Family reunion after World War II, taken by Toyo Miyatake Studio in 1946. Back row, from left: Hiroshi, Kazumi, Kimiye, Yoshito. Front row, from left: Emiko, MeriJane, Kiyoshi, Papa, Mama. (Photo courtesy of Yosh Kuromiya)
By SUSIE LING
There are many unsung Japanese American heroes, some in the same family.
Three generations of the Kuromiya family have called Monrovia home. Hisamitsu or James started as a houseboy in Sierra Madre. He moved his family to nearby Monrovia when he got into vegetable peddling.
Hisamitsu’s son Hiroshi graduated from Monrovia-Arcadia-Duarte (MAD) High in 1935 and son Yosh followed in 1941. At Heart Mountain camp, Yosh became a draft resister with the Fair Play Committee.
Now 93 years of age, Yosh remembers that his brother Hiroshi had a pre-planned engagement part with his fiancé, on Pearl Harbor Sunday. At Heart Mountain, Yosh got his draft notice.
“I was a resister as a matter of principle,” he said. “After what my government did to us, I could not be in the military and kill others because they were in a different uniform. This was beyond my feelings of humanity. I couldn’t do it. We lost our individual identities. We were given a family number by our government. But the draft board put my personal name on my draft letter. I had to answer it. If nobody else agreed with my decision, so be it. I was not willing to kill nor die until my government squared things with me.”
Yosh turned 21 in the Cheyenne County Jail and served three years in a federal prison on McNeil Island.
“My father never supported me verbally,” Yosh said. “But I felt connected to him and he was my inspiration. I felt he would’ve done the same thing but he couldn’t because he was considered [by the government]as an ‘enemy alien.’ I related to my father in a silent way as I didn’t speak Japanese. I also felt close to [nephew]Kiyoshi. The three of us have birthdays within days of each other, so maybe we could communicate at a different level.”
Steven Kiyoshi Kuromiya was conceived in Monrovia and born at Heart Mountain camp in 1943. The family returned to Monrovia in1946. Kiyoshi’s father, Hiroshi, worked in produce and Kiyoshi graduated with honors from Monrovia High in 1961. He became a nationally recognized civil and gay rights activist.
Kiyoshi Kuromiya and Yosh Kuromiya
After high school, Kiyoshi was admitted to several universities and went on scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania just as the 1960s civil rights movement was at its height. He joined Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee).
In a publicity tactic, Kiyoshi posted leaflets on campus that he intended to burn a dog on the steps of the school library. When thousands arrived to protest such cruelty, Kiyoshi said, “Congratulations on your anti-napalm protest. You saved the life of a dog. Now, how about saving the lives of tens of thousands of people in Vietnam?”
In March of 1965, Kiyoshi was one of a handful of Asian Americans fighting for African American voting rights in Selma. He was leading a high school student group to the State Capitol in Montgomery when he was brutally clubbed by Alabama state troopers on 16 March 1965.
Peter Cummings reported on 24 March 1965 in The Harvard Crimson, “Within seconds, the quiet streets were filled with screams. The horses rode straight into the crowds on both sides of the street… One boy, Steven K. Kuromiya, an architectural student at the University of Pennsylvania, held his ground. Four horsemen converged on him, clubbed him to the ground, and rode over him. Curled in a fetal position, Kuromiy[a]tried to cover his head with his arms as unmounted deputies clubbed him, and kicked him in stomach and groin. Finally, they left him, as blood streamed in glistening lines across his face and formed a scarlet pool on the sidewalk.”
Kiyoshi was quoted as saying, “I was in the South during the spring and summer of 1965. After Rev. James Reeb was killed, we marched and I was clubbed down and hospitalized. When you get treated this way, you suddenly know what it is like to be a black in Mississippi or a peasant in Vietnam. You learn something about going through channels then too. I gave my story to an FBI agent in the hospital. He took seven pages of notes, but I remember thinking at the time it was probably just about as effective as relaying information to the ACLU via the House Un-American Activities Committee. Nothing ever came of it, at any rate.”
However, records show that FBI monitored Kiyoshi Kuromiya from 1960 to 1972.
Kuromiya became close to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and during the week of King’s funeral, Kiyoshi helped to care for the King children in Vine City.
Kiyoshi Kuromiya in ACT UP, 1992. (philly.com)
Kiyoshi’s 93-year old Uncle Yosh reflected, “I’ve always felt good about Kiyoshi. I couldn’t pretend to understand Kiyoshi’s commitment but I sensed a camaraderie with him… I remember Kiyoshi would comment on the irony that he was conceived in Monrovia, born in Wyoming, and although the West Coast was considered cosmopolitan and liberal, he sensed that there was no room for him here. He felt exiled from Monrovia. He felt he was exiled even before he was born. No wonder he was dedicated to civil rights.”
Kiyoshi was involved in the gay rights rallies by the early 1960s. After the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City, he helped launch the multiracial Gay Liberation Front (GLF) in Philadelphia. In December, the GLF voted to monetarily support the Black Panthers. In September of 1970, Kiyoshi was part of Huey Newton’s Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia to “remake the United States.”
Kiyoshi wrote against the homophobia within the radical movement in the United States and suggested that “the revolution will not be complete until all men are free to express their love for one another sexually.”
Monrovia High School Yearbook, 1961. Steve Kuromiya, History Club vice president, is in the front row, third from right.
He said that it was at Monrovia High that he came to realize that “even more important than my racial identity was my gayness.” As a Japanese American, he had rocks thrown at him on the way to grade school. He said that when he was 11 years old, he was caught by the Monrovia Police engaging in harmless sexual play with a 16-year old boy and was sent to Juvenile Hall for three days and gained notoriety as a Japanese American in jail.
Kuromiya said the judge “told me [and my parents]that I was in danger of leading a lewd and immoral life… I spent two years trying to find a definition for the word ‘lewd’, but I couldn’t figure out how it was spelled, so I was in the dark as to what my future held for me.”
Kiyoshi Kuromiya was a man of many talents. He was a nationally ranked Scrabble player and a Kundalini yoga master. He was also a food critic. He worked with futurist R. Buckminster Fuller on the book “Critical Path” (1982), published after Fuller’s death.
His Uncle Yosh tells of a picnic the family attended in the 1970s: “So here comes Kiyoshi in his sandals and pigtails – looking like a hippie – to a conservative church picnic. I enjoyed it. I too always felt out of place but I could never do what Kiyoshi did… I learned about myself from Kiyoshi’s actions. He was so ahead of me; he became my teacher…”
In 1988, Kiyoshi was a charter member of Philadelphia’s ACT UP, AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. At about the same time, he founded Critical Path Project in Philadelphia. With the mantra “knowledge is power,” Critical Path established an online clearinghouse for AIDS patients and researchers worldwide. Both of these organizations continue to bring awareness and solution paths to the AIDS/HIV pandemic.
Kiyoshi took one further step to help people with HIV/AIDS; he was lead plaintiff in Kuromiya v the United States of America (1999), a class-action suit that went to the U.S. Supreme Court to legalize the use of medical marijuana.
Kuromiya died a year later on 10 May 2000, one day after this 57th birthday. He had been diagnosed with AIDS in 1988. Uncle Yosh — the one who also had to go against the expected — summed it up: “Kiyoshi did what he had to do in spite of all. He had to fulfill his own goals.”