentration camp by the U.S. government. At first he was sent to Tanforan Race Track Assembly Center in San Bruno, Calif. He was elected to the Tanforan Camp Council while living in a horse stall. He credited his election to his ability to speak both Japanese and English and to relate to both the Nisei and Issei.

When he arrived at the Topaz concentration camp in Central Utah, he was recruited to head the Topaz Housing Department. Later he was elected to the Topaz Camp Council and elected executive secretary. He pushed to add traditional sports such as kendo and judo to the wartime camp’s recreational activities.

Iiyama met his wife Chizu in Topaz. Together they left for Chicago in 1943 where they were married. They moved to New York in 1944, where Iiyama became chairman of the Japanese American Committee for Democracy. In 1948, the family moved to Chicago where Ernest became a machinist and later became a chief steward for the United Electrical Workers of America at General Electric.

Returning to the Bay Area in 1956, the Iiyamas joined the Contra Costa chapter of the JACL. Ernie eventually was elected chapter president. He was a supporter of the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement of the time and was an early participant in the protests against the U.S. war in Vietnam.

In the 1980s the Iiyamas became active in the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations, seeking justice for the incarcerated Japanese Americans during World War II. In 1983 Iiyama was one of seven people who received reparations from Alameda County for being fired in 1942 because of their forced relocation.

The Iiyamas also worked with the National Japanese American Historical Society (NJAHS) — where Chizu was a board member and Ernie an Advisory Council member — to tell the true story of the wartime incarceration experience. The Iiyamas spent many years speaking before audiences throughout Northern California.

“He was not only an activist, but he was also practical too,” said NJAHS Executive Director Rosalyn Tonai. “He had no problem asking people to support causes he believed in.”

A resident of El Cerrito for more than 50 years, Iiyama served on the Human Relations Committee for the Richmond School District and on the Ad Hoc Committee, which formed the Human Relations Commission of El Cerrito.

Iiyama is survived by his wife of 68 years, Chizu, his daughter Laura Iiyama, son Mark Iiyama, and daughter Patti Iiyama and son-in-law Jerry Freiwirth.

The services will be private. In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to the National Japanese American Historical Society, 1684 Post St. San Francisco, CA 94115 or J-Sei (formerly Japanese American Services of the East Bay), 2126 Channing Way, Berkeley, CA 94704.

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