Lifelong Activist Ernest Iiyama Dies at 99

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Ernest Iiyama. (Courtesy of Laura Iiyama)

EL CERRITO — Ernest S. Iiyama, 99, died on June 15, surrounded by family and friends.

His 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 went to Japan with his family when he was young and he attended high school there. After graduation, he moved back to the U.S., where 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 Japanese Americans, was ordered into a concentration camp by the U.S. government. He was elected to the camp council at both Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno and Topaz in Utah.

Iiyama met his future wife, Chizu Kitano, at Topaz. After leaving camp, they were married and later moved to Chicago, where he became a machinist and a chief steward for the United Electrical Workers of America.

Returning to the Bay Area in 1956, the Iiyamas joined the Contra Costa chapter of the JACL and were supporters of the civil rights movement and early participants in 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 Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II. In 1983, Iiyama was one of seven people who received redress from Alameda County for being fired in 1942 because of his ancestry.

The Iiyamas were also prominent in the National Japanese American Historical Society. They worked tirelessly to tell the truth about the internment experience, speaking for many years before audiences throughout Northern California.

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

Services will be private. In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to either the National Japanese Historical Society, 1684 Post St., San Francisco, CA 94115, or J-Sei, 2126 Channing Way, Berkeley, CA 94704.

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