My family was but one of hundreds who received the Kochiyama Holiday Newsletter back in the day. My mom and dad both had ties with Mary (Nakahara) Kochiyama. My dad was a (San) Pedro guy, specifically a Terminal Islander, and knew Mary because she was a Pedro gal. Actually she was a very popular older classmate at San Pedro High School, where she was a student leader and, as I said, very popular.
My mom met Mary in camp, Jerome, Arkansas, where both their families were incarcerated. My mom was in the same girls’ club that supported the Nisei soldiers, much like a camp version of the USO. That’s where she met my dad, whose family was also in Jerome.
So during the holidays I remember looking at the usually green mimeographed newsletter from this family from New York. My mom had friends in different parts of the country, so this annual communiqué from the “Big Apple” was a curiosity. I also remember noticing a gradual shift in content as the years moved on. It wasn’t just about family goings-on anymore but also included community activities and events.
Many years later my first direct contact with Mary was when I went to New York City to meet with several activist groups that said they were going to picket the JACL Chicago Convention in 1968 (that’s another story). In my preparation for my first trip to the “Apple” I consulted my dad, who was a “foodie” well before the trend was identified.
He recommended Nathan’s hot dogs, pizza and visiting Mary and Bill Kochiyama. Little did I know that the apartment on 126th Street one block east of Broadway was “the Movement’s” Grand Central Station. Using an ironing board for a desk, Mary/Yuri held court, welcomed guests, took phone calls and wrote notes from that perch. It was also command central for her family of two daughters and four sons. From oldest to youngest, that would be Billy, Audee, Aichi, Eddie, Jimmy and Tommy — and, of course, husband Bill.
After many visits to the Harlem apartment and many overnight stays, I saw close-up and from a distance the commitment it took to be a revolutionary and social justice activist. I saw how the whole family sacrificed and generously shared their mother’s time and passion with others and the movement. For us young budding activists, having someone of our parents’ age and generation who was as progressive (politically left of liberal) as ourselves was quite an eye-opener.
Having other New York Nisei who had progressive politics and the willingness to speak “truth to power” humbled us “newbie” politicos but inspired us as well. Karen Ishizuka in her soon-to-be-published book on the Asian American movement lovingly references this unique group of Japanese American, primarily women, progressive activists. Their passion for justice and the relentless pursuit of it for the downtrodden and oppressed set the example for us younger “lefties.”
We have lost one of those beacons that shined a needed bright light on the sometimes ugly stories and chapters of the American political system. But the embracing warmth and empathy you felt from Yuri must have been the same her classmates felt at San Pedro High School and the same she shared with Malcolm during the last minutes of his life as Sister Yuri cradled his head in her lap (famous Life Magazine photo).
Like her friend and comrade, Malcolm X, Yuri Kochiyama’s life was an odyssey and an evolution of change. As Malcolm evolved from a street hustler called “Red” to El- Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, Mary Nakahara Kochiyama evolved from being a popular high school classmate to become Sister Yuri and along the way touched and moved so many of us.
Warren Furutani has served as a member of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education, the Los Angeles Community College District Board of Trustees, and the California State Assembly. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.