Yuri Kochiyama, a longtime leader in the Japanese American community, is being remembered around the country for her commitment to civil rights and social causes.

Kochiyama died in Berkeley on June 1. In her 93 years she accomplished an astonishing number of things. At the top of the list, in the eyes of many, was her role in a successful campaign to secure reparations for Japanese Americans sent to internment camps by the U.S. government during World War II.

Kochiyama lived in one of those camps. In a 2007 interview on “Democracy Now,” she recalled how the bombing of Pearl Harbor changed her family’s life forever. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1942, she was teaching Sunday school.

The day of the bombing, three FBI agents came to her house and arrested her father, an immigrant who was in the fishing business and had recently been hospitalized. He went to prison for a short time. The day he was released, he died.

“He was home not even 12 hours and he was gone,” Kochiyama recalled.

In another interview on that show a year later, she recounted a fateful meeting with Malcolm X, who became her friend and political ally. Kochiyama, an octogenarian by then who was wearing a “Free Mumia Abu-Jamal” sweatshirt, said he came to a Brooklyn courthouse to support hundreds of people — herself included but mostly African-Americans — waiting to be arraigned after protesting hiring discrimination.

“I’ll never forget that day,” she said. “I felt so bad that I wasn’t black. This should be just a black thing. … But gosh darn it, I’m going to try to meet him somehow.”

And she did. Their friendship ended on Feb. 21, 1965, when Malcolm X was assassinated in the Audubon Ballroom in New York. Many people shrank away when the gunshots rang out. But not Kochiyama. Instead, she rushed toward him.

“I just went there and picked up his head and put it on my lap,” Kochiyama recalled during her “Democracy Now” appearance. “I said, ‘Please Malcolm, please Malcolm, stay alive.”

That moment was captured in a now-famous photograph that ran in “Life” magazine.

On Thursday, the California State Assembly adjourned in memory of Kochiyama. Nina Thorsen of KQED reported that Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada (D-Davis) quoted a rap song about her by a Seattle hip-hop group: ” ‘When I grow up, I wanna be just like Yuri Kochiyama.’ So with that, members, I ask that we adjourn in memorary of the great civil rights leader, not just for the Asian Pacific Islander community,” but for the community of humankind.”

In an obituary in the Los Angeles Times, Elaine Woo wrote that Kochiyama married a Japanese Amerian GI she’d met during the war and moved with him to Harlem in 1960, where she raised a family of six children and fought alongside her black and Puerto Rican neighbors for safer streets and better schools. Later, she would fight for Puerto Rican independence, nuclear disarmament, the end of the Vietnam War and the rights of prisoners.

“I didn’t wake up and decide to become an activist,” she told the Dallas Morning News in 2004. “But you couldn’t help notice the inequities, the injustices. It was all around you.”

Known as “Sister Yuri” in a wide circle of African American activists that included the firebrand poet Amiri Baraka and ’60s radical Angela Davis, Kochiyama also became an advocate for prisoners, organizing supporters across racial lines to press for reconsideration of charges many considered politically motivated.

“She was part of a very unique group of Nisei — primarily women — who were progressive activists … left of liberal,” former state Assemblyman Warren Furutani said Tuesday. “She was an icon, and icon is not an overstatement.”

Furutani told Woo that Kochiyama’s apartment, usually teeming with people, was so cramped that she used an ironing board as a desk. The kitchen table, meanwhile, was impossible to eat on because it was covered with fliers, papers and magazine articles.

An obituary in the New York Times mentioned that Kochiyama read constantly and widely.

On Tuesday, her granddaughter Akemi opened for the first time a journal of favorite quotations that Mrs. Kochiyama had collected and given to her several years ago.

“There were so many different writers and thinkers,” said Akemi Kochiyama, who is pursuing a doctorate in cultural anthropology. “It’s Emerson, it’s Keats and Yeats and José Marti. It’s political thinkers. It’s Marcus Garvey. It’s everything.”

Kochiyama, who was born Mary Yuriko Nakahara, eventually recorded her remarkable life in a memoir, titled “Passing It On.” Diane Fujino, an Asian American academic, also wrote about the activist in a book titled,”Yuri Kochiyama, Heartbeat of Struggle.”

In a 2005 story by Annie Nakao in the San Francisco Chronicle, Fujino described Kochiyama:

“Most people make life; some people make history,” Fujino said from Santa Barbara. “Yuri organized her life around making history. I think of her as a very ordinary person, who’s done extraordinary things.”

Nakao, who interviewed Kochiyama at age 84, wrote about the role she and her husband played in New York and the evolution of their activism:

After marrying and settling in New York City, the Kochiyamas began raising a family. But soon, their little apartment became “Grand Central Station” for visiting former nisei GIs and San Pedro friends. The family’s “Christmas Cheer” newsletter went to about 3,000 people.

When a larger apartment opened up at the Manhattanville housing projects in Harlem, they jumped at the chance. The move would put them squarely in the cultural brew of the 1960s, with its fight for better schools and jobs, and a nascent black nationalist movement that Kochiyama soon became immersed in.

As an Asian among blacks, she was always sensitive of her place, working more as a facilitator and supporter. Her genius was networking, and as many leaders began being arrested in FBI crackdowns, she became the point person for those arrested, as well as those released from prison.

Kochiyama’s husband died in 1993. She is survived by four living children and several grandchildren.


Patricia Yollin

Pat Yollin has written about all kinds of stuff, including wayward penguins at the San Francisco Zoo, organ transplants, the comeback of the cream puff, New York on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, a Slow Food gathering in Italy and the microcredit movement in Northern California. Among her favorite stories: an interview with George Lucas at Skywalker Ranch, a profile of Italy's consul general in SF, and a pirate Trader Joe's operation in Vancouver that prompted the grocery chain to sue -- and lose.

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