Labor and community activist Karl Ichiro Akiya (1909 - 2001) was born in San Francisco and at the age of six, sent to be educated in Japan. In 1927 he entered Kwansei Gakuin University (also known as Kansei Gakuin Daigaku), a Methodist school for preparation in secondary school teaching, where he studied Japanese and English language literature. During these years, Akiya fully immersed himself in extracurricular student life. He converted to the Methodist faith, was elected class chairman and participated in the movements opposing compulsory military training for college students and the increasing militarization of Japan. His political activities brought him into association with the union movement and the Japanese Socialist and Communist Parties. He became a member of the Communist Party and changed his first name to Karl after Karl Marx.
After graduating college in 1932, Akiya returned to the United States to avoid being drafted into the Japanese Army. Having relocated to San Francisco, where his father operated a hotel, Akiya landed his first job as a staff writer for the Japanese North American Daily. He later worked for the San Francisco branch of the Sumitomo Bank. In his spare hours, Akiya continued his activist work, joining the Japanese American Citizens League, which was becoming active in the fight against racial discrimination. In the late 1930s, he was involved in recruiting Asian Americans as an organizer for the Congress of Industrial Organizations and National Maritime Union. He also joined the U.S. Communist Party.
Following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Akiya was interned at Topaz, Utah. He was released shortly thereafter and recruited to serve as a language instructor at the University of Michigan's Japanese language school run by the U.S. Army. In 1944, he married fellow instructor Satoko Murakami.
In 1946, the Akiyas, with daughter Elizabeth in tow, settled in New York’s Lower East Side. There, on February 20, 1947, the couple’s second child Fred was born. During this time, Akiya pursued a profession as a furniture finisher and also joined the Furniture Workers Union. From 1954 until 1980, he worked for the Bank of Tokyo in New York City. In addition to his communist-affiliated activities, Akiya was extremely active in the civil rights, peace, and anti-nuclear movements. In 1987, his efforts were formally recognized when he was honored as recipient of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Award for Community Organizing for his work with African American youth in Harlem and Chinese and Korean immigrant workers.
In addition to community work, Akiya wrote prolifically. His writings include articles published in Hokubei Shimpo newspaper and The New York Bungei, a literary magazine he helped found in 1959; essays; short novels, and an autobiography.
The Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives. “Guide to the Karl Ichiro Akiya Papers.” Last modified June 30, 2009. http://dlib.nyu.edu/findingaids/html/tamwag/akiya.html.
Series I: Subject Files, 1937-2002 contains correspondence, manuscript material and newspaper clippings documenting Akiya’s life and work both in the United States and Japan. Materials describing his education at Kwansei Gakuin University, his internment at Camp Topaz, and his work in World War II for the United States government at the University of Michigan and with the Office of Strategic Services are present. His political work in the civil rights and anti-war movement is documented, as is his involvement in the campaign for nuclear disarmament and his efforts to commemorate the victims of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Also present are materials relating to Akiya’s work in the Japanese American Redress movement. Materials documenting Akiya's ongoing interest in Japanese and Japanese American language and literature, including correspondence with Japanese and Japanese American artists, writers and politicians are also included. Also present are materials related to his work for Japanese American newspapers the Nichibei Times, New York Bungei and Hokubei Shimpo. Also included in this series are files relating to his family (wife and children), including correspondence and personal records.
Series II: Writings, 1921-1999 includes Akiya’s 1994 autobiography (in Japanese and English), a weekly journal written in elementary school, college essays on religion, short novels written in the 1950s, some for the Hokubei Shimpo; an essay on his experience in the Topaz Relocation Camp, and miscellaneous essays on linguistics and the labor and student movements. A draft of his novel The Little Champion is also included.
Series III: Notebooks, 1942-1997 contains address books and small notebooks containing contact information, notes and lists. Also included are Akiya’s diaries from 1942 and 1994 through 1998. The bank savings books of Akiya and his family are also present.
Series IV: Artwork and Photographs, 1942-1990 includes artwork, photographic prints and negatives relating to the movement to ban the atomic bomb, the Topaz Concentration Camp, and Kwansei Gakuin University. Examples of Akiya’s calligraphy are also included, as are his drawings from a correspondence class with the Washington School of Art. Also present is a color photocopy of a photo album documenting Akiya’s work at the University of Michigan’s Japanese Language School.
Series V: Oversize and Ephemera, 1949-1987 includes realia, memorabilia, oversize photographs and three videos. The bulk of this series consists of memorabilia from Kwansei Gakuin University, including banners, spoons, and awards. Other items include oversize photographs from the Bank of Tokyo Christmas Party and Annual Picnic, as well as Akiya's wallet and identification cards. Of particular significance is a box containing broken glass and rock from the "Peekskill Riots" of 1949 and a Roger Hargrave Scrapbook from the Spanish Civil War.