Rose Takayo Matsui Ochi, a Japanese American leader and civil rights activist, has died in her home city of Los Angeles.
Ochi passed away at 81 on Dec. 13 after contracting COVID-19 for the second time. This worsened existing medical issues, her husband Thomas Ochi told the Los Angeles Times.
Ochi was the first Asian American woman to serve in the Los Angeles Police Commission from 2001 to 2005. “Her work was pivotal in guiding the [Los Angeles Police] Department (LAPD) through the turbulent days following the 9/11 attacks, and the initial phases of our Federal Consent Decree,” the LAPD said in a news release.
Ochi also made history as the first Asian American assistant U.S. attorney general. She was part of President Jimmy Carter’s Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy and advised President Bill Clinton on drug policy and race relations.
Born on Dec. 15, 1938 in East Los Angeles, Ochi was only 3 years old when her family was incarcerated at the Rohwer concentration camp in Arkansas. This experience, as well as countless events of racism she had faced since, fueled her drive to advance causes important to the Japanese American community.
As a child, Ochi was forced by a teacher to wash her mouth with soap for speaking Japanese — right in front of an entire class. She also recalled soldiers throwing snowballs at her.
“Somehow I learned that I’m not a real American. I’m an outsider,” Ochi said in a 2014 interview with the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Library Center for Oral History Research. “And instead of feeling like you’re ostracized, I just felt very strong, and I think over the years I was allowed to take on unpopular causes or stand up for people that are being beaten up. Because I was an outsider, and it’s something that I embrace and I like.”
Ochi played a key role in helping the community win a federal apology in 1988, which included monetary payments to concentration camp survivors. She also helped the Manzanar camp be approved as a national historic site in 1992.
Ochi attended Roosevelt High School and graduated from UCLA in 1959. She then obtained a graduate degree in education at Cal State Los Angeles in 1967 and a law degree from Loyola Law School in 1972.
While working in the city’s criminal justice office, Ochi helped develop programs that aimed to reduce gang violence. She also helped in community policing, drug abatement, domestic violence and diversifying the LAPD.
“Rose Matsui Ochi’s influence on this city and nation will be felt for many years to come. She was a tremendous force fighting for civil rights, justice reform, and law enforcement accountability and integrity,” said LAPD Chief Michel Moore.
An online memorial page has been set up for Ochi. In a tribute post, Democratic Rep. Judy Chu (CA-27) called her an “inspiration.”
“Rose Ochi paved the way for people like me. There were so few Asian American women in leadership positions as I was growing that I never even dreamed that I could be an elected official, let alone a Congressmember. But Rose was so bold that she was an inspiration to me. Despite having been raised at the Rohwer concentration camp, she continued to break barrier after barrier,” Chu wrote.
Feature Image Screenshot via Manzanar Committee