‘The Mother Teresa of Human and Civil Rights’

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Hundreds gather in Little Tokyo to remember activist Yuri Kochiyama.

Nobuko Miyamoto of Great Leap recalls her final meeting with Yuri Kochiyama. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

Nobuko Miyamoto of Great Leap recalls her final meeting with Yuri Kochiyama. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

Civil rights activist Yuri Kochiyama touched so many lives in so many communities that one public memorial was not enough.

A Northern California memorial was held Aug. 3 in Oakland, where Kochiyama lived since 1999. The Southern California memorial took place Aug. 31 at the Aratani Theatre in Little Tokyo. And the third memorial is set for Sept. 27 in New York City, where Kochiyama was politically active for five decades.

Ryan Kochiyama speaks on behalf of Yuri Kochiyama's grandchildren. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

Ryan Kochiyama speaks on behalf of Yuri Kochiyama’s grandchildren. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

The Aratani was filled with relatives, friends and admirers who came to pay tribute to the civil rights icon, who died on June 1 at age 93.

Former Assemblymember Warren Furutani served as emcee. He noted that his father knew Kochiyama, then known as Mary Nakahara, because both grew up in San Pedro, and his mother and Kochiyama were part of a women’s group at the Jerome, Ark. internment camp that acted as a USO for Nisei soldiers visiting their families.

Using an ironing board as a prop, Furutani said he came to know the Kochiyama family as a young activist: “If you were in the movement back in the ’60s and from then on, anybody coming to New York was told to drop by Apt. 3B. When you went up there uninvited, unexpected, you were greeted with a hug, usually a cup of Lipton’s tea, food, and a place to stay…

“The place would be filled with people, but command central, the place where everything happened, where the telephone was, where the spiral notebook was where Yuri took all of her notes [was]that ironing board … Whoever happened to come to New York went through Apt. 3B to not only visit the family but to get told where the next demonstration was … You never could sit down at the kitchen table because it was covered with leaflets and flyers.”

Furutani paid tribute to family members who preceded Kochiyama in death, including husband Bill, son Billy and daughter Aichi. Speakers included two of Kochiyama’s four surviving children and three of her nine grandchildren.

Son Eddie Kochiyama spoke of his mother’s L.A. connections: “Young Asian American activists from L.A. came to New York to check out what was happening in the movement scene. Invariably they dropped by my parents’ house. Most who came wanted to meet my mom, this energetic and unusual Nisei activist who lived in Harlem. Thus began this special bond between the Asian movement in New York and L.A. Most of the brothers and sisters who organized this event today are the same folks who visited New York over 40 years ago.”

His mother’s life changed forever when World War II broke out and her Issei father was arrested, Kochiyama said. “Like other Japanese American community leaders and those connected to the fishing industry, he was unjustly accused of being a spy. Since he was already sick at the time of his arrest, he was placed in a hospital ward with a sign over his bed saying ‘prisoner of war’ and he was subjected to taunts of returning American soldiers. Due to his declining health, he was finally released. Emaciated and unable to talk, he died one day after returning home.”

Whether covering sports for The San Pedro News Pilot, teaching Sunday school in camp or fighting for social justice after the war, “our mom had this firm belief that … you treat each person with dignity and respect … you repay every kindness, and that you serve others in your community,” Kochiyama said. “It was the creed that she lived by from her early years in San Pedro up to her life in the Bay Area.”

Kochiyama recalled that his mother “was less concerned about what college we’d attend or what career we would choose. In fact I remember I got suspended from junior high school for organizing maybe one of the first anti-war rallies in New York City. I was afraid to go home … [but]when I told my parents, my mother jumped up and gave me a big hug and kiss and told me how proud she was.”

Bibi Angola of

Bibi Angola of the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners remembers Yuri Kochiyama as her mentor. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

Yuri Kochiyama was a follower and friend of Malcolm X, who once visited the apartment. Her son revealed that he missed the historic moment. “Only my sister Audee was there among the other guests, mainly journalists and delegates from the Hiroshima/Nagasaki peace study mission. But my mom made my sister Aichi take me, Jimmy and Tommy to the movies. She thought we’d be a nuisance. So sad to say, instead of meeting Malcolm X, me, Jimmy and Tommy saw ‘The 101 Dalmatians.’”

He added, “Even though it’s ironic that she developed dementia in her last few years, she amazed everyone with how she remembered every name, every face, every address, which she kept track of in hundreds of notebooks … She had a unique quality of expressing genuine curiosity about everyone she met and every issue she encountered. She seldom wanted to talk about herself and would prefer to ask you about your background …

“She taught us to speak up for what we believe even at the risk of our own comfort … I’m sure if she were around and healthy today, she would be rallying all of us to stand with the community in Ferguson, Mo. to fight against racial profiling, police brutality … We will try to honor your legacy by continuing to fight for those causes that meant so much to you and to all of us. We will be forever grateful that you lived a full life in service to others, and you never deviated from the principles and politics that you so fiercely advocated to the end.”

Maya and Aliya Kochiyama read “My Creed,” written by their grandmother in 1939. Among other things, the 18-year-old pledged “to never humiliate or look down on any person, group, creed, religion, nationality, race employment, or station in life, but rather to respect … To love everyone; to never know the meaning of hate, or have one enemy.”

Ryan Kochiyama, speaking on behalf of the grandchildren, recalled, “We had all heard growing up, ‘Your grandma is a badass.’ When you’re 5 and 6 years old, you don’t really think much about what that means … It was funny because Yuri was just Grandma to us. She would never forget to send birthday and holiday cards and she would always include a special little note. Mine was always a reminder to do whatever I could to stay away from the draft …

“Whenever she came to visit, she was 100 percent focused on us. She would want to do puzzles, watch movies and play games … She lived far away, but when she was here she would come to as many basketball games, baseball games, track meets, hula performances, she would try to be at any and all events that we were involved in …

“When it was time to go, she would hold each of our faces in both hands and stare into us with that smile and eyes filled with such love, more than enough to last until the next time we saw each other.

“Grandma, we love you, we miss you, and we hope you’re at peace and happy to be with Grandpa, Uncle Billy, Auntie Aichi, Uncle Herb [Audee’s husband] and all of our other family and friends up there … You showed us that it is important to care about all people on this Earth because we are all equal. You demonstrated that one person’s passion is enough to save a man’s life. You showed us that giving up is never an option; even if years go by with no progress, you keep fighting.”

Son Tommy Kochiyama said, “My mom loved meeting and talking to people. Many times I’d be with her at an event at a college when she gave a speech or even at a restaurant here in J-Town. People would see her and form an impromptu line, waiting for a chance to meet her. It was like being with a rock star. They would be excited and maybe even nervous. But what would happen was Yuri would get excited and be the one to ask a million questions …

“She was impressed and inspired by everyone. And you can see how comfortable and good she made people feel, like they were stars. Who they were and what they thought was important, and there was nothing fake about her. Yuri just genuinely loved people, all people. And that love has come back to us through all of you.”

Artwork depicting Yuri Kochiyama was displayed in the lobby of the Aratani Theatre. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

Artwork depicting Yuri Kochiyama was displayed in the lobby of the Aratani Theatre. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

Friends’ Reflections

Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, an activist and researcher known for her involvement in the redress movement, said she first met Yuri Kochiyama after being released from camp and moving to New York. “She was at that time a Sunday school teacher in Manhattan at the Japanese American United Methodist Church. She eventually became immersed in civil and human rights movements … in the various ethnic communities. Her contributions to these causes would be impossible to quantify, but her influence is unquestioned.

“I became more aware of her activities when I joined the group called Asian Americans for Action … which was made up primarily of middle-aged Japanese American women … founded by long-time activist Kazu Iijima, her husband Tak, and Shizu Minn Matsuda. Most members would have probably remained the typical quiet Americans, as we were brought up to be by our Issei parents, had we not joined this group …

“Yuri enlivened our discussions with her dedication to the causes she had adopted. She exhibited an outstanding example of how not to give in to suppression but instead how to go about being resolute and putting our convictions into action … She refused to be intimidated, nor was she cowed by the authorities even with the knowledge that the law enforcement people were watching her, and unperturbed she continued her activities.

“Yuri would report to us in the ‘Triple A’ of the various issues that organizations in other ethnic minority groups were coping with, such as the blacks, the Native American, Asian Pacific Islanders, the Puerto Rican groups and other groups. She would urge us to support them in their struggles for protection of constitutional rights that were denied to them.”

Herzig-Yoshinaga remembered Kochiyama as “not one to seek the spotlight in any of the activities in which she was involved. She just followed her gut-level reaction … to do what was right … Despite her diminutive size … she packed an enormous wallop.”

Bibi Angola of the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners shared her memories of Kochiyama, whom she knew for 40 years. “I knew right away when I met her I was meeting a giant of a woman, though she herself was barely five feet tall. Yuri was a walking and talking encyclopedia of the civil and human rights and political prisoners movement.”

Among other talents, Kochiyama was known for her calligraphy, Angola said. “Yuri would make flyers for all types of rallies and protests … Her handwriting was so unmistakable that many organizations would seek her out to make flyers for them because it was so beautiful.” In the kitchen, Kochiyama “would whip up vegetable stir-fry in a jiffy” during meetings.

One day, Angola was told that she had been mispronouncing Kochiyama’s last name. “I felt so embarrassed, but … she never corrected me after all these years. That’s how much she didn’t have an ego.”

Participating in political struggles with her mentor was a joy, Angola recalled. “You could feel that Yuri had such great love for everyone and therefore she felt compelled to do what she was doing day in and day out. She was just incredible … Many times she would pull out money and say, ‘Bibi, go get some stamps’ … She would take the stamps and be stuffing more envelopes. She wrote hundreds of letters to political prisoners. She just couldn’t help herself …Yuri was the Mother Teresa of the human and civil rights and political prisoners movement.”

In a spoken-word piece, artist and activist Traci Kato-Kiriyama recalled meeting Kochiyama for the first time as a 20-year-old intern at the Japanese American National Museum: “She did what i came to learn she did for everybody. She broke out her notebook. She wrote down my name, my hometown and my school. She asked which camps my parents were in. She mentioned all the people I should meet. She forgot she had come in to rest.”

Kato-Kiriyama quoted the hip-hop duo Blue Scholars: “When I grow up, I wanna be just like Yuri Kochiyama.”

Maceo Hernandez and East L.A. Taiko were among the performers. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

Maceo Hernandez and East L.A. Taiko were among the performers. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

Nobuko Miyamoto of Great Leap performed “A Single Stone” with vocalists Nancy Sekizawa and Carla Vega, Derek Nakamoto on piano and Charles Kim on bass.

Miyamoto said her last visit with Kochiyama was in April. “She was dangling between this world and the next. I just wanted to be there to feel her spirit … She didn’t know me. I sang to her. She didn’t respond. But then I said, ‘Yuri, Mutulu [Shakur] is coming up for parole.’ ‘Mutulu? Where is he? What’s going on?’ It was a glimpse of the old Yuri, the angel of political prisoners … ‘We have to get everyone together. We have to help Mutulu.’”

Miyamoto explained, “Mutulu and Yuri were comrades. He was a freedom fighter who established a revolutionary drug program at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx, using acupuncture to get people off of heroin. Yuri and Mutulu were both followers of Malcolm, citizens of the Republic of New Afrika. Both worked to free political prisoners. In 1986, Mutulu would become one himself. Yuri’s been writing him letters for 28 years …

“We must answer Yuri’s call and her example of a driving spirit in all stages of existence. I’m not missing you, Yuri, for you are within me. Your life has set a standard to which I’ve committed myself over all these years to give honor to your mentorship.”

The program also included a performance by Maceo Hernandez and East L.A. Taiko; “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me,” a Maya Angelou poem set to music by Scott Nagatani, with Nagatani on piano, Taiji Miyagawa on bass, and vocals by Keiko Kawashima and Leslie Jones; June Kuramoto of the band Hiroshima playing excerpts from “Maboroshi wo Oite” and “When Winter Cries” on koto; a video tribute by filmmaker Tadashi Nakamura; and clips from the documentaries “Yuri Kochiyama: Passion for Justice,” directed by Rea Tajiri and Pat Saunders, “Mountains That Take Wing: Angela Davis and Yuri Kochiyama” by C.A. Griffith and H.L.T. Quan, and “My America … or Honk If You Love Buddha” by Renee Tajima-Pena.

Afterwards, Kochiyama’s family gathered in JACCC Plaza to reminisce with old friends.

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