Born May 19, 1922
San Pedro, California
Activist and speaker
"Don't become too narrow. Live fully. Meet all kinds of people. You'll learn something from everyone. Follow what you feel in your heart."
A s a teenager, Yuri Kochiyama lived a quiet life in small-town San Pedro, California. She wanted to be a teacher and had no interest in political issues or life much beyond her local, middle-class community. That all changed after the surprise attack in December 1941 on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, by Japanese forces. Within weeks, the U.S. government forced over 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry—70 percent of whom were American-born citizens—to leave their homes and move to internment camps, where people were held in custody during a war. That experience was the inspiration for Kochiyama's political activism for social justice, civil rights, and racial equality.
Kochiyama's activism took root during the 1960s, when she became involved in many causes and groups, including membership in the Organization for Afro-American Unity (OAAU). She became a close friend of Malcolm X (1925–1965), whose aggressive approach to racism contrasted with the civil disobedience (disobeying unjust laws in a peaceful manner) of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968). In a famous photograph, Kochiyama is shown holding Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam leader, after he was shot and killed in 1965.
Yuri Kochiyama was born Mary Nakahara in 1922 in San Pedro, California, a port town just south of Los Angeles. Her father, Seiichi Nakahara, had immigrated to America by himself. On a return visit to Japan, he met a teacher at the school where his father was principal. They married and settled in San Pedro, where Nakahara owned a fish market. Kochiyama had a twin brother and an older brother.
Kochiyama was quiet and obedient as a youth. While in high school, she taught Sunday school classes and performed volunteer work with the Young Women's Christian Association (YMCA) and the Girl Scouts of America. She was attending a junior (two-year) college when the Japanese military bombed the American naval station at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. That day, agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) came to her family's home. She was at home caring for her father, who was in bed recuperating after having had surgery on his stomach the day before. The agents arrested her father, and he was taken to a nearby federal prison. When his health began worsening, her father was moved to a hospital, and then he was returned home on January 20, 1942. He died the next day. The family received a warning from FBI agents that if they had a funeral for their father the event would be under surveillance, or observation. At the time, travel by Japanese people was limited to five miles. Despite the restrictions, many family friends attended the funeral.
Soon afterwards, Kochiyama and her mother were among the Japanese Americans shipped by cars, trains, and buses to internment camps. The Kochiyamas were sent to an internment camp in Jerome, Arkansas. Mother and daughter lived in barracks, or buildings designed to hold groups of soldiers, with other families. Each person in the camp had a job in order to enable the camp to run by itself. The experience forged Kochiyama's commitment to overcome the race-based assumptions that had led the U.S. government to round up Japanese Americans.
In being forced away from the small community where she grew up, Kochiyama saw that similar racial assumptions were being applied in different ways to other minority groups. As she traveled to the camp, for example, she noticed racial segregation in Southern states—from diners with signs announcing they did not serve people of color to differences in the living conditions of white and black communities.
While Kochiyama was in Arkansas, the camp was visited by the Japanese American 442nd regimental combat team. Young Americans of Japanese ancestry had petitioned U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45) to be permitted to serve their country in World War II (1939–45). After several months of consideration, Roosevelt issued an executive order establishing a special army combat team consisting of Japanese American volunteers, the 442nd regimental combat team. Future U.S. senator Daniel K. Inouye (1924–; see entry in volume 1) of Hawaii was on that team.
In preparation for their visit to the camp, Kochiyama worked as a receptionist. She sat at a desk, registered each soldier, and was responsible for assigning them with lodging. Since almost all the men were from Hawaii, she asked each man for his name, rank—and home island. One soldier replied, "Manhattan Island," since he was from New York City. When Kochiyama asked about his family, the soldier replied that he had sixty brothers and sixty sisters, then explained that he grew up in an orphanage.
When the regiment left for Europe, Kochiyama promised that soldier she would write to him every day. The soldier, Bill Kochiyama, would later become her husband. Soon, Bill wrote back to Kochiyama that he was embarrassed to receive so many letters when some of his fellow soldiers received none. He asked Kochiyama to write to other men as well. She organized fellow inmates to write letters so that none of the soldiers in the squad would go without mail.
Kochiyama comes to Harlem
After the war was over, the couple reunited in New York. On their first date, Kochiyama invited Bill to come to the Sunday school where she was teaching. She made Bill teach the kids a popular new dance he learned in Europe—the "lindy hop." After one more date, the couple was married. They would have six children.
From 1948 to 1960, the Kochiyamas lived in a New York housing project. They moved to a newly built housing project in Harlem in 1960. Harlem had become an impoverished community. Kochiyama's attempts to improve some basic safety needs and city services led Kochiyama to first became a social activist—near the time of her fortieth birthday. She worked with other parents for safer streets, including reduced speed limits, and for integrated education. In addition, she became politically active, first by attending meetings of people who had recently returned from Cuba. The Cuban Revolution of the 1950s resulted in a break in Cuban-American relations and Cuba becoming a communist country. (Communism is a political philosophy that advocates government ownership and control of businesses and farms, and a nearly equal distribution of income.)
Meanwhile, the civil rights movement was gaining momentum in the United States during this period. Many of Kochiyama's friends participated in Freedom Rides: People from different parts of the country would travel for civil rights marches in communities in the South that still practiced segregation, the separation of races. Two of her children participated in the Freedom Rides, one of them through the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and the other through a group called Students Against Social Injustice. Kochiyama herself was involved in various protest demonstrations.
In 1963, she met civil rights advocate Malcolm X and joined his group, the Organization for Afro-American Unity, to work for racial justice and human rights. Through Kochiyama, Malcolm X, in turn, met with members of the Hiroshima-Nagasaki World Peace Study Mission. The group, which spoke out against the proliferation of nuclear weapons, was named after the two Japanese cities that had been hit with atomic bombs near the end of World War II. They met during an event in Harlem called the "World's Worst Fair." The Harlem fair was meant to contrast with the World's Fair being held at that time in Flushing Meadows, New York. On display at the World's Fair were examples of modern progress from all over the world. The World's Worst Fair, on the other hand, showed poor living conditions in the richest country on Earth. Pointing to decaying and burned-out buildings in Harlem, Malcolm X said to the members of the Hiroshima-Nagasaki World Peace Study Mission, "You have been bombed and you saw that we have been bombed, too … by racism."
Friendship and respect were mutual between Kochiyama and Malcolm X. In 1965, they would be linked one final time—in a photograph published in magazines and newspapers around the world in which Kochiyama was seen holding Malcolm X after he was shot by a fellow member of the Nation of Islam at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem.
Social activism became even more heated in Harlem during the mid-1960s, with protests against the Vietnam War (1954–75) and racism, and for civil rights and women's rights. The murder of Malcolm X in 1965 intensified Kochiyama's commitment to work for dignity and equality for all people. She supported the work of the Black Panther Party, which pursued separation of African Americans from mainstream American society.
A life of activism
Kochiyama became a leading speaker and organizer of demonstrations for various causes, including protests against the Vietnam War and marches for women's rights, and from gatherings intended to draw attention to neighborhood problems to demonstrations over international issues. She took part in the takeover of the Statue of Liberty in 1977, for example, to demand freedom for Puerto Ricans imprisoned for their political beliefs. Among her most personal causes, she rallied for reparations for people of Japanese descent who were held captive during World War II and lost their businesses, savings, and jobs. Her husband, Bill Kochiyama, testified at a government commission in Washington, D.C., that was formed to investigate the internment camps. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan (1911–; served 1981–89) signed an act that provided an apology and $20,000 to each surviving internee. By then, almost half of the internees had died. The Kochiyamas continued to protest when the act did not address a related group of people who had been confined in internment camps, Latin Americans of Japanese ancestry.
Elderly and active
When her husband died in 1993, Kochiyama lost her strongest and longest supporter, a man who took pride in his wife when she was arrested in demonstrations for social justice. In 1997, she suffered a stroke, which weakened her legs significantly. She left Harlem in 1999, after thirty years of local and national activism, and returned to her native state of California, where most of her children had settled. Kochiyama moved to the Bay Area and quickly became a high-profile activist for local causes in Oakland and San Francisco as well as for national and international rights issues.
Among international causes, she attended and spoke at rallies on behalf of Peru and the Philippines, where she believed European and American influence continued to dominate those countries. She spoke out against detainment, or holding without charging with a crime, of hundreds of Middle Easterners following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. "She wants to be certain that Muslims and Arab Americans will not struggle alone, as she and other Japanese Americans once did," noted Ryan Kim in an article in the San Francisco Chronicle. "We [Japanese Americans] went through some similar things in World War II when we were evacuated and incarcerated," Kochiyama said to Kim.
Kochiyama continued to participate as an activist after turning eighty in 2002, alternating between visits for physical therapy with meetings of such groups as People's Resistance Against U.S. Terrorism. Still a featured speaker at rallies and participant in marches, even though she had to use a walker, Kochiyama continued to address injustices she perceived. Explaining why demonstrations are important, she stated, "If they did not have all those years of marching and demonstrations, they never would have gotten the Civil Rights Act of 1964…. I like it because it's a people's thing. It's not an individual thing. It's all the things that people do together that gives you strength."
For More Information
Kochiyama, Yuri (author of preface). Dragon Ladies: Asian American Feminists Breathe Fire. Edited by Sonia Shah. Boston: South End, 1997.
Kim, Ryan. "Japanese Americans Fight Backlash; Peace Rally Opposes Ethnic Scapegoats." San Francisco Chronicle (October 2, 2001): p. A2.
Yuri Kochiyama: Passion for Justice. Video National Asian American Telecommunications Association, 1993.
Hung, Melissa. "Yuri Kochiyama: The Last Revolutionary." Model Minority.http://modelminority.com/article364.html (accessed on March 18, 2004).
"Yuri Kochiyama." National Women's History Project.http://www.nwhp.org/tlp/biographies/kochiyama/kochiyama-bio.html (accessed on March 18, 2004).
"Yuri Kochiyama: With Justice in Her Heart." Revolutionary Worker On-line.http://rwor.org/a/v20/980-89/986/yuri.htm (accessed on March 18, 2004).