By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
The UCLA Asian American Studies Center celebrated the completion of the Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee Endowment in Social Justice and Immigration Studies with a reception May 17 at Senshin Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles.
The endowment supports research-related activities that honor the husband-and-wife team’s accomplishments in academia and activism.
Yuji Ichioka (1936-2002), a San Francisco native who was interned with his family at Tanforan and Topaz, is credited with coining the term “Asian American” and taught the first Asian American studies class at UCLA in 1969. As a research associate at the Asian American Studies Center, he authored the award-winning books “The Issei: The World of First-Generation Japanese Immigrants, 1885-1924” and “Before Internment: Essays in Prewar Japanese American History.”
Ichioka gave powerful testimony at a Los Angeles hearing of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians in 1981. In a video clip shown at the reception, he declared that the Japanese American community would no longer be otonashii (quiet) but instead would be yakamashii (noisy) in asserting its rights.
Emma Gee has also had a long association with the AASC, serving as editor of “Counterpoint: Perspectives on Asian America” (1976) and as a member of the editorial board of Amerasia Journal. Both she and her husband emphasized the importance of not only researching social justice issues but also engaging the community in doing something about those issues.
Rev. Mas Kodani, former minister at Senshin, first met Ichioka in the 1960s. “I never met a more thorough scholar,” he said, adding that Ichioka was “a little bit obsessed about basketball.”
To illustrate Ichioka’s personality, Kodani said, “Yuji is in our columbarium. You can’t miss it, it’s the largest urn there … Anybody else can put their ashes there, but nothing bigger than Yuji’s … So even in death, Yuji sets the standard for us.”
AASC Assistant Director Melany De La Cruz presented Gee with a lei and read a statement from Don Nakanishi, director and professor emeritus, who was unable to attend. The statement read, in part:
“I first met Yuji and Emma in the summer of 1970 when I was doing field research for my senior essay at Yale in the Bay Area. Yuji was providing leadership in organizing the 25th anniversary commemoration of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which took place in San Francisco Japantown. Yuji invited me to dinner at his place in Berkeley, where I met Emma …
“Yuji told me about the groundbreaking research he was doing on Japanese American history. I told him we would be honored if he would consider contributing an article to our new journal. The result was the publication of Yuji’s first of many highly influential works on Japanese American history that appeared in Amerasia Journal over the years, ‘A Buried Past: Early Issei Socialists in the Japanese Community’ (1971) …
“Emma was a powerhouse in her own right and made substantial original contributions to scholarship and activism. I had the privilege of working with her when she was the chief editor of ‘Counterpoint,’ a landmark collection of essays reflecting the best of Asian American studies and progressive thinking in the late 1970s. I have also witnessed the singularly important imprint she has had on many issues affecting women, immigrants, workers and communities of color.
“Together, Yuji and Emma were an extraordinarily committed and influential pair. Thanks to the hundreds of people around the country and around the world who have helped to create this permanent endowment, which will benefit future generations.”
Russell Leong, AASC professor and editor emeritus of Amerasia Journal, recalled first meeting the couple in the early 1970s during a reading by Asian American poets at UC Berkeley. “I was inspired by both Yuji and Emma,” he said. Leong read a poem he composed for the occasion, “Counterpoint/From Then Until Now.”
Gee remembered her first encounter with Ichioka when both were students at Columbia University. She described him as a “good-looking guy” who “had this look of disdain” as a famous professor was giving a talk in a crowded room. She said she immediately decided, “I’ve got to meet this guy.”
She added, “He was always a little different from somebody else, but he was very clear about himself and his values. He liked you or he didn’t like you.”
Gee announced that one of the first recipients of support from the endowment is Chinese American author, activist and feminist Grace Lee Boggs. Now 97, Boggs earned her Ph.D. in 1940 and worked for decades on civil rights issues in the Detroit area with her African American husband, Albert, who died in 1993.
“I had met her during the early 1963 March on Washington … I learned so much from her,” Gee said.
The original plan was to bring Boggs to UCLA for a few weeks so that students could meet her in person, but that proved to be too difficult for her.
AASC Director David K. Yoo commented, “You can’t really think about Yuji without thinking about basketball. When I was on a fellowship at UCLA, he forced me to come play basketball even though I was a baseball player. He didn’t really care. He told me to show up … I had to run up and down the court with some folks who are in the room. But Yuji taught me much afterwards.”
UCLA’s Nikkei Student Union was represented by Taryn Hara, vice president, and Justen Quan, sports coordinator. NSU hosted its annual Yuji Ichioka Memorial Tournament the previous weekend at the John Wooden Center, where Ichioka used to play.
“We have come to define that term ‘Asian American’ in different ways,” said Quan. “For many of us Yonseis, being Asian American means growing up playing basketball, whether it’s church, school or Asian league.”
“It’s amazing that even though both of us are from Sacramento, we find ourselves connected to NSU members from Southern California because we know each other’s teammates and opponents,” Hara said. “Asian American basketball has been a large part of our lives at home and even continues at UCLA. The Yuji Ichioka Memorial Tournament brings together 10 different NSUs …to play a game we all share a love for.”
On behalf of the NSU, Hara and Quan presented Gee with this year’s tournament shirt as well as a donation of $850 for the endowment.
Yoo noted that the endowment helped sponsor a program about Chol Soo Lee, who was wrongfully convicted of a 1973 murder in San Francisco Chinatown and sentenced to death. The successful campaign to free him and clear his name was one of the early pan-Asian movements.
Ichioka was also committed to archival materials and helped build the Japanese American Research Project, which is part of the UCLA Library, “so we will continue to try to do work in those areas and really build a strong foundation of knowledge and scholarship to help bridge campus and community,” Yoo said. “So we’re very excited about the road ahead.”
The program concluded with music by vocalist Keiko Kawashima and keyboardist Scott Nagatani from the Grateful Crane Ensemble.
Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo