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‘Ahead of her time’: Yuri Kochiyama (1921-2014)

By Arturo R. García

Yuri Kochiyama, whose pursuit of social justice exemplified intersectionality as much as it did longevity, passed away on Sunday in California. She was 93.

“She was definitely ahead of her time, and we caught up with her,” relative Tim Toyama told NPR last year.

Born Mary Yuriko Nakahara in California, her introduction to injustice came close to home: As she told Democracy Now in 2007, her father was among the first people arrested within hours after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor:

He was in the fishing business. That’s why it hit all fishermen, because they knew then that the fishermen knew the waters, and if the Japanese ships got close enough, would the Japanese fishermen in America help the Japanese? But, actually, I tell you, the Japanese Americans and even the Isseis, first generation, who could not become Americans, they were so American. And yet, the hysteria about the suspicion of Japanese people was very, very strong. And, anyway, by the end of the day, I think all the Japanese people were calling their friends to say, “Did anyone come to your home and take your father or mother?”

At the time, Kochiyama’s father had just undergone treatment for a stomach ulcer and diabetes. But officials refused to heed the family’s request to administer the medication he needed during his 43 days in prison. He died in January 1942.

A month later, following the implementation of Executive Order 9066, Kochiyama and her family were among the 120,000 U.S. residents of Japanese descent “evacuated” to internment camps — specifically, Camp Jerome in Arkansas. Her granddaughter, Maya Kochiyama, detailed life in the camp for Discover Nikkei in 2010:

Amidst this isolation and unwavering uncertainty of release, though they lived in dingy, cramped barracks, the Japanese Americans tried to make the most out of their situation and made furniture from what pieces of wood lied around, planted flowers to brighten up the landscape, and sewed bed sheets, tablecloths, and curtains to improve what little privacy they had.

Yuri said that, “we learned soon enough that our strongest weapons to sustain ourselves were teamwork, a cooperative spirit, ingenuity, and concern for others.”

One of the things that came out of this camp experience for Yuri was that she began to learn more about her Japanese American community and identify herself as Japanese American. “I feel like going to camp actually is where for the first time I came to know my own people … I was really proud to be Japanese.”

What Yuri felt echoed many of the same thoughts as other second generation Japanese Americans who had grown up “All-American” and did not identify themselves with their Japanese heritage. Feeling betrayed by their country, some Nisei started to learn more about their Japanese culture and embrace their Japanese identity, even opting to “return” to Japan, a country that they had never even seen.

In the middle of incarceration and war, Yuri found her silver lining when she met a handsome, charismatic Nisei soldier, the love of her life and husband to be, Bill Kochiyama. At the time, a member of the all-Japanese American combat team, the 442nd Regiment, Bill was training at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, but soon shipped overseas to fight in Europe.

The couple wed in 1946, after the end of both the war and her family’s internment, and moved to New York City. But decades later, the Kochiyamas were part of the public push that led to the signing of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 — a public apology from the U.S. government for the camps, and restitution in the form of $20,000 apiece for each surviving camp resident.

Yuri Kochiyama speaking at an anti-war demonstration and rally in Central Parkin 1968. Image via Discover Nikkei.

As NPR reported, it was their journey east that facilitated Yuri Kochiyama’s entry into the world of activism.

“Our house felt like it was the movement 24/7,” eldest daughter Audee Kochiyama-Holman was quoted as saying. The Kochiyama home became a gathering space for activists from the Black and Puerto Rican communities, and Yuri took their three oldest children

Within four years, the couple moved into Harlem’s Manhattanville Housing Projects, and joined the local Parents Committee. Three years later, in the midst of a boycott of the community’s public schools, the family enrolled Audee and her siblings in the Harlem Freedom School. Later in 1963, Yuri and eldest son Billy were among 600 people arrested while protesting for jobs for Black and Puerto Ricans in the construction of the Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn.

As the East Bay Express reported in 2002, Yuri met Malcolm X that October while she was being arraigned at a Brooklyn courthouse, taking the opportunity to shake his hand — but also to challenge him.

“I admire what you’re doing,” she told him. “But I disagree with some of your thoughts.”

“And what don’t you agree with?” Malcolm replied.

“Your harsh stand on integration,” she said.

But rather than sour their acquaintance, the encounter served as the starting point to a friendship that blossomed after Malcolm left the Nation of Islam and formed the Organization for Afro-American Unity, which she joined:

That year, she invited him to her apartment to meet some hibakusha, atom-bomb victims who were traveling on the Hiroshima-Nagasaki World Peace Mission. They wanted to meet Malcolm X more than anyone else in America. She doubted that he would come, but as the program began, a knock came at the door. There stood Malcolm, with one of his bodyguards.

Yuri remembers his words from that evening well. He told the hibakusha he could see their scars, and that Harlem bore scars too, the result of racism. He talked of the European colonization of Asia, a miserable history it shared with black nations. “And I remember he said the struggle of the people of Vietnam is the struggle of the Third World, a struggle against imperialism,” Yuri recalled in her room the other day, still impressed.

Malcolm opened Yuri’s eyes to the depth of American racism, her daughter Audee said. “At a certain point, she believed not just in civil rights, but felt it was a lot deeper than civil rights and that we had to look at US policy in this country and across the world,” Audee said. His refusal to sell out, as well as his willingness to change, earned her respect. “He symbolized an uncompromised challenge to policy and the social structure,” explained Greg Morozumi, a Kochiyama family friend who helps run the Eastside Arts Alliance in Oakland. “He was going for self-determination of black people and refused to sell out at any point.”

When Malcolm traveled to Africa, he sent the Kochiyamas eleven postcards from nine different countries. “Still trying to travel and broaden my scope, since I’ve learned what a mess can be made by narrow-minded people,” he wrote in one. “Bro. Malcolm X.”

Kochiyama holds Malcolm X after his fatal shooting in February 1965. Image via Discover Nikkei.

Both Yuri and her husband were present at the Audubon Ballroom on Feb. 21, 1965, when Malcolm was shot and killed during a speech. Life Magazine captured not just his death, but Yuri being at his side during his final moments.

“I said, ‘Please, Malcolm, please, Malcolm, stay alive,’” she told Democracy Now in 2007. “But he was hit so many times. Then a lot of people came on stage. They tore his shirt so they could see how many times he was hit. People said it was like about thirteen times. I mean, the most visible is the one here on his chin. He was hit somewhere else in the face, and then he was just peppered all over on his chest.”

But as her granddaughter recounted, Kochiyama continued her work after Malcolm’s death, joining not only the Republic of New Africa, but the Puerto Rican Young Lords Party and Asian Americans for Action — building “bridges, not walls,” as she would later put it, becoming an inspiration to generations worth of activists.

“Today seems a little darker without Yuri’s light in the world,” Jenn at Reappropriate wrote on Sunday. “But I think Yuri would be the first to want us to mourn her passing by rededicating ourselves to the fight; by finding our missions; by learning from each other; and by vowing to never let our battle cries fall silent.”