Julie Azuma is a Chicago-born New Yorker with an extensive career in social activism, both as an educational activist for children with autism, and as an activist for Japanese-American rights. With a career spanning more than two decades, Julie has used the influence and success of her company, Different Roads to Learning, to speak for those without a strong political voice. Julie’s work in bringing awareness to issues such as the educational gap for autistic children, and the necessary reparations needed after the holding of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps during World War II, has sparked important change and started needed conversations about human rights. As she continues to work for progress in our country, she talked about her extensive life and career, and the effect her work has had on herself.
Interviewed by Alexis Perez
I would say that all of the activist work I have done was not calculated, but very natural. It all felt very necessary and essential to the life I was living. Growing up in Chicago, with two Japanese-American parents who had lived in America during the second World War, I felt very personally affected by the history of the use of concentration camps during that time.
During this time, Japanese or Japanese-Americans folks were held in these internment camps right after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Both of my parents had been held in one of these camps, and my mother was even pregnant with me during her year-long imprisonment. This was about as extensive as my history of their experience at the camps was; my family refused to talk about what had happened, or the effect it had on them thereafter. If I was ever to ask about what had happened in these times, my parents would shut down on me. This past was treated as though it didn’t matter, although it was very clear to me that it had scarred my family and others for generations.
My mother, a first-generation Japanese-American, and my father, a Japanese-American immigrant, both seemed to hold significant scars after their imprisonments. These effects were also seen on my distant cousins who were held in the camps, and consisted of a general, underlying fear of authority. I also felt that it made them want to blend into the background politically, and they have not wanted to stick out in the face of authority since. Even discussing the effects or happenings of the concentration camps felt like a can of worms best left unopened.
Not knowing more than this about their history, and the history of other interned Japanese-Americans, caused me to seek out, later in my life, a place to learn and discover more about it. I was greatly affected by the shame and humiliation these events had caused in my family, and was open to meeting with others who felt the same. I sought out a group working for Redress Reparations in California, and eventually, I got involved with a group that met weekly, or sometimes monthly, in the basement of a church to work towards receiving these reparations for Japanese-Americans affected by these concentration camps. We wanted to find a way to stand up for the detention our people faced, and we truly believed we were capable of fixing the issue. We worked tirelessly until we won in 1980, when the bill was passed to start a reparation program. Working with this program for years, I got to meet many famous Japanese and Japanese-American activists that I felt so privileged to be able to enjoy. Since that time, I am still in touch with many of these people, and continue to reach out to this day.
Being a part of that movement, and involving myself later with other Japanese New Yorkers helped me create my space in America as a Japanese-American. We felt as though the Japanese New Yorker experience was different than those in other regions, as we were generally more artistic or bohemian. Prior to discovering this circle, I had always felt as if I had no sense of community. It seemed as though Japanese-Americans were previously pushed into the background, and continued to face oppression because it was assumed that we wouldn’t yell, or make noise about what we were facing. Gathering a community of Japanese Americans, and continuing to raise awareness about what our ancestors had faced, fostered the greatest sense of community for us. Even now, we try to gather as often as possible and have a potluck of Asian food, and it has given us our own, different space to feel a part of.
This has been a big part of my activism over the years–wanting to create a sense of belonging on many levels for those that didn’t have this before. Whenever inviting someone new to come along to our potluck, my mantra is: “I promise you’ll meet someone that you like!” This has been my favorite way to foster community among those who had felt neglected before.
Like my activism for Japanese-Americans, my work for educational support for autistic children also came from what seemed like a place of necessity on my part. Moving into adulthood, I had always wanted many children and imagined myself having quite a few. My older daughter, however, Miranda, was adopted by my husband and me from Korea. We noticed fairly early that she had severe behavioral issues, and was disabled in some way.