A Celebration of Life: Remembering Chris Iijima

University of Hawaiʻi
Avi Soifer, (808) 956-6363
William S. Richardson School of Law
Posted: Jan 12, 2006

Chris Iijima, beloved law professor, lawyer, teacher, musician, community organizer, and scholar, died peacefully in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi on December 31, 2005, surrounded by his family. Chris battled amyloidosis, a rare blood disease, for several years with courage and humor. He reached the age of 57 the week before he died.

Raised in New York City by activist parents—his father, Takeru, served in the famous 442nd Infantry Regimental Combat Team and his mother, Kazu, was in an internment camp during World War II -- Chris graduated from Columbia University in 1969, and participated as a "pamphleteer, organizer, speaker, and visionary" for the antiwar movement as well as for the "East Coast stirrings of the nascent Asian American movement," as Phil Tajitsu Nash recently stated. Chris first became widely known for expressing his commitment to social justice through his songwriting and singing. In the early 1970s, "Yellow Pearl" —a trio consisting of Chris, Joanne Nobuko Miyamoto, and "Charlie" Chin-- toured the country singing about Asian American identity while encompassing the struggles of minorities everywhere.

The trio recorded "A Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle by Asians in America" as well as other albums. Chris and his friends performed on numerous college campuses and appeared on the Mike Douglas Show with John Lennon and Yoko Ono in 1972. The Smithsonian Institute commemorated their role as pioneers with a reunion concert and a reissue of "A Grain of Sand" on CD.

After working as a teacher at the innovative Manhattan Country School and as a bartender to support himself while in law school, Chris graduated at the top of his class at New York Law School, where he was an editor of the Law Review. He clerked from 1988-1990 for Federal District Judge Charles Stewart, Jr. in the Southern District of New York and worked as a litigator in the New York law firm of Friedman & Kaplan. He returned to his love of teaching and social justice work as a faculty member at New York University in the Lawyering Program, and then at Western New England Law School. Chris was invited to join the faculty of the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawai‘i-Mānoa in 1998 and he became a tenured associate professor in 2001.

Chris was particularly loved and admired for his work as director of the Law School‘s unique Preadmission Program. The Preadmission Program, established in 1975, admits and supports students from historically underserved communities with great promise as lawyers and community leaders. Chris was an inspiring, challenging, and greatly loved teacher in his role as the director of the

Preadmission Program, as well as in the other legal subjects he taught. Chris embraced people, and people embraced Chris. The Law School students and faculty voted him the Outstanding Professor of the Year in 2000 and he was a 2001 recipient of the Board of Regents‘ Excellence in Teaching Award.

Chris wrote much-cited law review articles addressing the issues he sang and wrote about years earlier. With clarity, nuance, and the support of powerful and careful scholarship, Chris described vital issues such as "Race as Resistance;" "Separating Support from Betrayal: Examining the Intersections of Racialized Legal pedagogy, Academic Support, and Subordination;" "Swimming from the Island of the Colorblind: Deserting an Ill-Conceived Constitutional Metaphor;" and "Shooting Justice Jackson‘s ʻLoaded Weapon‘ at Ysar Hamdi: Judicial Abdication at the Convergence of Korematsu and McCarthy."

As Georgetown Law Center Professor Mari Matsuda stated in her tribute to Chris in October, 2005 when he was awarded the Keeper of the Flame tribute by the Na Loio Immigrant Rights and Public Interest Legal Center, Chris‘s teaching, writing, and extraordinary example "produced an army of students who are re-making the profession, with Chris‘s voice in their heads as they go." Chris was unwavering in his conviction that "competence without compassion will negatively affect critical lawyering decisions…and compassion without competence will negatively affect how an attorney serves the interest of his or her client."

Dean Avi Soifer of the William S. Richardson School of Law described Chris as "a forceful but sweet and very funny challenger of settled expectations. Chris truly was incomparable as he pushed, prodded, and genuinely inspired everyone to struggle toward both clearer understanding and a better world."

In addition to his teaching, mentoring, and scholarly activities, Chris served on the board of directors of Na Loio and of the Society of American Law Teachers, and on the Commission on Equal Access to Justice, appointed by the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court, and the Special Advisory Committee on Diversity of the Hawaiʻi Civil Rights Commission.

Chris is survived by his wife Jane Dickson and sons Alan and Christopher and by his parents, Kazu and Takeru, and his sister Lynne. A Celebration of the Life of Chris Iijima will take place on Wednesday, January 18, 2006 at 5:30 p.m. in the Campus Center Ballroom of the University of Hawaii at Mānoa. (For more information, please visit: A Celebration Of Life: Chris Iijima at www.hawaii.edu/law)