By MARTHA NAKAGAWA
Just before President Ronald Reagan signed the 1988 Civil Liberties Act at a White House ceremony, Reagan picked up a sheet of paper and said: “And now in closing, I wonder whether you’d permit me one personal reminiscence, one prompted by an old newspaper report sent to me by Rose Ochi, a former internee.”
Reagan went on to read the 1945 newspaper clipping, which talked about a young actor who participated in a ceremony that posthumously recognized 442nd veteran Kazuo Masuda. That actor’s name: Ronald Reagan.
Now, who is this Rose Ochi that the President of the United States would recognize her by name?
* * *
Much of Ochi’s contributions to the Nikkei community are unknown, largely because she has worked behind-the-scenes, but she is a master strategist, bridge-builder and fearless fighter.
Ochi was born Takayo Matsui in the Japanese Hospital in Boyle Heights in 1938. She is the third of four children born to Yoshiaki “Roy” and Mutsuko “Grace” Matsukawa Matsui, both from Kumamoto Prefecture.
Of her siblings, Ochi was the outgoing one. She roamed her neighborhood, making friends with everyone from the milkman to the postal carrier.
Before World War II, Ochi’s father was a successful businessman, working for a Japanese trading company. All that changed on Dec. 7, 1941.
Ochi was 3 years old when Pearl Harbor was attacked, but even at that age, she knew something had changed. The family atmosphere became infused with fear, anger and sadness.
Ochi’s sister, who was eight years older than her, felt the brunt of the war. The nice home, piano lessons, pretty dresses — everything a teenage girl would want — had to be given up.
“The Nisei who were my sister’s age had to leave everything and go into camp,” said Ochi. “They had it a lot harder.”
The Matsui family was first sent to the Santa Anita Assembly Center, where they remained for six months. From there, the family was put on a train to the Rohwer War Relocation Authority camp in Arkansas.
Decades later, when Ochi was helping the Manzanar Committee, she went into a store to purchase snacks for the committee members. Among the items she bought was a box of ginger snaps.
“When I ate a ginger snap, this feeling of nausea came over me,” recalled Ochi.
She’d forgotten ginger snaps had been served on the train ride to Rohwer.
At Rohwer, Ochi attended school, where the Caucasian teachers gave all the Nikkei students Anglicized names. During the 1980s, Ochi testified about this experience before the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians.
“They lined us up and renamed us,” said Ochi. “My parents had given me a beautiful name, Takayo, which means a child with high ideals, but the well-meaning ladies of Arkansas decided to give me an American name, Rose. Now, when I look back on it, I consider myself lucky. I could have gotten the name Petunia.
“But as you can imagine, the impact of being told at a young age that you are not a real American could castrate your sense of worth and identity. But over the years, I’ve come to understand that being so marginalized can be a great asset because of the freedom that comes with being considered an outsider.”
At Rohwer, it was also common to have the children’s tonsils taken out. Since the procedure was done whether the child needed surgery or not, Ochi sometimes wonders if new medical techniques had been tested on them.
As it turned out Ochi and future actor George Takei had their tonsils taken out at the same time. The two were placed in the same crib during recovery, so today the two have a running joke that they had “shared a bed together.”
For fun, Ochi and her friends watched the Nisei women rehearse for various programs in the mess hall. Then Ochi and her friends would copy them.
At one performance, Ochi jumped up on stage when her parents weren’t paying attention and recited the lines she’d overheard. She followed that with a dance and a bow. She stole the show.
When the so-called loyalty questionnaire came out in 1943, it was not an issue with the Matsui family. Ochi’s parents had no intentions of returning to Japan with four American-born children. But her parents still had to fight deportation. There was a problem with their visas.
Ochi’s parents had entered the U.S. on business visas, which were valid as long as they conducted business, but the forced government imprisonment prohibited them from doing business, thus invalidating the visas.
The Matsui family was released from Rohwer in 1945 with the threat of deportation hanging over their heads.
To fight the orders, the parents received special travel permits to San Francisco, but since the parents could not bring the children, they made arrangements to leave them with the father’s brother, who lived in Elko, Nevada. The area was outside the wartime military restriction zone, allowing the brother to escape imprisonment in a concentration camp.
The brother ran a sheep ranch and laundry business, whose clientele included the likes of Bing Crosby.
In Elko, Ochi got a taste of overt racism. Her uncle’s house sat right across from the train depot, and several trains passed through each day, carrying hundreds of returning soldiers. If Ochi was outside when a train came through, it was common for soldiers to throw snowballs at her or to yell out slurs like “dirty Jap!”
School wasn’t any easier. One time Ochi accidentally said a Japanese word in class, and the teacher literally washed out her mouth with soap. Ochi and the other Japanese and Chinese American students also got harassed by the non-Asian students.
Ochi often found herself more interested in the tribal school located behind the school she attended. The two schools were separated by a fence.
“I used to think I wanted to be with them,” said Ochi. “They looked like me and I thought maybe they’d treat me nicer.”
About a year later, Ochi’s parents successfully overturned the deportation orders and took the family back to Los Angeles.
RETURN TO L.A.
Restarting life in Los Angeles was difficult. Housing and jobs were in short supply. The Matsui family lived with two other families in a rented home.
Among the father’s first jobs was pressing records at Columbia Records — manual labor that required physical strength. Most of the father’s co-workers were African Americans, who empathized with his situation.
“My father said the African Americans taught him the ropes and took care of him, so he’d always say, ‘Never say bad things about them,’ ” recalled Ochi.
One of the perks of the job was that Ochi’s father brought home unsellable records.
“We were this poor family in East L.A., listening to Tchaikovsky and Chopin,” said Ochi. “It was just wonderful.”
But it wasn’t long before Ochi’s father was laid off. After a few more odd jobs, Ochi’s father found work with a Japanese trading company.
Ochi’s mother supplemented the family income by working at a sewing job. Her mother would also stay up late to sew pretty dresses for Ochi so she could wear them on special occasions such as Easter or Christmas.
Ochi was enrolled at the Lorena Street Elementary School in East Los Angeles. Since she and her brother were among the few Nikkei students, they got picked on. Students called her everything from “dirty Jap” to “ching chong Chinaman.”
Ochi learned early on to fight back. She’d challenge the other kids, and when they discovered that she didn’t back down, the name-calling stopped.
During her free time, she played at the Laguna Playground, where the recreation director saw leadership potential in Ochi’s rebellious energies and selected her to attend Unicamp, a program for underprivileged children sponsored by UCLA.
As part of Unicamp, Ochi spent two weeks in the San Bernardino Mountains and learned about college. Ochi, then a 9-year-old, decided she was going to UCLA.
Years later, Ochi not only fulfilled her dream of attending UCLA, but also gave back to Unicamp by becoming a camp counselor and raising money for the program.
Although Ochi did better than her brother in school and in sports, her traditional parents encouraged the brother over her to study hard, go to college and make something of himself. When Ochi asked, “What about me?” her parents would scold her by saying something like, “A girl’s place is to become a good wife and mother.”
However, whenever Ochi came home with good report cards or athletic trophies or got elected to a class office, her father would say to her mother in Japanese something like, “It’s a shame this child was born without kintama (balls).”
Ochi took this as an indirect compliment.
Ochi went on to Stevenson Junior High, and it was around this time that her father took her to her first movie, “The Legend of Musashi,” the life story of swordsman Miyamoto Musashi. The movie made such an impact on her that she made her father sit through two showings.
The movie introduced Ochi to bushido or “the way of the samurai,” with its code of honor, loyalty and courage. She found it similar to the unwritten rules of East L.A. street culture.
When her father started teaching kendo to her brother, Ochi insisted she be taught as well. Since the family couldn’t afford kendo equipment, they practiced with rolled newspapers as swords.
“What I learned from kendo was less about martial arts and more about courage,” said Ochi. “It was learning that courage begins by facing your fears.”
When Ochi’s older sister resumed her education right after the war at Roosevelt High, she was placed in a secretarial track. Eight years later, when Ochi enrolled at Roosevelt, the guidance counselor did the same thing, telling Ochi something like, “Your people make good secretaries.”
Ochi let it be known that she wasn’t happy being put into a secretarial track, but she was still placed in clerical skill classes such as typing and bookkeeping, subjects she didn’t do well in.
Ochi, however, excelled in her other courses. She even skipped grades twice and graduated at the age of 16.
During her senior year, Ochi told her guidance counselor she wanted to pursue a college education and was bluntly told she couldn’t compete with the other students. Roosevelt was an inner-city school that didn’t offer all the prerequisite classes needed to apply to college.
Ochi didn’t give up. She attended summer school and enrolled at a junior college, completing the classes required to enroll at UCLA.
At UCLA, Ochi focused on becoming a physical education teacher since it was her P.E. teachers who had nurtured her leadership skills and were her role models.
Ochi balanced her studies with an active social life. She even ran for Nisei Week Queen, and although she wasn’t crowned, she was part of the court.
She also continued her sports activities, competing in the Double-A Women’s Basketball League. After the games, Ochi and her friends often went over to Los Angeles City College to watch the guys play. That’s where she met her future husband, Thomas Ochi, a USC student.
(Tom divulged a little-known fact about his wife — during this time, she got a part in the movie version of “Flower Drum Song” and can be seen in the opening scene.)
When Ochi graduated from UCLA in 1959, she was offered jobs in affluent areas of West Los Angeles, but turned them down. She briefly taught at University High School and then at Montebello. From there, she returned to her alma mater, Stevenson Junior High.
As the newest hire, Ochi had limited access to sports equipment and even had to find space for her students to work out. But in typical Ochi fashion, she found creative ways to get her students active. She started teaching dance steps that required no sports equipment and no large field.
As Ochi taught P.E. by day, she attended night school and earned a master’s degree in education. She also married Tom in 1963.
Just as she was preparing to get a doctorate, she witnessed the mass student walkouts that shut down the Eastside schools. East L.A. had become a flashpoint for students protesting the lack of quality education in the inner city.
The experience changed Ochi’s focus. She decided to become a lawyer, specializing in education. Her husband, who had become an architect, was supportive — in marked contrast to others who questioned her ability to understand law.
Ochi was accepted into Loyola Law School, and before graduating, received the prestigious Reginald Huber Smith Fellowship. As a fellow in 1972, she was assigned to the Western Center on Law and Poverty, a public interest law firm.
After graduation, Ochi took the bar exam and became a trainee at the center, where the staff was busy preparing for a Supreme Court case that involved disparities in school funding by the state.
Since Ochi had been a teacher, she was asked to help with trial preparations. She spent two years, working long hours on what seemed like a David and Goliath situation. On one side was Beverly Hills High School, represented by a top law firm, the Office of the Los Angeles County Council and the Office of the Attorney General.
The other side consisted of a young lawyer named John McDermitt; Sid Rowlinsky, who left the case after a month; and Ochi, a recent law school graduate.
To impress the African American judge on the bench, Ochi’s side displayed a copy of a book the judge had written, titled “Treatise on Evidence.”
During one grueling session, McDermitt’s questions to an expert witness were met with a barrage of objections from the other side, which the judge sustained.
At this time, Ochi was busy going over her notes to see how she could help her partner, when she realized the courtroom had fallen silent. She glanced up and saw the judge staring in her direction; she peered over at the court reporter, the bailiff and the opposing counsel, and saw that they were doing the same. Then she turned to her right and saw that McDermitt was face-down on the table from frustration.
Something prompted Ochi to lean over to McDermitt and whisper, “John, ask a hypothetical question.” That one suggestion breathed life back into McDermitt, who got up and rephrased all his questions with, “Suppose…”
McDermitt and Ochi went on to win Serrano vs. Priest, which became a landmark Supreme Court case on educational finance reform.
Years later, at the judge’s memorial service, Ochi shared the story, saying, “I don’t know what came over me that day. Maybe I had my hands on his book and the suggestion came up through osmosis or maybe when the judge was looking at me, it was mental telepathy, but we got our case in and we prevailed.”
Nine years after the Serrano victory, Ochi was offered a judgeship, but she turned it down. She felt being a judge might restrict her community involvement.
Following the court experience, Ochi decided she needed to learn how to create laws.
“After we won Serrano, I recognized we needed to go to the Legislature to pass enabling legislation so that the ruling would become law,” said Ochi. “So I decided that was enough for being a lawyer. Instead I was interested in working in the public sector, making changes whether in policy or law.”
In 1974, she joined the City of Los Angeles and became a legislative research coordinator. Within a year, she was promoted to director of the city’s Criminal Justice Planning Office.
“I developed policies having to do with deadly force and a whole array of programs for the city and the Police Department,” said Ochi. “These included domestic violence, gang violence, drugs, juvenile justice.… And to do this, I worked with the City Council and with state and congressional members on laws. This created the platform for working with the Manzanar Committee.”
Ochi’s connection with the late Sue Kunitomi Embrey and the Manzanar Committee started in 1972. Embrey had approached Ochi about incorporating the Manzanar Committee, and the friendship led to Ochi becoming the committee’s pro bono lawyer.
Around this time, controversy erupted when the Manzanar Committee pushed to have a state plaque that included the term “concentration camp.” The issue was resolved when Ochi suggested the wording be limited to “Manzanar” without adding “relocation” or “internment” or “concentration.”
As an executive assistant in the L.A. Mayor’s Office, Ochi was also able to get the city’s Cultural Affairs Department and City Council members to donate funds to the annual Manzanar Pilgrimage to cover expenses for buses, food and educational material.
But as a city employee, Ochi was restricted in what she could do publicly for the Manzanar Committee. As a result, Ochi and Embrey formed a partnership whereby Ochi guided Embrey on whom to write letters to and what to write. Embrey would type up the letters on Manzanar Committee letterhead and send them to elected officials or the media.
When Congress finally passed an act to study Manzanar as a possible landmark site, Dan Olson of the National Park Service’s (NPS) Western Regional Office, contacted Ochi. The NPS was getting nowhere with the Inyo County Board of Supervisors or the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP), on whose land the former camp was situated.
Ochi agreed to help after receiving approval from Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley.
To tackle the Inyo County supervisors, Ochi invited them to a meeting at the Big Pine Café in Inyo County. Shortly after the letter was sent, she got a call from an Inyo County Register reporter who had been in the office of Inyo County Supervisor Keith Bright when he opened Ochi’s letter. The reporter told Ochi that Bright, who had fought in the Pacific, was outraged about creating a memorial to people he considered enemies.
Undeterred, Ochi drove up to the Big Pine Café for the meeting. As soon as she got there, she asked, “Which one is Keith Bright?”
Ochi said she took Bright outside and said, “Tell me what you don’t want.” He was taken aback, then said, “I don’t want any embarrassment. I don’t want any negative images of Americans or of our town.” Ochi responded, “What do you need? Seems to me you need economic development. You have water and grazing, but I think there’s potential for economic development from tourism. Creating this national park will draw a lot of visitors.”
She recalled, “He doesn’t interrupt me. I promise him the Japanese American community wants what’s best for Inyo County. We don’t want to shove anything down your throat. We want to work with you and make this happen. That’s when he said, ‘Well, let’s get to work.’ ”
Bright would go on to become one of Manzanar’s strongest supporters.
“We could not have done it without Keith’s support,” said Ochi. “After his initial resistance, he was instrumental not only in winning local support from the county board but with the Native Americans and descendants of the early settlers.
“And while I could work the Democratic side with (Rep.) Mel Levine and (Sen.) Alan Cranston, Keith went to Jerry Lewis, who was the Republican congressman from the area. Keith was working the other side of the aisle.”
As a result of Ochi’s meeting, the Inyo County Board of Supervisors assisted the NPS in completing the initial study on Manzanar.
On the DWP side, Ochi leaned on Bradley and the DWP grudgingly complied. The NPS study concluded that of the 10 WRA camp sites, Manzanar was best suited for preservation.
For Ochi, the battle had just begun.
To move forward, she knew they needed Inyo County community support. The recent controversy over
placing a state plaque at Manzanar had left bitter feelings among the local residents.
Ochi discussed the situation with Olson, who agreed to organize a public hearing at the Independence Courthouse.
To be effective at the meeting, Ochi searched out personal stories. She attended a Nisei veterans’ meeting at the New Otani Hotel and connected with two 442nd vets, one of whom was Hiro Takasugawa.
On the day of the event, two Nisei veterans showed up in their full military regalia, including their American Legion hats, jackets and medals.
As they walked to the Independence Courthouse, they met another veteran named Melvin Bernasconi. When he saw the two 442nd vets, he stopped in his tracks.
At the town hall meeting, Bernasconi admitted he’d been sent by the local American Legion post to oppose Manzanar but changed his mind after seeing the 442nd veterans and learning that Nikkei had also fought for America.
Bill Michael, Eastern California Museum director, was another strong supporter. He had been working with Shiro Nomura in collecting Manzanar artifacts for the museum.
Michael lived and worked in Inyo County, so he bore the brunt of the local residents’ misdirected anger. Some called for his firing and even wrote to the governor to try to get him fired. One time, a visitor took a swing at Michael for having Manzanar artifacts at the museum.
To win over these hostile people, Ochi was constantly seeking ways to educate them. On the drive up Highway 395 one time, her husband saw a plaque designating a certain area as a Blue Star Highway and he suggested Manzanar should have one.
Ochi jumped at the idea. It was another way to let local residents know Manzanar inmates had served in the U.S. military. She contacted Embrey, and they got the support of Margaret Peachy with the Garden Club of Ridgecrest. The official ceremony attracted local veterans as well as 442nd veterans.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles City Hall was seeing a succession of deputy mayors, and when Michael Gage became deputy mayor, Ochi hit a wall.
The Manzanar land belonged to the DWP, and Gage threw his support behind the powerful DWP, which opposed giving up the Manzanar property in a land swap.
Gage floated a proposal to create a city park in Los Angeles dedicated to Manzanar. Ochi countered by requesting the City Council to pass a resolution in support of making Manzanar into a national park. Ochi lobbied each council member. She especially had good relations with council members Hal Bernson and Jackie Goldberg.
Since Ochi could not testify before the council, she contacted Embrey. On the day of the hearing, Gage, a tall, muscular man, confronted Embrey, who stood about 5 feet and weighed about 100 pounds.
“Gage was pointing his finger at Sue and saying, ‘This is never going to happen,’ ” recalled Ochi. “He told her the city can offer a city park. Then Sue gathered up her gumption and said, ‘We were not interned by the city. Only a federal park will do!’ ”
The image left an impression with those in the council chamber.
Gage further upset council members when he threw the resolution proposal on the floor. When the item came up for a vote, the DWP representative requested a continuance since Gage had left, but the council members allowed the resolution to pass.
Then all hell broke loose for Ochi within City Hall.
Gage started by taking away much of Ochi’s authority and access to the mayor. He then had her office moved. Prior to this, Ochi had one of the best offices in City Hall, with her window overlooking the front lawn, on the mezzanine.
Gage tried to get her exiled to the Piper Tech building, but Ochi stood her ground. She and her staff, however, ended up somewhere on City Hall’s 13th floor.
On the federal level, Ochi contacted Rep. Levine, who agreed to author a bill in support of making Manzanar into a National Historic Site. When the bill was set for a hearing, Ochi invited Embrey and Takasugawa to join her in testifying before a House committee.
On the morning of the hearing, Ochi changed their strategy. From past experiences, she realized these busy congresspeople would not be able to digest lengthy testimonies. Instead, she suggested they enter their written testimonies for the record and that during the verbal portion they focus on one point they wanted to get across.
Ochi testified about seeing the inscription “Past Is Prologue” on the National Archives building on the cab ride to the hearing. She stressed the need to preserve this chapter of history so that the same mistakes would not happen again.
Embrey focused on patriotism and working on camouflage nets in camp to support the war effort.
Takasugawa introduced himself by saying, “My name is Hiro, but I’m no hero.” He then talked about serving in the 442nd and how Nisei soldiers had been a part of the liberation of the Dachau death camp but had been removed from the U.S. Army photographs. Ochi noticed that Levine, who was of Jewish descent, was visibly moved.
The three testimonies took less than 15 minutes, but Ochi’s strategy had worked. They had the support on the House side.
Getting Senate support wasn’t as easy because Gage became involved.
Kathy Lacy, Cranston’s legislative staff member, had prepared a companion Senate bill to Levine’s House bill, but Gage lobbied to have the bill killed. He raised the specter of L.A.’s water rights being threatened by the impact of a national park presence.
Gage also tried to have the Senate committee hearing canceled, so Ochi and Embrey flew to Washington. On the morning of the hearing, a Los Angeles city representative told Ochi she could not testify and her testimony could not be submitted. Rather, the city was sending an edited testimony that Ochi had drafted on behalf of the mayor.
“This was just ridiculous,” said Ochi.
Rather than back down, Ochi had her House testimony photocopied and submitted it for the record. The House testimony could not be altered.
Back in Los Angeles, Ochi was told she could no longer be involved with Manzanar and was not to have any contact with Lacy. To get around this, Lacy called Embrey, and Embrey called Ochi.
Ochi also enlisted the support of Martha Davis, who had successfully lobbied the federal government on behalf of Mono Lake. So Ochi, Davis, and Lacy worked with Embrey on whom the Manzanar Committee should contact and what letters needed to be sent.
Around this time, Gage became head of DWP. Due to DWP’s strong opposition, the Manzanar issue stalled in the Senate committee.
Never one to give up, Ochi approached the new deputy mayor about forming an independent panel that would come up with a draft bill with neutral language acceptable to the DWP. He liked the idea and pushed it forward.
The independent panel’s work was sent to the DWP, which in turn sent it to the mayor’s office. Jeff Matsui of the mayor’s office handed Ochi a copy.
Ochi is thankful to Matsui not only for that gesture but for his support throughout her City Hall battles.
“These city officials and new deputy mayors were beholden to Gage,” said Ochi. “They wanted to weigh in and help him. But Jeff Matsui — he’s a very unique fellow, behind the scenes. He’s done so many wonderful things for Little Tokyo, and he never stepped aside when all these power people in the mayor’s office tried to influence him.… I think Gage went into Jeff’s office and yelled at him, but Jeff never wavered.”
When Ochi read the independent panel’s work, she was flabbergasted. Her staff also agreed the proposed bill’s wording was not neutral. Rather, it attempted to expand DWP’s authority and further minimize the federal government’s presence in other areas. Ochi jokingly referred to it as the DWP Protection Act.
Ochi contacted Stanford law professor Bill Hing, who knew of two water rights experts, one of whom was in Los Angeles. Ochi assumed correctly that the Los Angeles-based expert had served on the panel. She contacted him, saying she was the Manzanar Committee’s legal counsel, and asked him to look over the copy she received.
The expert called Ochi back and said the copy she sent was not their work. The wording had been changed.
With this revelation, Ochi phoned Bradley and explained the situation. The mayor realized then that all the arguments of water rights being jeopardized had been a lie.
“The mayor says to me … ‘It’s over … Call Cranston’s office.’ That was a happy moment. It was a victory.”
From then on, the bill moved forward. Congress also mandated the formation of the Manzanar Advisory Commission (MAC), which oversaw the transformation of Manzanar into a national park.
Over the years, Ochi served on MAC as a member and chair. At times, commissioners listened to angry members of the public, some of whom had to be led out by a security guard.
The commission also oversaw hiring, including Manzanar’s first superintendent, Ross Hopkins, whose father had fought in the Pacific.
“Ross was threatened regularly,” said Ochi. “He even got a death threat, but he was amazing. He not only saw this as a job but he embraced it totally and he suffered for it.”
Hopkins wasn’t a by-the-book bureaucrat. He made full use of the commission and called Ochi often.
When Hopkins and NPS archeologist Jeff Burton discovered artifacts at the Manzanar landfill, Hopkins called Ochi, requesting an expansion of Manzanar’s boundaries.
“A regular bureaucrat kind of person knows something like this has to go up the chain of command,” said Ochi. “But Ross was fearless. Ross would fax me, saying we need this or we need that. I worked with him very well.”
Ochi, in turn, would contact Rep. Robert Matsui’s (D-Sacramento) office. Manzanar’s boundary expansion went through smoothly thanks to Matsui’s assistance.
“Bob Matsui doesn’t get a lot of attention regarding Manzanar, but he and his staff were always accessible and supportive,” said Ochi.
In 1993, Ochi left the City of Los Angeles to work for the Clinton Administration. She became director of the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Community Relations Service (CRS).
As a presidential appointee, Ochi was prevented from joining community organizations, but she was allowed to continue serving on MAC.
In 1997, Ochi was unanimously confirmed by the Senate to become the first Asian American woman to serve at the assistant attorney general level.
While she worked in Washington, she never forgot about Manzanar. She met with various NPS officials, including Robert Stanton, NPS’ first African American director, and John Reynolds, deputy director.
Early in Ochi’s career, she earned a reputation for being fearless. She took on the likes of Los Angeles Police Chief Ed Davis.
Ochi’s reputation traveled far beyond City Hall. One day while skiing in Utah, she got a phone call saying someone from the White House was calling. Thinking it was a joke, she said, “Yeah, sure. Tell them I’ll call them right back.”
As it turned out, it was someone from the White House. They wanted Ochi to join President Jimmy Carter’s Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy (SCIRP).
Ochi initially declined, saying she was not an immigration expert, but administration officials told her she was the right person because of her legislative knowledge and more importantly, her reputation for fearlessness.
Ochi’s work on SCIRP dashed her hopes at the time of joining DOJ since she took on DOJ’s head, Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti.
“He was never going to hire me,” said Ochi.
Ochi’s fighting spirit even impressed Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.). Ochi learned that during one intense hearing when she was driving hard at the other side, Kennedy leaned over to his colleague and said, “Where did they find that woman? She has balls!”
Ochi’s father would have been proud.
Since the Democrats were in power, the two Republican commissioners, Sen. Alan Simpson and Rep. Hamilton Fish (R-N.Y.), sat with the two public representatives, one of whom was Ochi.
Although Ochi and Simpson didn’t agree on every issue, they got along. She learned that Simpson, who had grown up in Cody, Wyo., had visited the Heart Mountain camp as a Boy Scout and became friends with a Heart Mountain inmate, who turned out to be future congressman Norman Mineta (D-San Jose).
Ochi was also contacted by Japanese Latin Americans (JLA), who told her how the U.S. government had taken Nikkei from several Latin American countries during World War II in hopes of using them in prisoner-of-war exchanges with Japan. After the war, the U.S. government, which had taken away the passports of the JLAs, categorized them as undocumented.
As a SCIRP member, Ochi unsuccessfully attempted to get amnesty for the JLAs.
The SCIRP disbanded after four years, at about the time the federal government was in the process of forming the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC).
Ochi contacted Joan Bernstein, chair of CWRIC, and encouraged her to hire the soon-to-be displaced SCIRP staff, which included seasoned lawyers, researchers and accountants.
Ochi also convinced Bernstein to hire Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, who would later uncover the “smoking gun” documents in the National Archives that proved the U.S. government had lied about the military necessity to incarcerate Nikkei.
Around that time, Floyd Shimomura, national president of the Japanese American Citizens League, contacted Ochi about helping JACL with the redress effort. The JACL National Board held a special election to appoint Ochi to the board.
Ochi traveled with Minoru Yasui across the country on behalf of JACL to push for redress. Yasui was one of three men whose wartime court cases were reopened in the 1980s under the writ of error coram nobis.
Ochi mapped out Yasui’s legislative strategy, becoming the “brains” behind Yasui’s “face” for redress support. To overcome JACL’s lack of funds, Ochi suggested a staggered pay schedule for JACL staff.
Ochi also chaired JACL’s Legislative Education Committee fundraising dinner in Los Angeles, which gathered for the first time all the Nikkei legislators in Congress: Sens. Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga (both D-Hawaii), and Reps. Matsui and Mineta.
When Ochi’s term as a national board member ended, she unsuccessfully ran for national JACL president. Had she won, she would have become the first female in that post. Ochi officially lost by two votes, but allegations have surfaced of proxy votes being revoked or JACLers discouraging support of Ochi because she was too young and/or attractive.
Ochi took it all in stride and continued supporting JACL in an unofficial capacity. When she went to Washington on behalf of the City of Los Angeles, she visited former SCIRP colleagues Rep. Peter Rodino (D-N.J.) and Simpson.
One time, Ochi met with Rodino on an immigration issue. He was seeking Ochi’s advice after getting strong opposition from MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund). She suggested that he ask MALDEF what they would settle for, not what they ideally wanted. The strategy worked and major immigration reform and amnesty was passed, including Ochi’s push for family preference and the reunification of brothers and sisters.
At the close of that meeting, Rodino, head of the powerful Judiciary Committee, asked Ochi why the Nikkei congressmen weren’t pushing the redress bill.
“I told him they are but that he needed to understand they weren’t coming from safe districts,” said Ochi. “They were getting opposition that could affect their ability to serve in office, so I asked Rodino if he could find someone from a safe district to champion redress.”
Rodino moved to have Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass) take the lead. “Barney Frank did a remarkable job in pushing the bill forward,” said Ochi. “That was very key.”
Another time, Ochi stopped by Simpson’s office to enlist his help in rounding up Republican votes for the redress bill. While waiting in Simpson’s conference room, she saw a familiar painting on the wall.
When Simpson walked in, Ochi pointed to the painting and said, “That’s Spencer’s Mountain.”
Simpson was surprised that someone from Los Angeles would recognize the mountain range. Ochi said her husband’s uncle, a watercolor painter, had given them a similar painting as a wedding present.
Simpson’s response was, “Not the famous red barn painter, Fred Ochi!?”
Years later, Ochi gifted an original Fred Ochi painting to Simpson in appreciation for his support.
Ochi also developed a close friendship with African American congressman John Conyers (D-Mich.), a strong redress supporter, and was even invited to join the Congressional Black Caucus’ Brain Trust.
When the redress bill passed both houses of Congress, Ochi got a call from Skip Endres, Rodino’s deputy, telling her the bill was headed to the White House. At that point, no one knew if President Reagan would sign the bill, especially with an election coming up.
She asked Endres for a contact on the White House staff who would guarantee her message would reach Reagan.
From her research with JACL, she knew Reagan had participated in a ceremony to present a posthumous Distinguished Service Cross to the family of Kazuo Masuda, a 442nd soldier killed in action.
Ochi rushed to the Pacific Citizen office to look for the newspaper article. PC Editor George Johnston was just heading out the door to catch a plane to Seattle to attend the JACL National Convention.
Ochi told Johnston, “George, this is more important. Miss your plane. You need to find this for me.”
Johnston found the article, and Ochi faxed it to the White House.
A few days later, Simpson’s office notified Ochi that Reagan was going to hold a signing ceremony the following day. Ochi hopped on a red-eye flight. She arrived late and just as she sat down, she heard Reagan say her name.
“I almost fell out of my chair when I heard the President mentioning my role in sending him the PC article,” said Ochi.
The 1988 redress bill, however, did not cover JLAs. When Robin Toma and the late Fred Okrand attempted to get redress for JLAs during the 1990s, Associate Attorney General Ray Fisher asked Ochi to serve as a liaison between the JLA legal team and Bill Lann Lee, acting assistant attorney general for the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division. Appropriate JLA redress is still pending.
RETURNING TO ROHWER
In September 1997, Ochi, as head of DOJ’s CRS, was invited to join President Clinton in Arkansas to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School.
While in Arkansas, Ochi revisited Rohwer for the first time since her release. As she stood in the cemetery, memories of being lined up to be renamed Rose bubbled up. When she saw the railroad tracks and a railroad car, a feeling of nausea overcame her, as though she was reliving the long train ride from California to Arkansas.
On a positive note, she met Rosalie Gould, former mayor of McGehee, a city just outside the former camp site. For decades, Gould has been collecting Rohwer artifacts in hopes of establishing a museum.
RETURN TO L.A. — AGAIN
In 2001, Ochi moved back to Los Angeles and was appointed to the Los Angeles Police Commission. Currently, she is the executive director of the California Forensic Science Institute at California State University, Los Angeles.
More recently, Ochi met with Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal, letting him know that his public statements regarding wartime Solicitor General Charles Fahy’s failure to tell the truth to the Supreme Court was being celebrated in the Nikkei community.
She also met with NPS to seek staff funding for Tule Lake, which was designated a national historic monument in December 2008.
In reflecting upon her life, Ochi marvels at the strength of her parents’ generation.
“I’m very thankful,” she said. “I truly feel my career and my life benefited from the people who sacrificed before me, so I do the things I do in hopes that what I do can, in turn, benefit our community.”