Yuri Kochiyama

Post by Joy Sales

On May 19, 2016, Google honored Yuri Kochiyama on, what would have been, her 95th birthday. The doodle was an artistic rendition of the quintessential image of Kochiyama– red bandana, glasses, speaking into a megaphone– and in the background of Kochiyama were signs that made out the word, “Equality.” While many commended Google for recognizing Kochiyama, they got one thing wrong. Kochiyama remains an icon for many activists today, not because she advocated for equality, but because she fought for liberation. This liberation was not only for Japanese Americans, or Asian Americans, but for all oppressed peoples. Her life story exemplifies the ways activists forge interracial and international solidarity in order to dismantle systems of white supremacy and neocolonialism.

Anti-Asian racism, in the form of mass incarceration of Japanese-descended peoples during World War II, catalyzed Kochiyama’s politicization. Kochiyama was born Mary Yuri Nakahara in 1921 to Japanese immigrants in San Pedro, California. Like many Japanese Americans, the bombing of Pearl Harbor and Executive Order 9066 transformed Kochiyama’s life. Her father was one of the initial 1,370 Japanese men arrested immediately after Pearl Harbor (he also died in prison), and Kochiyama, the rest of her family, and 110,000 Japanese citizens and residents were forcibly displaced to internment camps scattered across the United States. Similar to other Japanese Americans, Kochiyama’s imprisonment pushed her to think critically about race in America. During internment, she met her future husband, Bill Kochiyama, who also became interested in progressive politics. When they relocated to Harlem, NY in the 1950s, they decided to open up their home to activists and organizers from around the world. One of their most famous guests was Malcolm X.

Kochiyama’s role in the Black liberation movement illustrates how “Asian American” as a political identity would not be possible without interracial solidarity. She met Malcolm X in 1964, attended Malcolm X’s Liberation School, and for a short while, converted to Islam. Besides Malcolm X, many other radicals, like Angela Davis and Amiri Baraka, stayed at the Kochiyama resident and affectionately called her “Sister Yuri.” However, her friendship with Malcolm X was short-lived, as he was assassinated in 1965. But the lessons she learned, most notably the importance of making connections and forging alliances across racial and national boundaries, stayed with Kochiyama her entire life.

Activism became Kochiyama’s life practice. After Malcolm’s death, she and black radicals founded the Republic of New Africa, which called for an independent Black-majority country in the southern U.S. and reparations for enslavement. She was also involved in the movement to free political prisoners, such as Puerto Rican nationalists and Mumia Abu-Jamal. Kochiyama also supported social movements in Asia; she supported North Vietnam’s fight for self-determination, and she traveled to the Philippines to learn about the National Democratic Movement. In the U.S., she joined the movement for reparations for Japanese internment, in which the U.S. government offered a formal apology for internment and a token $20,000 for each surviving Japanese American who was imprisoned.

Kochiyama was active until she died in 2014. She represents the ways Asian American activists recognized the links between supposedly discrete groups– such as Black and Japanese Americans– and used those links to critique systems of oppression, forge lasting relationships, and make social change.

Yuri Kochiyama video

Works Cited

[1] Diane C. Fujino, Heartbeat of Struggle: The Revolutionary Life of Yuri Kochiyama (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), 303.

[2] Diane C. Fujino, “The Making of an Asian American Activist, Yuri Kochiyama,” in Dragon Ladies: Asian American Feminists Breathe Fire, edited by Sonia Shah (South End Press, 1997).

[4] Yuri Kochiyama, Passing it on: a memoir, edited by Marjorie Lee, Akemi Kochiyama-Sardinha, and Audee Kochiyama-Holman (UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press, 2004).

[3] Image from Nina Wallace, “On Yuri Kochiyama’s Birthday,” Densho, May 19, 2016, http://www.densho.org/yuriquotes/.



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