A print of activist Yuri Kochiyama

Yuri Kochiyama was 20 years old when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and her family was relocated to an internment camp. When she emerged, she moved to Harlem and became an outspoken activist who rallied for the rights of women, ethnic minorities, homosexuals and political prisoners, and formed a tight friendship with Malcolm X. “I didn’t wake up and decide to become an activist,” she said. “But you couldn’t help notice the injustices. It was all around you.” She passed away on June 1 in Berkeley. We look at her life and legacy as a civil rights leader.

Yuri Kochiyama recalls her friendship with Malcolm X. She witnessed his assassination, and cradled his head as he died.

Diane C. Fujino, professor of Asian American studies and director of the Center for Black Studies Research at UC Santa Barbara and author of "Heartbeat of Struggle: The Revolutionary Life of Yuri Kochiyama"
Akemi Kochiyama, granddaughter of Yuri Kochiyama who helped her grandmother write her memoir, "Passing It On"

  • thucy

    God bless Yuri Kochiyama. She understood, and spoke up for other minorities.
    I don’t think it’s part of the “model minority” stereotype that white people have of Asians, but I and many others of Asian heritage, who experienced racism in this country as children, have felt an obligation to speak up against the much worse racism we continue to see exercised against members of the African-American community.
    This is not exclusive of the Asian American community; David Simon is out there calling the mass incarceration of blacks a “Holocaust in slow motion.” Just as Jewish-Americans once spoke up for us, we can speak out against what is being done to black people in the so-called “war on drugs” over the last four decades.
    Sadly, it seems like even most liberal white people have turned a blind eye to what our government is doing to the black community. Perhaps they can more easily afford to do so, they have no personal memories of what it feels like to be judged by the color of your skin or your religion.

  • ES Trader

    How many prominent Black leaders that spoke up against Japanese American suspension of their Constitutional Rights to due process, confiscation of property and imprisonment when “internment” began ?

    • thucy

      It’s an interesting question, Kiyoshi.
      Here are two other interesting questions:

      1) Who WERE the prominent black leaders in February 1942 when internment began? Could blacks even expect to be allowed to vote in 1942? Were there any black leaders who had any influence on our government? If they did, is it possible that they were consumed with dealing with the far more overt racism affecting their own communities?

      2) Who were the prominent Japanese leaders speaking out against the vicious atrocities the Japanese army perpetrated against millions of Chinese, Malays, Koreans, Filipinos, et cetera and ad nauseum, most of those crimes never having been brought to trial? Is it possible that there were no such leaders? Perhaps ordinary Japanese, even leaders, were consumed with their own existential issues?

      • ES Trader

        My point was missed or ignored. I am well aware of what happened in WW II as I am aware of Pol Pot, Mao, and what is still happening in the Philippines today, Vietnam today with regards to China etal.

        My point is that liberal America bends over backwards with Black issues,
        America sacrificed honoring Washington & Lincoln’s Birthday to make MLK a national holiday, black history month is pointed out every year, each time a 60’s civil rights leader passes the national press trots out John Lewis to recount his days of being sprayed with fire hoses, Black Congressional Caucus, Black Student Union etc are permitted( do they allow non Black membership?), Jesse Jackson and locally John Burris or Harry Edwards always makes an appearance on tv/radio whenever a Black issue occurs. I could go on.

        A retired CHP officer recently told me about a Black owned business in Vallejo,that he knew, that went out of business because the owner said was not due to lack of white support but due to his Black brothers asking for services for payment later that never paid.

        Name a Black government or country that has succeeded in the world.

        Is America to blame for that too ?

        • Another Mike

          Comparing oppression is seldom fruitful. In the Levys’ book, Cesar Chavez recalls thinning cantaloupes as a 12-13 year old (1940) for a Japanese-American grower in Brawley:

          “The Japanese-Americans were very difficult to work for, just slave drivers. Most people preferred to work for the big companies, where supervision wasn’t that strict, but after those jobs were filled, there was no place to go except the Japanese, who always paid a nickel an hour less.

          “I remember some very unhappy episodes after Pearl Harbor, when the Japanese were relocated by the U.S. government. The Mexican farm workers rejoiced that the Japanese were put in interment camps, just because the Japanese worked them so hard. In Brawley, people were celebrating. When I look back, I think it was an awful thing for the workers to have done, but to them, it was like liberation.”

          • ES Trader

            Thank you for your illumination on Rustin something I was not aware of.

            I realize how racist my comment appears but that is the hypocrisy that I see today.

            I know there are plenty of Black people with compassion, diligence, intelligence, honesty, and courage…the people that came to the aid of the unfortunate white driver in South Central following the Rodney King incident, who was nearly killed by the mob and the mother of one of the mob that defended his assault.

            The ratio of the mob vs. the rescuers was disproportionate.

            As for growers in Salinas prior to WWII, I believe that to be true.
            They were of a closer generation to the Japanese that emigrated than the dwindling number of Japanese Americans today and still held much of Japanese culture of post Samurai Japan.

            But all good to know for living now, thx.

    • Another Mike

      Realize that black leaders didn’t have much sway at that time, in the early 40s.

      I would say the most prominent black leader, who provided concrete assistance to Japanese-Americans interned in the camps, was Bayard Rustin of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the American Friends Service Committee — later to become Dr. King’s right-hand-man. The US antiwar movement as a whole, protested the internment of Japanese-Americans, and worked to assist them. Many who became well-known civil rights leaders were part of the antiwar movement.

      The best-known Japanese-American member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation was Gordon Hirabayashi, who refused to submit to internment and was arrested. Although his case went to the Supreme Court, he was ultimately imprisoned. After the war, Hirabayashi studied sociology, and became a professor in Canada. The Ninth Circuit reversed his conviction in 1987.

      • thucy

        It’s really interesting that Rustin was the man to come forward. He was later excoriated for supporting the Vietnam War. Felt he needed to do so in order to stay in good graces of LBJ admin, which was pushing for landmark civil rights legislation.
        Politics. It ain’t simple. Kochiyama’s way was simple – she kept saying and acting on what she believed. Rustin had a more complicated path. Gotta appreciate both.

  • Another Mike

    Hearing about how ordinary people can become leaders made me think immediately of Saul Alinsky, who saw the greatest part of his work with groups as identifying and coaching leaders from the communities he worked with.

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