Cover Story

A UH law professor’s surprising legacy inspires a new generation of artists, activists and attorneys
Comes with video


Cover image for Sep 23, 2009

When University of Hawaii law professor Chris Iijima passed away in 2005 from brain cancer, his colleague Mari Matsuda attended a memorial service held in Iijima’s hometown of New York. A number of his former UH students who had since moved East attended as well.

“There were 700 or 800 people there,” Matsuda recalls. “These were people who had known Chris as a musician, as a teacher, as an important activist in the Asian American movement. I remember his former students were just shocked. It was this reaction of, ‘Wait, we thought this was our Chris. What are all these other people doing here?’ But the thing about Chris is that he belonged to so many people in so many different places.”

It is a familiar refrain. From Los Angeles anti-gang activists to Puerto Rican nationalists, from music buffs to civil rights historians to Hawaiian sovereignty activists, from former New York schoolchildren to California filmmakers, Chris Iijima was a respected leader across a stunning spectrum of mainstream American and Asian American life, and in ways many of his friends–and even his children–were unaware of. But in his passing, he brought these worlds together.

“He had packed funerals in Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco and Honolulu,” Matsuda says. “What kind of person who is not a Michael Jackson can generate that?”

That question forms the heart of a documentary about the life and work of this seminal musician, political pioneer and noted law professor. It also serves as the inspiration for a daylong celebration of Iijima and an exploration of his legacy this week at two locations in Honolulu.

Sponsored by the UH law school, Thursday’s events feature multiple screenings of Tadashi Nakamura’s 2008 film A Song For Ourselves, which explores the totality of Iijima’s legacy and has screened to large audiences and critical acclaim in California and New York, as well as a panel discussion about the role of art and law in progressive activism. The day concludes with a repeat screening of the film, followed by a musical celebration at a Chinatown nightclub.

Musical youth

From his early days belting out defiant folk anthems on stages across the United States to his final days mentoring aspiring attorneys in Manoa, Iijima charted a rare path through American life. Born in Harlem to parents active in progressive causes, Iijima was raised on leftist politics, but it was during his time at Columbia University during the Vietnam era that he became even further radicalized.

“I became involved in the anti-war movement through Students for a Democratic Society,” he says in Nakamura’s film, “but SDS was an almost entirely white organization.”

Iijima was looking for something more, and something that spoke to his own perspective as a Japanese American, but quickly found his voice did not have a place in any of the existing fronts of the student movement. He began playing music with Nobuko Miyamoto under the moniker Yellow Pearl, touring the country as more or less the first Asian American musical act anyone had ever seen. The response was immediate, and profound. One of the most compelling scenes in Nakamura’s film involves simple concert footage from a Yellow Pearl appearance in Chicago; even viewed 40 years later, the image of an Asian American duo playing to a huge crowd composed almost entirely of Asian American young people is poignant. In their search for a voice, Iijima and Miyamoto created one for a generation of Asian American youth. The duo would later team up with respected musician Charlie Chin, eventually recording “A Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle by Asians in America,” an American folk classic now featured at the Smithsonian Institution.

“Initially, it was his music,” Nakamura says of his inspiration to make A Song For Ourselves. “For any progressive-minded person, but especially Asian Americans, I think that Yellow Pearl album is constantly being rediscovered. Like most college-age Asian American kids, when I listened to it, it just blew my mind. It was something that I would have wanted so badly to have had growing up.”

Nakamura, it turns out, is one of the few who had a sense of the breadth of Iijima’s contributions. His film explores the scope of Iijima’s life from those early days at Columbia through a musical and political heyday that saw him introduced to the nation (by no less a figure than John Lennon) on a national variety show, into Iijima’s years as a grade school teacher in New York and through what turned out to be his final chapter, as a law professor at the University of Hawaii.

Home in the islands

Iijima arrived at the William S. Richardson School of Law after a life in New York in which he taught, married, and fathered two children. Iijima wrote scholarly articles and was active in progressive causes, including the Hawaiian sovereignty movement.

“He had worked on Puerto Rican independence, which was big in New York in the 1970s,” says Matsuda, “so he got it immediately about sovereignty. It’s the same struggle.”

Matusda says Iijima is best remembered at Richardson, however, for his work with Ulu Lehua, the school’s groundbreaking program dedicated to bringing in students from legally under-served communities who have demonstrated the aptitude for legal work but lack the educational background and training of many of their peers.

Hawaii State Representative Della Au Belatti remembers Iijima as a force for justice and a loyal mentor.

“He was just so devoted to his students,” Belatti said. “Once a former student was running for the Board of Education, and I remember Chris sign-waving outside the law school all by himself!”

Belatti says her great regret is that Iijima died before he could see her sworn in as an elected official.

“I really looked up to Chris, and he showed me a way to be a lawyer and an activist, and a way to combine those two things in a way that makes a difference for the community,” she said. “Chris was huge, and when we lost him, we lost a part of the heart and soul of the law school.”

A new song

Sonny Ganaden, a former student of Iijima’s who is among the event’s organizers, says it was critical to connect the screening of Nakamura’s film to what he sees as Iijima’s legacy by hosting events both at the law school and in Chinatown.

“Chris was an artist,” Ganaden says. “As a working artist myself, I believe this is an opportunity for the state’s only law school to connect with what’s happening in the arts community.”

Ganaden points to Iijima’s multifaceted body of work–as an artist, an activist, a teacher and an attorney–and sees a need to carry Iijima’s passion forward.

“There’s an important arts and culture scene emerging in Honolulu’s Chinatown and it’s not yet politicized,” Ganaden says. “Take the First Friday celebrations–we’re stepping over homeless people on our way to get a drink.”
Ganaden poses questions he believes Iijima would confront: “What does our club scene have to say about homelessness, or about the over-militarization of Hawaii? How do we get from discussing art to enacting health care reform? It’s a matter of organizing. This is an event honoring a great man who many of us in the law community had the opportunity to be taught by and who spent the last few years of his life here. We’re connecting it in a real sense to this community.”

As part of that effort, the law school will host a panel discussion on Thursday afternoon on what organizers call “creative modern activism.”
Nakamura will appear, along with Matsuda, hip-hop artist Bambu, UH design instructor, promoter and musician Ara Laylo and others, to explore questions of art and activism in Honolulu.

“Part of getting to the place where we want to be is honoring the heroes who got us where we are,” says Ganaden. “But the other part is getting people talking about the issues that mattered to him and matter to us, and trying to begin to make change.”

Matsuda echoes that thought: “We’ve had a lot of chances to say goodbye to Chris, but he’d be sick of that by now. He’d really like us to be doing something. I imagine him sitting here saying, ‘What are you gonna do about Hawaii shipping garbage to the continent, about pouring concrete over the last open spaces, about all the people without the basic necessities of life?’ We hope these events will move those questions forward.”

A Song For Ourselves, Thu 9/24,
4pm: Creative Modern Activism panel discussion, University of Hawaii Law School, 2515 Dole St., free;
7pm: Screening of A Song For Ourselves followed by a performance by Bambu and Phatrick of Native Guns, Nextdoor, 43. N. Hotel Street

A trailer for the movie’s premier

Interview with director Tad Nakamura

Nobuko Miyamoto & Charlie Chin at the LA Premiere of “A Song For Ourselves”