Remembering Rose Ochi
Born in East Los Angeles, she was the third of four children to Yoshiaki Roy and Mutsuko Grace Matsukawa Matsui. Her parents were from Kumamoto Prefecture. Takayo (meaning a child with ideals) Matsui was her birth name. While in the internment camp, her teacher gave her an American name Rose. As she said in an interview, it was better than being named Petunia.
Growing up during WWII was difficult for all Japanese living in America. They suffered from discrimination and feelings of not belonging. Ochi felt this deeply. Instead of wilting, she fought against it. In a UCLA interview, she said, “Excuse me? Me take orders? You’ve got to be kidding.”
1963 was a turning point in Rose’s life; she married Thomas Ochi and decided to become a lawyer after witnessing all the unfairness handed to students in the Latinx community in East LA during the 1960s. This discrimination angered her and brought back memories of her own experiences.
Rose received her law degree in 1972 from Loyola Law School. At Loyola, she met Terry J. Hatter Jr., who became her essential mentor. Terry would bring her into the U.S.C. Western Center on Law and Poverty and later Bradley’s Criminal Justice Planning Office.
She served as co-counsel and successfully won a landmark case, Serrano vs. Priest, that pushed California to adopt a more equitable education funding system. Terry said, “I saw her as a rising star.”
Ochi worked two decades in the criminal justice office and was instrumental in lowering gang violence by supplementing law enforcement with neighborhood organizations to help redirect at-risk youth. Her office also worked on community policing, drug issues, domestic violence, and diversifying the L.A. Police Department’s officer ranks.
In 2002, Rose was appointed executive director of the California Forensic Science Institute of Cal State L.A.
Ochi helped the Manzanar project forward by convincing the Inyo County supervisor out of killing the project. She worked pro-bono as the Manzanar Committee attorney. The Manzanar War Relocation Center in 1992 has been designated a national historic site.
During her retirement, she continued to stay engaged with community activities. One was to raise funds to build Block 14 at Manzanar. Rose was also involved with the community effort to designate Tuna Canyon, a former World War II detention center, as a Los Angeles Historic Landmark.
Sadly on December 13, 2020, she became another victim of COVID-19.
Rose Matsui Ochi was a true enabler trailblazer for all Japanese Americans.
Our first trailblazer for 2021, we honor Attorney Rose Ochi for her determination and dedication to social justice in America. She broke the glass ceiling to be the first Asian American woman commissioner to the Los Angeles Police Commission. She was the first Asian American woman assistant to the U.S. attorney general. Among the high-profile people, she counseled L.A. Mayor Tom Brady and James Hahn on criminal justice. Rose served under two presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, handling immigration, refugee policy, drug policies, and race relations.
“I am deeply saddened that we have lost an incredible community and civil rights leader,” said Assembly member Ed Chau. “Rose Matsui Ochi was a constituent in the 49th District and a well-known community figure. Her activism and advocacy were forged by the experience of being incarcerated along with 120,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps during World War II. By witnessing injustice at an early age, Rose became a fierce champion and advocate for civil rights, Japanese American redress, and criminal justice reform. We must remember her legacy and work by continuing to work for a nation that fights against inequity and push for greater justice for all.”