Rose Matsui Ochi was an attorney, a civil rights activist, political confidant, and advocate for women and people of color throughout this nation. On December 13, 2020, this noble fighter for human rights passed away at a local hospital after being diagnosed with COVID-19 for a second time.
Ochi broke down barriers as the first Asian American woman to serve on the Los Angeles Police Commission and as an assistant U.S. attorney general. She was a close ally to Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and was appointed to the Los Angeles Police Commission by Mayor James Hahn, which made her the first Asian American woman ever be appointed to the commission. She also served under Presidents Carter and Clinton on Immigration policy and race relations.
As a child, Ochi and her parents were incarcerated in a Japanese internment camp in Arcadia, California (now the Santa Anita Racetrack), and was later shipped out to the Rohwer War Relocation Authority camp in Arkansas. At Rohwer, a Caucasian teacher lined up Ochi’s class and gave all the Japanese immigrant students English names. This incident, which changed Ochi’s name from Takayo to Rose, would have a lasting and painful impact on her life.
However, she particularly cherished her contributions to the successful campaigns to win recognition and redress for the mass incarceration of 120,000 people of Japanese descent during World War II — including her and her family, who were uprooted from their home in Boyle Heights.
According to the Los Angeles Times, she advocated for criminal justice reform and was instrumental in seeking reparations for Japanese Americans who faced internment camps during World War II.
Her own experience in an Arkansas internment camp was instrumental in her “lifelong commitment to fight for the underdog.” It was in this internment camp that a teacher gave her an Americanized name and was forced to wash her mouth out with a bar of soap because she spoke in her native language of Japanese.
“My first day of school, I was lined up to be renamed … this well-meaning teacher from Arkansas decided to give me an American name, ‘Rose,’” Ochi said in an interview for Discover Nikkei. “When I look back on this, I realize this has been very, very helpful in who I became because somehow, even as a young child, you are made to believe you are not a real American that you’re an outsider.”
“That empowered me throughout my life to be able to challenge institutions,” Ochi added.
“I met Rose in 1975, when I worked for the late Councilman Gilbert Lindsay and she worked for the late Mayor Tom Bradley as the Director for Criminal Justice Planning. She was more than a friend and mentor … she was my mama. As a young public servant, it was exceptionally inspiring to see and meet a Japanese American woman in leadership. Rose was my model of professionalism, strength and integrity,” stated longtime friend Darlene Kuba.
Following World War II, Ochi grew up in East L.A. and forged friendships beyond her Japanese- American community. According to the Los Angeles Times, her upbringing pushed her to fight for racial justice for communities beyond her own.
She hired and mentored people of color and women throughout her extensive career, Nichi Bei reports.
“Rose Ochi paved the way for people like me,” U.S. Rep Judy Chu wrote. “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.”