Chizu Iiyama, 98, died peacefully of natural causes on Aug. 26 at Kaiser Permanente Hospital in Richmond, Contra Costa County. She was one of the few remaining Nisei who could speak first-hand of the experiences of Japanese Americans in the U.S. concentration camps of World War II.
In many ways, her life was unique for a Japanese American woman of her generation. From her early years growing up in San Francisco Chinatown, to her experiences in 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 incarceration in WWII, for civil rights, and against the war in Vietnam. Always central for her was her role in the life of the Japanese American community.
The fifth of seven children (Harry Kitano, who later became a noted social welfare scholar, was her younger brother), she was born in San Francisco, where her father managed a Chinatown boarding house for Japanese and Black workers. Entering UC Berkeley as a psychology major, she paid her own way by working as a “schoolgirl” (house servant).
In 1942, she was one of 120,000 Japanese Americans forced into concentration camps without due process. Iiyama was incarcerated first at Santa Anita [Racetrack] Assembly Center, where she and her family lived in a horse stall. That’s where she received her diploma from UC Berkeley. From there they were moved to a concentration camp in Topaz, Utah, where she met her future husband.
Both 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, which helped Japanese Americans leaving the camps to find jobs and housing in the area. She and her husband 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 was awarded a master’s degree in child psychology.
Returning to the Bay Area in 1955, the couple redoubled their staunch support of the civil rights movement that desegregated the South. One notable example was when Iiyama and her daughter Patti picketed Woolworth’s on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley as part of the national protests against their segregation of Blacks at the lunch counter and in jobs.
After moving to El Cerrito (just north of Berkeley) in 1970, Iiyama served as chair of that city’s Human Rights Commission. The Iiyamas were also 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 very active in the national Japanese American Citizens League, and Iiyama wrote many articles on a wide range of subjects for **Pacific Citizen,** the JACL newspaper. The Iiyamas were both on the board of the Contra Costa JACL and organized many of the chapter’s activities.
In 1983, Iiyama and her good friend Mei Nakano founded the national JACL Women’s Concerns Committee. In 1994, the two co-sponsored the successful national JACL resolution to support marriage equality for same-sex couples, making the JACL one of the first national organizations to do so.
In the 1970s, the Iiyamas became active in the redress movement with both the JACL and the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations. In 1988, this hard-fought struggle won an apology from the U.S. government for the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II and funding for reparations.
The Iiyamas were also prominent supporters of the San Francisco-based National Japanese American Historical Society. They worked tirelessly to tell the truth about the internment experience, speaking for many years before students from grade school through university in Northern California. As chair of the NJAHS Women’s Exhibit Committee, Iiyama was responsible for developing with others the exhibit “Strength and Diversity: Japanese American Women, 1885-1990,” which opened at the Oakland Museum in 1990 and toured the country for the next decade under the sponsorship of the Smithsonian Institution 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.
The Iiyamas volunteered with the Friends of Hibakusha, which organizes visits by a medical team from Hiroshima to conduct 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 “Latent August: The Legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” an 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 greatly advanced as compared to 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.
After retiring, Iiyama and her husband traveled around the world. They both loved hiking and walks, especially in Yosemite, Monterey and Lake Tahoe. The Iiyamas delighted in camping trips with extended family and friends.
The Iiyamas were awarded the Clifford Uyeda Peace and Humanitarian Award from the Bay Area Day of Remembrance Consortium in 2009.
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 Japanese American flower growers in the area. The film is now a permanent feature in the National Park’s Rosie the Riveter Museum in Richmond.
She will be greatly missed by her daughter Laura Iiyama, who was her caregiver in her last years; by eldest daughter Patti Iiyama and her husband Jerry Freiwirth; by the large and loving Kitano family in the Bay Area and around the world; and by all who knew and worked with her over the years. She was predeceased by her husband Ernest Iiyama and son Mark Iiyama.
There will be no memorial meeting 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).