Words of Affection and Tribute from Dean Aviam Soifer, William S. Richardson School of Law, University of Hawa'i delivered on January 18, 2006 at the Celebration of the Life of Chris Iijima.
Chris Iijima was the sweetest challenger of the status quo we will ever know.
As the introduction to a law review article a few years ago, Chris briefly described his two sons. He explained that he noticed “how the younger one emulates his older brother’s mannerisms; how their dark hair falls similarly; how bright and kind they both are; how their fears and questions often reflect our family’s circumstances.” But Chris went on to emphasize how he treasured their differences. “[I]t is in their differences that I best know them,” he said.
In three short, powerfully moving paragraphs, Chris thereby established that “both knowledge and caring are intrinsically connected to appreciating similarity and difference.” His article then went on to demonstrate exactly how, in the context of justice for Native Hawaiians, “the failure to appreciate similarity and difference is a sure signal of either indifference or hostility—or both.”
Like no one else I have ever met, Chris noticed and Chris cared. And somehow he managed to ask just the right questions, and to have time to listen and really to hear. Radically and fundamentally--yet also sweetly-- Chris knew how to provoke and to inspire. The truly incomparable Jane, as well as Alan and Christopher, Kazu and Tak and Lynne, so generously supported and inspired Chris and allowed him the time he needed. Often they joined in as, like some new kind of organic magnet, he formed the core of a moving, inspiring, challenging, and constantly evolving community.
Chris often said that he simply was “born to do the job” of being the Director of the PreAdmission program. He was right, though he also knew deeply that he was raised and supported in doing the job extremely well by family and friends, colleagues and, yes, he would insist, his students, too.
As Casey Jarman put it at the 30th anniversary picnic celebrating the Pre-Ad Program, Judy Weightman somehow managed to send us Chris, and he absolutely, gruffly and softly, loved and battled for his PreAds. But Chris’s ability to notice what had to be done extended far beyond this program—truly the embodiment of our Law School’s moral obligation. Chris somehow served simultaneously as the entertainment, the counselor, and the conscience for us all.
Every conversation with Chris seemed to raise new questions, to provoke laughter, and to supply wisdom. He was the absolute master of discovering unexpected connections. He discerned ironies and recognized paradoxes like no one else. But Chris also embraced life within paradox: he could truly love the beauty of Hawai’i’s mountains and spend hours as a couch potato watching schlock TV; his profound understanding of his own background actively mingled with his engaged empathy in the struggles of others; he delighted in life’s bounty even as he attacked its unjust distribution. And conversations with Chris were amazing, as he gazed at the stars, or the great food, or directly into your eyes.
It is so sad that Chris will never know that a very recent Harvard Law Review Note, critical of the 9th Circuit decision in the Kamehameha case, twice relies on an article he wrote. Chris is cited for his point that history and injustice ought to count, no matter what the Supreme Court said in Rice v. Cayetano. Still I do believe that Chris had at least a small sense of how much he taught us all.
He did not even begin to guess, however, how much we will continue to rely on Chris, to ask “What would Chris say? What would Chris do?” In this way, Chris will go on helping us test and find our own consciences.
As Chris battled his illness, he was, in Marlene’s words, a feisty eyeore. One moment he was sure we should get him to a hospice immediately; his next words were that we were going to beat this thing together. But in Los Angeles, as he went through the scary, risky stem cell transplant, Chris’s mantra was that he simply could not die without seeing Hawai’i again. And we were blessed with another year and a half of Chris’s extraordinary company.
He got to hear the roar of the crowd via cell phone from Fenway Park—but oh, what a good time we would have had going to a game there together. And his friends got to hear his hilarious riffs on what he hated as well as what he loved: what was pretentious and weird about ballet, for example, as well as the claims for unchecked Executive authority along with his joy in his family and his friends, his students and colleagues, his Law School, and his community.
We will have Iijima/Weightman Fellows at the Law School. And they will continue to follow Chris’s lead and to heed his advice about life as well as law.
In an exceptional law review article Chris published about legal education six years ago, he claimed that the goal ought to be “to empower students through education to begin the project of transforming the larger institutions and society.” The PreAd program exemplifies the reinforcing and transformative challenge deep within the life and work, the music and laughter of Chris Iijima.
How lucky, how blessed all of us have been and continue to be as we are still taught by Chris. And Chris darn well will not leave us alone to waste our talents or to shirk our obligations to others. As Chris wrote in the Law Student Pledge, we are obliged “above all, to endeavor to seek justice.”
We are all Chris Iijima’s students. And Chris was the greatest teacher one could have in learning to embrace life, and to discern and charge out after life’s unfairness.
We are bereft without him.
Chris would hate that.
Yet those of us who had time with Chris are lucky to have learned vitally important lessons for life. He lives on as a blessing, a genuine source of lifelong learning. Through Chris, we will better discern the similarities and differences that matter. Because of Chris, we will treasure life more, despite all its foibles, even as we go forth to do something about what matters most.
Chris would love that.