Civil rights advocate, JA organizer, Chizu Iiyama dies

Chizu Iiyama. photo by Jerry Freiwirth

Chizu Iiyama, 98, died peacefully of natural causes Aug. 26, 2020 at Kaiser Permanente hospital in Richmond, Calif. She was one of the few remaining Nisei who could speak firsthand of the Japanese American experience in the U.S. World War II concentration camps.

In many ways, Iiyama’s life was unique for a Japanese American woman of her generation. From her early years growing up in San Francisco’s Chinatown, to her experiences in the World War II concentration camp, to her career as a pioneer in the field of early childhood development, Iiyama brought a special verve to everything she undertook. She was outspoken and steadfast, along with her husband of 67 years, Ernie, in the fight for redress for the wartime incarceration, for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam. 

The fifth of seven children, Iiyama was born in San Francisco where her father managed a Chinatown boarding house for Japanese and Black workers. Entering the University of California at Berkeley as a psychology major, she paid her own way by working as a “school girl” (house servant).

In 1942, she was one of some 120,000 persons of Japanese descent who were forced into concentration camps without due process. Iiyama was incarcerated first at the Santa Anita Assembly Center in Los Angeles County where she and her family lived in a horse stall. They were then moved to the Topaz (Central Utah) concentration camp, where she met her eventual husband Ernie Iiyama.

They eventually obtained early leave, were married in Chicago and moved to New York, where they were active in the Japanese American Committee for Democracy. Iiyama began to speak at meetings about her experiences in “camp,” something that was unprecedented at the time.

They moved back to Chicago in 1948. Iiyama became assistant director for the Chicago Resettlers Committee. She and Ernie remained deeply committed to activism against injustice. One notable example was their participation in the early 1950s, along with their young daughter, in several “wade-ins” to desegregate the Lake Michigan beaches of Chicago. On one occasion they were attacked by a gang of racist thugs and the protesters were forced to flee. 

At the same time, Iiyama continued her academic career, studying under noted humanist psychologist Carl Rogers at the University of Chicago, where she received a master’s degree in child psychology.

Returning to the Bay Area in 1955, the Iiyamas redoubled their staunch support of the Civil Rights Movement. The Iiyamas were early participants in the movement against the war in Vietnam, often marching in Asian American contingents in the huge San Francisco demonstrations of that time. 

They were active in the Japanese American Citizens League, and Iiyama wrote articles for the JACL’s Pacific Citizen. In 1983, she and her good friend Mei Nakano founded the national JACL Women’s Concerns Committee. Later, in 1994, they co-sponsored the National JACL resolution to support marriage equality for same-sex couples, making the JACL one of the first national organizations to take this stance. 

In the 1970s, Chizu and Ernie became active in the redress movement with both the JACL and the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations. This hard-fought struggle won an apology and reparations from the U.S. government for the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.

The Iiyamas were also prominent supporters of the National Japanese American Historical Society. They worked tirelessly to tell the truth about the concentration camp experience, speaking for many years before students from grade school through university. As chair of the NJAHS Women’s Exhibit Committee, Iiyama helped develop the “Strength and Diversity: Japanese American Women, 1885-1990” exhibit, which opened at the Oakland Museum in 1990 and toured the country for the next decade under the sponsorship of the Smithsonian Institute Traveling Exhibition Service. 

Iiyama translated her love of working with children into becoming the first director of Contra Costa College’s early childhood education program. She also helped to establish an Early Childhood Mental Health program in Richmond. 

Both Chizu and Ernie volunteered with the Friends of Hibakusha, which organizes medical check-ups and consultations with atomic bomb survivors residing in the Bay Area. While serving as vice president of programs at NJAHS, Iiyama was instrumental in 1995 in bringing to life the “Latent August: The Legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki” exhibit combining history, memory and art. 

From the early days of the Cuban Revolution, Iiyama was an enthusiastic supporter, traveling there many times. Of particular interest to her were the early childhood development and child-care practices in Cuba, which she considered much more advanced than those of the U.S. Her last two trips to Cuba in 2006 and 2008 were with Tsukimi Kai, a group of Japanese Americans connecting with Cubans of Japanese descent.

In 2010 as one of her last public activities, Iiyama initiated a Contra Costa County JACL effort to create the film “Blossoms and Thorns,” which focuses on the history of local Japanese American flower growers in the area. The film is now a permanent feature in the National Park Service’s Rosie the Riveter Museum in Richmond.

There will be no memorial at this time due to the pandemic. In lieu of koden or flowers, the family requests that donations be made in Iiyama’s name to the National Japanese American Historical Society, 1684 Post St., San Francisco, CA 94115, njahs.org or J-Sei, 1285 66th St., Emeryville, CA 94608 j-sei.org.

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