Rose Ochi, who shattered glass ceilings, dies

Rose Ochi. file photo

Takayo Rose Matsui Ochi, attorney, civil rights activist and political strategist who shattered numerous glass ceilings, such as becoming the first Asian American woman commissioner on the Los Angeles Police Commission and the first Asian American woman assistant attorney general, passed away on Dec. 13, 2020, two days shy of her 82nd birthday. 

Ochi spending her formative years locked up in an American concentration camp and facing overt racism and sexism motivated her to challenge unfairness and injustice throughout her adult life. She hired and encouraged people of color and women in whatever position she was in.

Ochi was the third of four children born to Yoshiaki Roy and Mutsuko Grace Matsukawa Matsui, both from Kumamoto Prefecture. While most Nikkei babies at that time were delivered at home by a midwife, Ochi was born at the historical Japanese Hospital in East Los Angeles.

When Ochi was 3, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans living on the West Coast. 

The Matsui family spent six months at the Santa Anita Detention Center before being shipped out to the Rohwer concentration camp in Arkansas, where a Caucasian teacher gave all the Nikkei students in Ochi’s class Anglican names. This incident where Ochi went from Takayo to Rose would have a lasting painful impact. 

While her parents fought deportation proceedings in San Francisco at the end of the war, they left the children in Elko, Nev. under the care of a paternal uncle. At Elko, Ochi had racial slurs and snowballs hurled at her by homecoming soldiers. Another time, the teacher gave her soap and told her to go wash her mouth out for accidentally uttering a Japanese word.

Once Ochi’s parents had their deportation orders overturned with the help of ACLU lawyers, the family returned to East Los Angeles. 

Ochi came of age at a time when people of color, particularly women, were not expected to pursue higher education, but she skipped two grades and was inspired to enroll in college, after participating in UCLA’s UniCamp, a program to motivate underserved children to develop leadership skills and to expand their horizons. 

In 1959, she graduated from UCLA and returned to East Los Angeles to teach at Stevenson Junior High School, her alma mater, after short stints at University High and at the Montebello Unified School District.

In 1963, she married Thomas Ochi, and she decided to become a lawyer after witnessing the student walk-outs by the Latinx community in East LA during the 1960s. She understood her students’ anger over lack of quality education and opportunities since she, herself, had experienced it. 

She graduated from Loyola Law School in 1972 and was accepted into the California Bar that December. She turned down a job with the U.S. Attorney’s Office as a prosecutor and opted to accept a Reginald Heber fellowship at the University of Southern California Western Center on Law and Poverty where she was co-counsel on a landmark education reform case Serrano vs. Priest. 

After the Serrano victory, Ochi decided she wanted to go into public policy to learn how to create legislation. She was recruited by Terry Hatter to join Mayor Tom Bradley’s administration, and became director of the city’s Criminal Justice Office. 

In 1973, she developed the Use of Force Policy after Eula Love, a Black woman, was shot and killed by the LAPD. She also advised Bradley on the Blake consent decree, which was instituted to increase more hiring of women and officers of color within the LAPD. She also oversaw the development of various divisions, including juvenile and gang diversion, drug abatement and the domestic violence prosecution units.

During this time, she turned down a judicial appointment because she felt it would restrict her community and political advocacy work. At the same time, she became the first woman of color to sit on the Los Angeles County Bar’s board of trustees. 

She gained a reputation for being tough as she sparred with then-LAPD Chief Ed Davis, and her reputation reached Washington, D.C., where she was asked to sit on President Carter’s Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy.

As SCIRP was winding down, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians was being formed. Ochi called Joan Bernstein, who was to head the CWRIC, and encouraged her to hire on many of the SCIRP staff. She also recommended the hiring of Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga, who would go on to uncover documents that would help win redress for Japanese Americans unjustly incarcerated during World War II in U.S.-style concentration camps.

While still a Reginald Heber Fellow, Ochi had been approached by Sue Kunitomi Embrey, chair of the Manzanar Committee, to help incorporate the fledging organization as a nonprofit and to have Ochi serve as their pro bono lawyer. Ochi would partner with Embrey for the next 35 years to help establish Manzanar into a national historic site. 

During the 1980s, Ochi was tapped by the Japanese American Citizens League to help with the redress campaign. To that end, Ochi made sure to push for support for Manzanar and the redress bills whenever she was on business in Washington, D.C. 

Ochi became forever associated with the redress bill when President Ronald Reagan acknowledged Ochi by name in his speech before he signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. During the Clinton Administration, Ochi was appointed to the associate director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.  

In 1997, President Bill Clinton named Ochi as director of Community Relations Service at the Department of Justice. She was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate, becoming the first Asian American woman to serve at the assistant attorney general level. She represented the DOJ on the President’s Initiative on Race White House Task Force and partnered with the President’s Hate Crime, Race and Justice Initiative and Church Arson efforts. 

Attorney General Janet Reno recognized Ochi with the Exceptional Service Award on Ochi’s last day at the DOJ. 

Upon her return to Los Angeles, she was appointed to the LAPD Police Commission as the first Asian American woman police commissioner. Ochi worked on a number of major policies, including the compressed work schedule and discipline system. 

In 2002, she became the executive director of the California Forensic Science Institute at California State University, Los Angeles. 

After retirement, Ochi continued to be active in the community. She helped raise funds to build Block 14 at the Manzanar National Historic Site. She was involved with the community effort to designate Tuna Canyon, a former World War II detention center, as a Los Angeles Historic Landmark. 

She is survived by husband Thomas Ochi, a retired architect.

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