Human Rights Activist Yuri Kochiyama Dies at 93

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Yuri Kochiyama speaks in April 2005 at the Japanese American National Museum. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

Yuri Kochiyama speaks in April 2005 at the Japanese American National Museum. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

BERKELEY — Noted human rights activist Yuri Kochiyama, who was involved in both the Black Power and Asian American movements that started in the 1960s, died of natural causes on June 1. She was 93.

Kochiyama is widely remembered as a friend of Malcolm X who was with him when he was killed in 1965.

Born Mary Yuri Nakahara on May 19, 1921, in San Pedro, she was one of three children of Issei parents, Seiichi and Tsuyako Nakahara. Kochiyama’s community service began in her youth as a Sunday school teacher and leader of numerous girls’ groups. In the late 1930s, when few Nisei participated in mainstream organizations, she became the first female student body officer at San Pedro High School and played on the school’s tennis team. She was also a sports writer for The San Pedro News-Pilot. She graduated from high school in 1939 and Compton Junior College in 1941.

At the time, she said in a 2004 interview, “I wasn’t political at all … In high school I just didn’t know anything that was going on, even though the war was almost coming.”

On Dec. 7, 1941, Kochiyama had just returned home from teaching Sunday school when three FBI agents arrived. Her father, home recovering from ulcer surgery, was whisked away and, unbeknownst to the family for days, detained at the Terminal Island federal penitentiary. Rumors abounded that her father was an enemy spy and Kochiyama was expelled from several organizations.

Yuri Kochiyama speaking at rallies in New York in the late 1960s and in San Francisco in the early 2000s.

Yuri Kochiyama speaking at rallies in New York in the late 1960s and in San Francisco in the mid-2000s.

The family believed Nakahara’s arrest arose from his supplying Japanese ships docking in San Pedro harbor and hosting Japanese ship officials at his home, although these were not subversive activities. Nakahara, who had made a donation to the Japanese Navy Association and had served as head of the San Pedro Japanese Association and the Central Japanese Association of Southern California, was one of 1,300 Japanese American community leaders detained within the first 48 hours of Pearl Harbor.

Nakahara’s six-week detention aggravated his health problems and he died on Jan. 21, 1942, the day after his release.

Kochiyama and the rest of her family were incarcerated at Santa Anita Assembly Center and later the War Relocation Center in Jerome, Ark. She kept busy by becoming involved in camp activities and was part of a group of young women who welcomed new arrivals at the entrance with upbeat tunes. She also organized her Sunday school teens, the Crusaders, to write to Nisei soldiers, including her twin brother, Peter. In time, the Crusaders — at Poston, Heart Mountain, Topaz, Rohwer, and Jerome — were sending holiday greetings and letters to some 3,000 Nisei soldiers.

Although not an activist yet, she said, “When we were in camp, we call it a concentration camp … it made me think about the Indians who were put on reservations, the blacks who were put on plantations.”

When internees were permitted to leave camp, she recalled, “The South was segregated but the Japanese didn’t know which bathroom to use (‘white’ or ‘colored’). And the bus, they didn’t know whether they should sit in the back of the bus or the front of the bus … To be on the safe side, they sat in the middle … When I was working in the USO in Hattiesburg, I never saw a black person or a black soldier, and none came to our USO, and I was wondering why.”

Kochiyama printed excerpts from soldiers’ letters in her Jerome camp newspaper column, “Nisei in Khaki.” She also supported Nisei solders at the Jerome USO, where she met her future husband, Pvt. Bill Kochiyama.

The couple married in early 1946 in New York City and raised six children, Billy, Audee, Aichi, Eddie, Jimmy, and Tommy. The family was active in community service, particularly supporting Japanese and Chinese American soldiers en route to the Korean War. Every Friday and Saturday night, they opened their home for social gatherings, often with a hundred people, half of whom were strangers, crammed into their small housing project apartment. They also published an eight-page family newsletter, “Christmas Cheer,” annually from 1950 to 1968.

As the Civil Rights Movement grew, the Kochiyamas began inviting activists to speak at their open houses. After moving to Harlem in 1960, they worked with the Harlem Parent’s Committee, organizing school boycotts to demand quality education for inner-city children. Yuri Kochiyama was among 600 arrested for blocking the entrance of a construction site to demand jobs for African American and Puerto Rican workers.

In October 1963, at a Brooklyn courthouse, she met Malcolm X and boldly inquired if he might support integration. She found herself drawn to his audacious proclamations for black liberation. In June 1964, at her invitation, Malcolm arrived at the Kochiyamas’ to meet Japanese hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) and journalists on a world peace tour. Kochiyama began attending the weekly Liberation School sessions of his Organization of Afro-American Unity.

Kochiyama and her oldest son were in the audience at Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom in 1965 when Malcolm X was assassinated by rival Black Muslims. A photograph in Life magazine shows her offering comfort to the slain leader, yet there is no mention of her by name.

“I think I’m very fortunate just to have lived part of the time that Malcolm lived … Malcolm is, I think, one of the most phenomenal kind of people,” she said. “It wasn’t just that he was so knowledgeable about his own history, but it was so much more so, his tremendous love for his people. Actually, I think, he loved all people, but (became an activist) because of the reality of so much racism.”

heartbeat of a struggleKochiyama was soon working with the most militant black nationalist organizations in Harlem, including the Republic of New Africa. When the police and FBI intensified their repression of black activists, she immersed herself in the struggles to support political prisoners, providing non-stop letter-writing, prison visits, and activist mobilizations. She linked her support for incarcerated activists to her own wartime imprisonment, denouncing the unfairness of U.S. laws and practices.

Her connections with Black Power made Kochiyama a leader of the emerging Asian American Movement in the late 1960s. In New York City, she joined Asian Americans for Action and was a featured speaker at Hiroshima Day events, denouncing U.S. imperialism in Vietnam, Okinawa, and elsewhere. She supported ethnic studies at City College of New York and the hiring of Chinese construction workers at Confucius Plaza.

She became a foremost bridge between the Black and Asian movements and between East and West Coast activists. California youth sought her guidance on visits to New York and took her two youngest sons to Los Angeles to live with Yellow Brotherhood activists. Her older children were active in the Asian American and Third World movements.

In 1977, Kochiyama joined a group of Puerto Ricans who took over the Statue of Liberty to draw attention to the struggle for Puerto Rican independence and to demand the release of five jailed Puerto Rican nationalists.

In the 1980s, Bill and Yuri Kochiyama organized with Concerned Japanese Americans and later East Coast Japanese Americans for Redress to demand that New York be added as a site of Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians hearings. During Bill’s testimony in New York, Yuri and others defiantly marched in with political art, which had been banned by CWRIC. Yuri testified before the commission in Washington, D.C. She also supported reparations to African Americans for centuries of slavery.

The Kochiyamas lost two of their children, Billy in 1975 and Aichi in 1988. After her husband’s passing in 1993 at age 72, Kochiyama relocated to the Bay Area, where her daughter Audee and son Eddie live.

passing it onShe opposed racial profiling of Arab and Muslim Americans after 9/11 and spoke out against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. “We have got to stop this war in Iraq … America’s whole history has been about war, taking over other people’s land, resources, annihilating people,” she told a young audience. “We’ve all got to stop this war. And those of us of Japanese background, because of what we’ve experienced, more so must become active. Even if you don’t have time to go on marches or rallies or demonstrations, just talk about it among your friends. I mean, whatever you can do. Write letters to newspapers. Do whatever. Talk about it to your own family members.”

Kochiyama was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize through the “1,000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize 2005” project. Last year, she was one of the honorees at the Fred Korematsu Day event in San Francisco, with her daughter accepting on her behalf.

Her life is featured in the Japanese-language book “Yuri: The Life and Times of Yuri Kochiyama” (1998) by Mayumi Nakazawa; her memoirs, “Passing It On” (2004), edited by Marjorie Lee, Akemi Kochiyama-Sardinha and Audee Kochiyama-Holman; her biography, “Heartbeat of Struggle: The Revolutionary Life of Yuri Kochiyama” (2005), by Diane Fujino; and two documentaries, “Yuri Kochiyama: Passion for Justice” (1993) by Pat Saunders and Rea Tajiri and “Mountains that Take Wing: Angela Davis and Yuri Kochiyama — A Conversation on Life, Struggles and Liberation” (2009) by C.A. Griffith and H.L.T. Quan. She and her husband also appeared in Renee Tajima-Pena’s 1997 documentary “My America … or Honk If You Love Buddha.”

Kochiyama is survived by four children, nine grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

(Biographical information from Densho Encyclopedia; quotes from a 2004 onstage interview with Kochiyama in San Francisco.)

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