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(cover picture) Nakamura, Tadashi
2009 A Song for Ourselves. Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Center.

Notes: DVD, 35 minutes
Reviewed 23 Nov 2010 by:
Jack David Eller <david.eller@ccd.edu>
Community College of Denver, Denver, Colorado, USA
Medium: Film/Video
Subject
Keywords:
Iijima, Chris
Musicians - Biography
Political participation - Japanese Americans
Political activists - United States
Japanese Americans

ABSTRACT:    The short film introduces the late Chris Iijima, a much-too-little-known Japanese-American musician and political activist from the 1960s and 1970s.



Everyone knows Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, and Peter, Paul, and Mary—among the great white folk/protest singers of the 1960s and 1970s. The African-American community had its prominent musical voices, like Richie Havens, Marvin Gaye, the Staple Singers, and Gil Scott-Heron. Even Native Americans were represented in popular political music by Buffy Saint-Marie. But who remembers Chris Iijima, the Japanese-American singer and activist who died on New Years’ Eve, 2005?

“A Song for Ourselves” is a short history of and tribute to the man, his music, and his movement. Just as Americans tend to remember only the white and black music of the era, they also tend to remember only white and black civil rights activities of the era. Perhaps that is the problem: lost in the color bar of American history is all of the other minorities who have had to struggle for their place and their voice in the society as well. In his youth Iijima actually attended Martin Luther King’s rally in Washington DC with his father. That may have started him on the path that his life was to take. He picketed against the Vietnam war and was present for civil rights movement, but as he reminisces in the film, he did not feel at home within the black or white movement. Where was the Asian movement and the voice of the Asian community?

Like others of his generation, he was influenced by Mao’s thinking on art as a political instrument. He also became exposed to traditional Japanese musical forms like taiko drumming, which had a powerful impact on him. Together with the effects of seeing images of Vietnam war, which featured people who looked like him being killed by Americans, he embarked on his political-musical career.

The film includes old and more recent performances of Iijima, mostly with his long-time singing partner Nobuko Miyamoto. A particularly impressive moment comes with his appearance on the Mike Douglas show, where he was introduced by no less than John Lennon. Iijima explicitly refuted the mainstream message that pop and protest music did not belong to Asians, and he made it, and much else of America, his own.

Iijima eventually married Jane Dickson, a white woman he met while working with school children, and they had two sons together. After spending time as a father, he decided to go law school to be able to help other people’s children as well. He moved his family to Hawaii, where he and his sons comment on the experience of less discrimination and greater acceptance as Asians.

In the prime of his life, he was diagnosed with a rare condition, amyloidosis. The film shows him in these waning days, still political even though gaunt from age and disease. He died after three years of fighting the disease, at age 57. The final minutes of the film contain friends and colleagues remembering him fondly. The DVD portrays Iijima as a family man as much as a 60s-70s activist.

The world needs to hear about Chris Iijima. It shames me somewhat that, as an older American and a scholar of culture and diversity, I did not know his name. The film is a loving tribute, but in its short form it is not really able to explore his politics and his music. Fortunately, there are ways to look further into the man and his time. The Asia Pacific Arts site of the UCLA Asia Institute contains information about the film, including clips, at http://www.asiaarts.ucla.edu/090220/article.asp?parentID=104913. Several of his former students offer thoughts at http://www2.hawaii.edu/~lawalum/Iijima-Tribute.pdf. The film even has a blog at http://asongforourselves.blogspot.com/ that indicates some of the influence that Iijima has had on popular Asian-American music. Iijimia probably still deserves an extended formal memoir, but until then “A Song for Ourselves” brings him and his work to our consciousness, and our consciousness needs this expanding.

Level/Use: Suitable for high school classes and for college courses in cultural anthropology, anthropology of music, anthropology of protest and resistance, and Asian-American studies, as well as general audiences.