In his twenties he sang Free the Land from concert stages. In his fifties he wrote law review articles that protested the theft of Hawaiian ancestral lands. In between, Chris Kando Iijima married, raised two sons, and worked as a teacher, lawyer, bartender, community organizer, and law professor. By the time he died on December 31 after a long illness, Iijima had fulfilled a promise he had made to himself in a song he had recorded in 1973: don't forget to live before you die.
Hollywood could have made a movie about Chris's life, but it might have seemed too unbelievable. And, given the revolutionary nature of his politics, the content might not have been too comfortable for the corporate executives who control most of our viewing habits these days.
Chris's youth was shaped by an event before his birth, the unjust imprisonment of his family and other Japanese Americans during World War II. Chris's father, Tak Iijima, fought in the famous 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the all-Nisei unit that took exceedingly heavy casualties in Europe to prove their loyalty to America. Yet the irony of his dad's fighting for a freedom not enjoyed by his own family was not lost on Chris, who grew up knowing Bill Kochiyama, Tooru Kanazawa, and the other 442nd vets who gathered monthly for years at the Yodo Restaurant in midtown Manhattan.
When he entered Columbia University in 1965 on what could have been a ticket to professional respectability, Chris was already skeptical about America's unfulfilled promises to its minorities. His mother Kazu, whose 1986 interview in Amerasia Journal was entitled "Always A Rebel," had been a progressive activist her whole life. Chris and his sister Lynne had grown up watching their mom use her considerable skills as a writer and organizer on behalf of many progressive candidates and causes. Chris shared her view that fundamental changes were needed in American society before workers and minorities could find justice.
Columbia in the late 1960's also was the scene of strong anti-Vietnam War protests and some of the strongest East Coast stirrings of the nascent Asian American movement. Chris found his voice as a pamphleteer, organizer, speaker, and visionary for both movements, while also developing his gifts as a poet, songwriter, guitar player and singer.
With a love of music that came from a dad who was a classically-trained musician and church choirmaster, Chris wrote songs that, even today, are good enough for Broadway or the Top 40. Listen to the toe-tapping "Dust Don't Fly Away" on his 1982 "Back-to-Back" album or "Free the Land" on the landmark 1973 "Grain of Sand" album ( http://www.bindurecords.com/music/grainofsand/ ). His husky voice, charismatic stage presence, and funky picking skills virtually jump out of the speakers.
Then listen to the lyrics: "Hold the banner high, Warriors of the Rainbow!" "There is no better time, to put yourself on the line."
Or the Spanish language lyrics that he made sure to include on each album: "Hablamos la misma lengua, porque luchamos por las mismas cosas." (We speak the same language, because we are fighting for the same things).
Chris, Joann Nobuko Miyamoto, and "Charlie" Chin toured the country and campuses in the early 1970's, singing songs and expressing an Asian American identity that was, to use Chris's own words, "originally meant to be a means to an end rather than an end in itself. It was as much a mechanism to identify with one another as [it was] to identify with the struggles of others, whether African Americans or Asians overseas. It was less a marker of what one was and more a marker of what one believed."
In 1973, the trio entered a recording studio and cut "A Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle by Asians in America." This album, which is recognized as a classic of American folk culture and sold in the gift shop of the Smithsonian Institution, was more than just grooves on a piece of vinyl. From Boston to Chicago to San Francisco to Honolulu, Asian-derived people who had been classified in the Census as "Other" suddenly realized that they had an identity, a history, and a place at the table.
Just as African American voting rights activists used "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around" and "We Shall Overcome" as anthems of protest, Asian Americans used songs such as "Something About Me Today" and "Yellow Pearl" as the sound track for the political and personal awakenings taking place in their lives.
Like Gandhi, who said that we should be the change we want to see in the world, Chris spent several years teaching at the Manhattan Country School, where school-age children learn the skills, insights, and convictions to make the world around them a better place. Then, while singing at one of the early Law Day events hosted by the nascent National Asian Pacific American Law Student Association in the early 1980's, Chris realized that another career could help him to change the world while using the sharp analysis and debating skills he had exhibited since his youth.
He enrolled at New York Law School, and did so well that he was invited to join the legal profession. He rose rapidly, becoming a judicial clerk, a lawyer, and then a law professor. At the time of his death, he was not only a law professor at the University of Hawaii, but also head of its pre-admission program. Given his sharp mind, warm heart and strong communication skills, it is no wonder that he was selected by the students and faculty as Outstanding Professor of the 1999-2000 Year.
A tough but fair taskmaster, his approach to teaching required from his students the same things he demanded of himself: analytic precision, personal integrity and professionalism. "Competence without compassion will negatively affect critical lawyering decisions," he said. "And compassion without competence will negatively affect how an attorney serves the interest of his or her client."
As a scholar, Chris used his briefs and law review articles to address the same issues he had addressed with his guitar and microphone years earlier. "Race as Resistance," "Swimming from the Island of the Colorblind: Deserting an Ill-conceived Constitutional Metaphor," and "Shooting Justice Jackson's Loaded Weapon at Ysar Hamdi: Judicial Abdication at the Convergence of Korematsu and McCarthy" are the titles of just three of his cries for a society where justice prevails.
One of the most compelling songs co-written by Chris on the "Grain of Sand" album is the "Foolish Old Man Who Removed Mountains." It is based on a Chinese fable about a man who decides to move the two mountains that block the sunlight from reaching his house. Each day he carries buckets of dirt, while his neighbors laugh, saying there is no way that one small man can remove such huge mountains. He replies, "When I die, my children will dig after me. And when they die, their children will carry on. With every shovel full, the mountains become lower. Why can't we remove them?"
Like that old man, Chris spent his life removing the mountains of racism, sexism and greed. While he did not live to see his task completed, his example inspires the rest of us to carry on.
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For information about where to send memorial contributions in Chris Iijima's name, or to send tapes, videos or other memorabilia of Chris's life (which is being archived for the family and for posterity), please contact email@example.com.
Phil Tajitsu Nash is CEO of CampaignAdvantage.com and co-author of "Winning Campaigns Online."