Publication Date

September 27, 2023

Perspectives Section

In Memoriam, Long Overdue


  • United States


Asian American and Pacific Islander

Yuji Ichioka

Photo courtesy UCLA Asian American Studies Center

A second-generation Japanese American born in San Francisco, Yuji Ichioka was a trailblazing scholar in Japanese American history and a founder of Asian American studies.

Ichioka’s family was incarcerated at Topaz in Utah during World War II, and they returned to California following their release to start a new life in Berkeley. Ichioka served the US Army in Europe before earning a BA at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), in 1962. He pursued graduate study in Chinese history at Columbia University, where he met his partner, historian Emma Gee. But he quickly became dissatisfied with academia and dropped out, choosing instead to work as a youth parole worker in New York City.

In 1966, he traveled to Japan, where he first became interested in the history of Japanese immigrants (Issei). He subsequently enrolled in the graduate program in East Asian studies at the University of California, Berkeley. There, Ichioka was instrumental in organizing the Asian American Political Alliance in 1968; he and Emma coined the term “Asian American” to unify Asian ethnicities together based on their shared experience under Orientalist US racism.

Recognized as a foremost expert before the field even existed, Ichioka taught the first Asian American studies course at UCLA in 1969 and became the associate director of the Asian American Studies Center. Until his death, Ichioka served as the center’s research associate and an adjunct associate professor of history at UCLA.

Ichioka’s rise as one of the most important historians of Asian America embodied the field’s complex emergence in Eurocentric US academia. Though he was initially shunned by mainstream US immigration historians, Ichioka helped develop archives and new venues for research and publications. The Japanese American Research Project, the nation’s best collection of Issei primary sources, could not have existed without his tireless work. Ichioka was among the first historians who insisted on centering vernacular immigrant sources in documenting their experiences. Virtually all pre-1970s works on Issei were built on the spurious edifices of Orientalism and monolingual English research. Ichioka instead focused on not only immigrants’ struggle against racism but also oppression and injustice within the ethnic community. His cutting-edge studies on Issei prostitutes and railroad workers included their entanglements with patriarchal community leaders and co-ethnic labor contractors. With a transnational perspective, he also uncovered how Issei society engaged the Japanese government and how US-Japan diplomacy intersected with domestic race and immigration politics.

In 1988, Ichioka published his pathbreaking monograph, The Issei: The World of the First Generation Japanese Immigrants, 1885–1924 (Free Press), which offered the first substantive analysis of Ozawa v. United States, the Supreme Court ruling that established Issei as “alien ineligible for citizenship.” His rediscovery of the case quickened scholarly interrogations of racially prescribed US citizenship by critical race theorists and others. Although most of his writings focused on the prewar period, Ichioka was the first to critically examine the importance and oppressiveness of the wartime Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study and its archival collection, editing an anthology titled Views from Within (UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press, 1989).

At his death in 2002, Ichioka left a nearly finished second book manuscript, which Gordon H. Chang and I completed for posthumous publication. Before Internment: Essays in Prewar Japanese American History (Stanford Univ. Press, 2006) examined the experiences of Japanese Americans in the 1930s, especially their relations to Japan and the question of loyalty—topics that had been taboo until the community in 1988 secured redress for their unconstitutional incarceration. Ichioka’s trajectory elucidates his view of scholarly production and its consequence. His research could not be divorced from his concerns for the political effects his works might generate for the communities and causes he served. His career embodies how the field started and how it should continue to promote the goal of social justice and human equality.

As his disciple, I also remember Yuji as an exuberant person, who loved to converse, drink, and play basketball. He was devoted to Emma (who passed away this April), who was his partner in helping found the field of Asian American studies with equal moral conviction and political commitment.

Eiichiro Azuma
University of Pennsylvania

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