Yuji Ichioka, a UCLA historian and community activist who coined the term “Asian American” in the late 1960s to advance the rationale for bringing diverse Asian groups together, has died. He was 66.
Ichioka died Sunday of cancer in Los Angeles.
A founder of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center in 1969, Ichioka was considered by many to be the nation’s foremost authority on Japanese American history.
A man of many dimensions, the San Francisco-born scholar was known not only for his pursuit of social justice and research to recover the “buried past” of the early Japanese settlers, but also for his zest for life: playing basketball, eating, drinking and traveling.
Ichioka mastered Japanese to tackle the original sources of immigrant life, such as diaries, letters and old newspapers. His seminal work, “Issei: The World of the First Generation Japanese Immigrants, 1885-1924,” won the 1989 U.S. History Book Award of the National Assn. for Asian American Studies.
“Yuji was a complex man who had just a wonderful thirst for life,” said Don T. Nakanishi, director of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, the nation’s largest facility for Asian American studies research. “On one hand, Yuji spent a lot of his time in quiet contemplation of going through records [in Japanese] that nobody went through, and on the other hand, he loved to interact with people.”
Nakanashi said Ichioka could be “cranky” at times, but at the same time was “an incredibly supportive mentor” to many doctoral students, professors and scholars.
Scholars say Ichioka’s contributions in compiling the Japanese American Research Project Collection at UCLA has made it the nation’s largest and most significant historical archives on Japanese Americans.
They say his many articles and two of his books, “A Buried Past” and “A Buried Past II,” provided the foundation for Japanese American studies.
Ichioka was a man ahead of his times.
In the 1960s, when people of Asian ancestry totaled fewer than 1 million, compared to nearly 11.9 million in the 2000 census, the idea of Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos and Koreans joining together for a shared political purpose was unheard of. And the proposition that Asians needed to forge an alliance with blacks, Latinos and Native Americans to work on a common agenda was even more strange.
Yet Ichioka created the first inter-ethnic pan-Asian American political group. And he coined the term “Asian American” to frame a new self-defining political lexicon. Before that, people of Asian ancestry were generally called Oriental or Asiatic.
In 1968, when Black Panther leader Huey Newton was on trial in Oakland, charged with killing a police officer, Ichioka marched with the members of his newly created Asian American Political Alliance.
He did not agree with Newton’s politics, he told The Times in a 1997 interview, but he thought Newton, like all citizens, deserved to be treated fairly by his government.
The next year, UCLA established the Asian American Studies Center and Ichioka taught the first course.
His role in creating the academic discipline was a logical outgrowth of his commitment to teach histories that weren’t part of the mainstream curriculum.
More than 120 years after the first Japanese immigrants came, Ichioka stands out as the researcher who documented and analyzed the Japanese American experience from the immigrants’ perspective.
He gathered his materials over many years by talking families into turning over from their garages and attics dusty trunks and boxes left by their ancestors.
“Yuji loved the people he wrote about,” Nakanishi said. “He wanted to capture what their life was really like.”
Contrary to the popular view, Asian immigrants weren’t docile people who only worked hard and kept to themselves, Ichioka once said, but instead they fought the injustice of exploitive employers with strikes and demonstrations.
Ichioka’s firsthand experience with racism influenced his outlook on social justice. His family was interned during World War II. He also lived among blacks in Berkeley, and picked fruit alongside Mexicans in the Central Valley.
After undergraduate studies at UCLA, he earned a master’s degree at UC Berkeley and did graduate work at Columbia, but decided not to pursue a doctorate because he thought it was a “waste of time.”
For 33 years, Ichioka was senior researcher at the Asian American Studies Center and an adjunct professor in the history department.
“Yuji was not a scholar in the ivory tower,” said San Francisco civil rights attorney Don Tamaki.
In a modern-day “Alien Land Law” dispute in which the San Francisco YWCA claimed sole title to a historic building erected in the 1920s in the city’s Japantown, Ichioka uncovered a crucial 80-year-old diary proving that the property was actually held in trust by the YWCA for the benefit of the Japanese American community.
His research showed that the San Francisco YWCA merely held “paper title” to circumvent laws barring Asian immigrants from owning real estate, Tamaki said.
“Even during difficult times [after the onset of cancer], Yuji selflessly continued to work on the case, volunteering his expert historical analysis,” he said.
Emma Gee, Ichioka’s wife of more than 25 years, said Ichioka remained himself no matter where he went.
When he was a visiting professor at Tokyo University in 1999, he kept a basketball in his office and dribbled in the room. It was an unthinkable thing for a respected teacher in Japan.
In addition to his wife, Ichioka is survived by his mother, Sei, and brothers Eddie and Victor, all of the San Francisco Bay Area; and sisters Pat S. Traylor of La Jolla and Yowko Richardson of Portland, Ore.
Gee said a public memorial will be held in October. The family requests that any donations be made to the Yuji Ichioka Endowed Chair in Social Studies at UCLA, c/o UCLA Asian American Studies Center, P.O. Box 951546, 3230 Campbell Hall, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1546.