Yuri Kochiyama, whose pursuit of social justice was legend passed away on Sunday in California. She was 93.
Kochiyama’s activism began after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when she and her family were placed in an internment camp along with more than 100,000 Japanese citizens. Her family was locked up at Camp Jerome in Arkansas. Her granddaughter, Maya Kochiyama, detailed life in the camp for Discover Nikkei in 2010:
Amidst this isolation and unwavering uncertainty of release, though they lived in dingy, cramped barracks, the Japanese Americans tried to make the most out of their situation and made furniture from what pieces of wood lied around, planted flowers to brighten up the landscape, and sewed bed sheets, tablecloths, and curtains to improve what little privacy they had.
Yuri said that, “we learned soon enough that our strongest weapons to sustain ourselves were teamwork, a cooperative spirit, ingenuity, and concern for others.”
One of the things that came out of this camp experience for Yuri was that she began to learn more about her Japanese American community and identify herself as Japanese American. “I feel like going to camp actually is where for the first time I came to know my own people … I was really proud to be Japanese.”
What Yuri felt echoed many of the same thoughts as other second generation Japanese Americans who had grown up “All-American” and did not identify themselves with their Japanese heritage. Feeling betrayed by their country, some Nisei started to learn more about their Japanese culture and embrace their Japanese identity, even opting to “return” to Japan, a country that they had never even seen.
In the 1980s, she and her husband pushed for reparations and a formal government apology for Japanese American internees through the Civil Liberties Act, which President Ronald Reagan signed into law in 1988.
Diane Fujino, an associate professor of Asian American studies at UC Santa Barbara and the author of a book about this amazing women is quoted at SF Gate:
She operated on two levels simultaneously. She cared very much for the person in front of her, and she also worked to fight against the structural racism and imperialism in society.
Most people make life; some people make history. Yuri organized her life around making history. I think of her as a very ordinary person, who’s done extraordinary things.
The parallels she saw between the treatment of African Americans in the Jim Crow South and Japanese Americans during World War II inspired her to become one of the few Asian Americans who, early on, forged deep bonds with blacks in the struggle for liberation.
Hansi Lo Wang writing for NPR reports,
Living in housing projects among black and Puerto Rican neighbors inspired her interest in the civil rights movement. Kochiyama held weekly open houses for activists in the family's apartment, where she taped newspaper clippings to the walls and kept piles of leaflets on the kitchen table. "Our house felt like it was the movement 24/7," said her eldest daughter, Audee Kochiyama-Holman.
THE RAFU SHIMPO adds:
As the Civil Rights Movement grew, the Kochiyamas began inviting activists to speak at their open houses. After moving to Harlem in 1960, they worked with the Harlem Parent’s Committee, organizing school boycotts to demand quality education for inner-city children. Yuri Kochiyama was among 600 arrested for blocking the entrance of a construction site to demand jobs for African American and Puerto Rican workers....
Kochiyama was soon working with the most militant black nationalist organizations in Harlem, including the Republic of New Africa. When the police and FBI intensified their repression of black activists, she immersed herself in the struggles to support political prisoners, providing non-stop letter-writing, prison visits, and activist mobilizations. She linked her support for incarcerated activists to her own wartime imprisonment, denouncing the unfairness of U.S. laws and practices.
Her connections with Black Power made Kochiyama a leader of the emerging Asian American Movement in the late 1960s. In New York City, she joined Asian Americans for Action and was a featured speaker at Hiroshima Day events, denouncing U.S. imperialism in Vietnam, Okinawa, and elsewhere. She supported ethnic studies at City College of New York and the hiring of Chinese construction workers at Confucius Plaza.
Indeed, Kochiyama was more that merely an advocate of civil rights and social justice, she was a revolutionary.
Yuri also spoke out against the U.S. war in Vietnam. She pointed out the connection between the racism in U.S. imperialist wars in the Third World and the national oppression that African Americans, Puerto Ricans and others were facing here in the U.S. This perspective had broad appeal among oppressed nationalities here, leading to protests such as the 1970 Chicano Moratorium against the war in Los Angeles in 1970, as well as the African Liberation Support Committee and solidarity work among African Americans to support the national liberation movements in Africa in the 1970s.
RW: You've been active in the movement to free political prisoners for many years, including the fight to free Mumia Abu-Jamal. And you have gone out to talk to different groups about Mumia. What response do you get?
YK: Once people learn about Mumia, they can't help but love Mumia because not only was he such a radical and such a courageous kind of guy and his support for the MOVE group has been contagious. He has supported everyone, all the underdogs and the marginalized. And when you think of it, there has been no political prisoner who has been able to galvanize so many people the way Mumia has--and not just here in this country, but all over the world. And I'm amazed that 26 members of the Diet [top government body] in Japan are supporting Mumia, too.
But people won't believe how Mumia and I got started corresponding. It had nothing to do with the movement. It had nothing to do with political prisoners. I couldn't believe it but one day I got a letter from him and he wrote in Japanese--Hiragana, which is one of the forms of writing Japanese. There's Katakana, the simplest. Then there's Hiragana and then there's the regular Chinese calligraphy. But he was using the Japanese Hiragana and I couldn't believe it. And I said how did you learn? And he said he was studying Japanese just by himself in prison.
But how this came about was that I had just read something by Velina Houston, the famous Black/Asian/Indian playwright. She wrote about a Black samurai in the sixth or eighth century. And so I wrote to Mumia about him and he said, "You won't believe it but I've just been reading about him myself." But just before that he wrote in Japanese, and that's how we got started to know each other.
The other day we had a four-way conversation with Assata Shakur, thanks to Susan Burnett. Assata expressed her admiration for Mumia. She said he is extraordinary, bringing people together. I think that's maybe his calling. But it's just that he has so much courage to come out with the kind of issues he has supported, especially his support for the MOVE people. I think the police department can't forget that. But his contribution to the struggle will be forever remembered. And he has already left a mark in the struggle.
There's a question of what makes Mumia different from other political prisoners. And I just say, well he has the same quality of leadership and courage and yet his humbleness gives him another dimension.
We have got to stop this war in Iraq … America’s whole history has been about war, taking over other people’s land, resources, annihilating people. “We’ve all got to stop this war. And those of us of Japanese background, because of what we’ve experienced, more so must become active. Even if you don’t have time to go on marches or rallies or demonstrations, just talk about it among your friends. I mean, whatever you can do. Write letters to newspapers. Do whatever. Talk about it to your own family members.
She and Bill Kochiyama, her husband and a veteran of WWII had two girls and four boys; most of them would become actively involved in black liberation struggles, the anti-war movement, and the Asian-American movement.
Rather than do my normal post I am going to share with you the following exchange from an interview with Amy Goodman in 2008, concerning her relationship with Malcolm X. You see, it was Kochiyama who cradled the head of a dying Malcolm X as he lay mortally wounded. That was no accident of history. The following is borrowed from Democracy Now.