|Born||November 14 1921|
|Died||August 26 2020|
|Birth Location||San Francisco|
Chizu Kitano Iiyama (1921-2020) was an activist, social worker and educator who participated in social movements such as the Japanese American Redress Movement , integration in Chicago and the treatment of Arab Americans after 9/11. Some of the organizations that she worked with include the Nisei Young Democrats, the Japanese American Committee for Democracy , the Chicago Urban League, NAACP, the Nisei Progressives and the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL).
Iiyama was born Chizu Kitano on November 14, 1921, the fifth of seven children. Harry Kitano , who later became a noted Asian American and social welfare scholar, was her younger brother. The Kitano family lived in San Francisco's Chinatown and operated a boarding house for Japanese American and African American laborers. This early contact with a multi-racial community impacted Iiyama in that she had positive relationships with people from different races at a very early age. As the fifth daughter in the family, Iiyama felt that she was a disappointment to her parents who were hoping for a son. As a result, Iiyama developed a close relationship with her sisters, who encouraged her to focus on her education. Iiyama entered UC Berkeley in 1938 as a psychology major. Paying her own way by working as a "schoolgirl" (a servant in a private home), she realized she did not want to ever work in a demeaning environment again. She became active in campus organizations such as "Fair Bear Labor Standards," an organization to ensure students working on campus had fair working conditions.
Wartime Incarceration and Resettlement
Because Iiyama's father was active in the local Japanese Association , he was considered "suspicious" and was picked up by the FBI immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Iiyama's sisters were left to run the boarding house and her professors at UC Berkeley gave her extra assignments so that she could graduate early. In April of 1942 the family was sent to Santa Anita race track to live until they were sent to Topaz concentration camp. The family was assigned to two horse stalls to live. Because Iiyama had a college degree, her job at the assembly center was as the "Education and Recreation Supervisor." Iiyama tried to duplicate normal experiences for the youth, such as art, music, sports, boy scouts, dances, etc. In May of 1942 she received her degree from UC Berkeley in the mail, which she considered an uplifting reminder that she was part of the outside world.
The family was transferred to Topaz concentration camp in Utah where Iiyama became a block social worker. Iiyama met her husband Ernest Iiyama while incarcerated at Topaz. Ernest introduced her to a group of inmates who were formerly known as the "Nisei Young Democrats," the most radical organization of Japanese Americans in the Bay Area. Because of her education at Berkeley, she had already been exposed to different ideas and was open to learning more about progressive politics. Because her parents did not approve of their marriage, the couple left camp for Chicago and got married in a small ceremony in July of 1943. They felt some pressure to expedite marriage since Ernest had volunteered for the army.
Postwar Life and Activism
Due to a bout with pneumonia, Ernest was not able to join the army, so the couple soon made other plans that were related to their political involvement. The Iiyama's politically progressive friends convinced them to move to New York. They began a dry cleaning business and became involved in the Japanese American Committee for Democracy and the American Labor party. Iiyama began to speak at various organizations to talk about her camp experience, something unheard of at the time. The Iiyamas eventually settled back in Chicago where they formed a branch of the Nisei Progressives, an organization focusing on movements for peace, justice and equality. Iiyama earned her masters degree in childhood development and became active in civil rights issues such as employment discrimination against African Americans, the anti-nuclear weapons movement, and the integration of a whites-only beach and other public facilities. Her work as a social worker in the African American community gave her exposure to the bleak conditions of poverty in the area.
Iiyama got a job as the associate director of the Chicago Resettlers Committee (CRC), which was formed to assist the large Japanese American population that had resettled after World War II.
By 1955 the couple had three children and the family had moved back to Northern California where Iiyama became active in local organizations including the PTA, the Richmond Human Relations Commission, and others. In 1970, when the JACL began their redress campaign, the Iiyamas became involved in community organizing through the JACL and the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations (NCRR). Their main activities were educating, lobbying and grassroots organizing. In 1983, along with Mei Nakano, she co-founded the JACL's Women's Concerns Committee. After the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was signed into law, Iiyama joined a NCRR group to lobby congress for funding. Iiyama testified before the House Finance Committee for appropriations for the redress bill. In April of 1999, Iiyama traveled to Washington DC to lobby for Japanese Latin Americans .
After her retirement, Iiyama became active with the National Japanese American Historical Society and was chair of the Women's Exhibit Committee, formed in reaction to the emphasis on Nisei soldiers in the Smithsonian Institution's A More Perfect Union exhibition. In collaboration with the Oakland Museum, the committee developed the exhibition Strength and Diversity: Japanese American Women, 1885–1990 , which opened in 1990 and subsequently toured the country.
For More Information
Interview with Chizu Iiyama by Ashley S. and Brittany S. with Howard Levin and Deborah Dent-Samake, April 6, 2006. Telling Their Stories Oral History Archives Project . The Urban School of San Francisco.
Kim, Elaine H., and Lilia V. Villanueva. Making More Waves: New Writing by Asian American Women. Boston: Beacon Press, 1997.
Murray, Alice Yang. Historical Memories of the Japanese American Internment and the Struggle for Redress . Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008.
Nakaoka, Susan. "'Typical' Nisei: An Intersectional Approach to Interpreting the Lives of Five Japanese American Women Activists." Pan-Japan 7.1–2 (Spring/Fall 2011): 77–147.
Takahashi, Jere. Nisei/Sansei: Shifting Japanese American Identities and Politics . Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997.
Last updated Dec. 26, 2020, 5:15 p.m..