Working Outside the System

Yuri Kochiyama’s life has taken her from Japanese-American internment camps to Malcolm X’s side in his last moments.

By Lydia Lum

Every January, the nation pauses to celebrate the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Holding just as much meaning for many is Feb. 21, the anniversary of Malcolm X’s untimely death. Among those who last saw him alive is a Japanese woman who cradled his head as he lay dying from gunshot wounds in New York City’s Audubon Ballroom in 1965.

That woman, Yuri Kochiyama, is one of many whose social, political and civil rights activism was inspired by Malcolm X. She is one of the few non-Blacks often associated with him and has forged multi-ethnic coalitions, especially between Asian Americans and Blacks. An 84-year-old Nisei — American-born child of immigrant parents — Kochiyama is one of the most prominent Asian American activists who emerged from the 1960s. She has championed human rights, protested racial inequality and supported political prisoners worldwide, often doing mundane but important behind-the-scenes work. Interned during World War II, Kochiyama has likened the ordeal to the segregation of Blacks.

Kochiyama is so well known for her warmth and sincerity that Dr. Diane C. Fujino refers to her by first name in Heartbeat of Struggle: The Revolutionary Life of Yuri Kochiyama, a biography of the activist published last year. A University of California, Santa Barbara associate professor of Asian American studies, Fujino says she is glad Kochiyama has diverse supporters.

“Every Black radical and nationalist I’ve met embraces Yuri,” Fujino says. “And in Yuri, young Asian Americans learn about someone who looks like them, but has worked completely outside the system.”

Lessons in Discrimination
Born Mary Nakahara in 1922, Yuri was raised in a small port town near Los Angeles. Her youth was a sheltered, middle-class existence in a White neighborhood that included sports and teaching Sunday school.
But that suburban life was shattered after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. FBI agents arrested her father at home in a mass roundup of “suspects” whom they believed threatened national security. Held at a federal prison, her father was denied medical care. By the time he was sent home the following January, he could no longer speak. He died the next day.

Not long afterwards, the U.S. government ordered Yuri, her mother and brother to leave their home. They were moved into a horse stable in Southern California, and by October, into a Jerome, Ark., internment camp where they would stay for the next three years. Like other Japanese Americans, they were forced into a life so communal that even bathrooms lacked privacy. While interned, she met her future husband, Bill Kochiyama, a Nisei soldier fighting for the United States. Many Japanese- American soldiers like Bill chose to take their furloughs at the camp because they felt uncomfortable at mainstream USO facilities.
The couple married after the war. In Bill’s native New York, the only apartments they could afford were in Black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods. In 1960, they moved to Harlem, where Kochiyama learned from co-workers and friends about the Jim Crow laws of the South and racial discrimination nationwide.

While raising six children, she began participating in the civil rights movement and joined demonstrations organized by the Congress of Racial Equality and other groups. Along the way, she met Malcolm X and began attending his Organization of Afro-American Unity Liberation School. It was there that she learned the history of colonialism in Africa and the slave-trade economy. Sixteen months after their first meeting, Malcolm X was assassinated.

But by that time, Kochiyama had begun to share his Black Nationalism vision and got involved with the Republic of New Africa, which called for an autonomous Black nation in the American South. For the more than 30 subsequent years she lived in New York, Kochiyama made annual pilgrimages to the grave of Malcolm X, with whom she shares
a May 19th birthday and whom she calls “the most inspiring person in my life.”

While Kochiyama was often the only Asian American at African-American protests, Blacks welcomed her, concluding she wanted only to participate, not usurp their leadership. They respected her grunt work, whether writing newsletter articles or distributing flyers door-to-door.
In the late 1960s, she began calling herself Yuri, a shortening of her Japanese middle name, coinciding with many Black activists taking African or Islamic names.

A Voice For Political Prisoners
As authorities arrested many of Kochiyama’s friends and fellow activists, she grew involved with political prisoners of all ethnicities — writing them letters, attending court hearings and organizing events for their defense. She often became the first person whom prisoners called when released. As she explains in Heartbeat of Struggle, “I cannot help but feel strongly about this because I can never forget what we, peoples of Japanese ancestry, experienced during World War II because of hysteria, isolation and absolutely no support.”

In a famous political prisoner case in 1977, Kochiyama and other activists took over the Statue of Liberty to demand the release of five Puerto Rican nationalists jailed in the United States for more than 20 years. “It was exciting! We had planned to give up peacefully when the police came. But we seized the statue for nine hours,” she told Fujino. The five Puerto Ricans were eventually released.

In the mid-1990s, African-American activist Mumia Abu-Jamal gained worldwide attention while on death row for the murder of a Philadelphia police officer. Kochiyama had been among a handful of supporters defending him a decade earlier and working to appeal his case. Abu-Jamal describes Kochiyama as “utterly remarkable” in Fujino’s book.
Kochiyama became a mentor during the Asian American movement that grew out of Vietnam War protests. Younger activists sought her out for her experience and her skill in connecting Black and Asian issues. She joined her husband and others in demanding reparations and a government apology for Japanese internees. President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act in 1988 which, among other things, awarded $20,000 to each internee still alive. The process of issuing checks continues.

Now living in Oakland, Calif., Kochiyama has published her memoirs, Passing It On. At university lectures around the country, she promotes Asian-African solidarity. And she reflects on her life with the same modesty shown in her 1960s activism.

“I’m grateful to have met so many people and learned from them. It has been wonderful.”



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