100 Years of Yuri Kochiyama

...And What Her Legacy Means for Young Asian Americans Today

Today, we celebrate the birthday of two unforgettable revolutionaries: Malcolm X, and Yuri Kochiyama, who would have turned 100 this year. As we approach the midpoint of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, it only seems fit that we pay homage to one of the most remarkable Asian American revolutionaries in history.

Yuri Kochiyama was born as Mary Yuriko Nakahara in 1921 in San Pedro, California. She grew up with her parents and twin brother, Peter, in a small, working-class neighborhood where she taught Sunday School at the local Presbyterian Church. In 1941, Yuri received a degree from Compton Junior College, where she studied English, journalism, and art.

Only a few months after her graduation, the Japanese Empire bombed Pearl Harbor, and the United States was compelled to formally enter World War II. Anti-Japanese sentiments raged, and tens of thousands of Japanese Americans fell victim to unjustified arrests and brutal assaults. Yuri’s father was accused of being a threat to national security and was placed in a 6-week detention center despite his poor health. He died the day after he was released. 

On February 19, 1942, former President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 that called for all people of Japanese descent along the western coast of the United States to be evacuated and incarcerated in internment camps. Still grieving over her father’s death, Yuri and her family were sent to a camp in Jerome, Arkansas, where she spent three years observing the similarities in the treatment of Japanese Americans during the second world war and Black Americans in the Jim Crow South. It was at this time when Yuri had her early political awakenings

“It helped her to recognize herself as a Japanese American. This is what Yuri says. And to see the strength of the Japanese American community and to survive as not just individuals, but to come together as a community. You know people grew gardens, right? They figured out how to put up partitions in the bathrooms, to have a little privacy and dignity. There was so much that that happened. There were protests inside the concentration camps. She listened to discussions of more politicized Japanese Americans inside the camps. And I would say she started to grow a social consciousness, a sense that problems in the United States had social and structural origins.”

Diane Fujino, Professor of Asian American studies at UC Santa Barbara and Author of Heartbeat of Struggle: The Revolutionary Life of Yuri Kochiyama

During her time in the internment camp, Yuri also met Bill Kochiyama. Bill was one of the 33,000 nisei guys who enlisted in the army to prove their allegiance to the United States. He was a member of the 442nd battalion, which earned more Purple Hearts and casualties than any other in the U.S. Army. 

After the war ended, Yuri and Bill married in 1946 and moved to New York City in 1948, where they had six children. The Kochiyamas lived in the Harlem Manhattanville Housing Projects, where they became members of the Harlem Parents Committee and enrolled themselves and their six kids in the Harlem Freedom School. Their education and involvement in these organizations led the family to participate in and support a wide range of community organizations as well as African American, Asian American, and Third World movements for civil and human rights and ethnic studies, and against the war in Vietnam. The Kochiyama residence in Apartment 3C at 545 West 126th Street was a “mecca for the movement.” It served as a meeting house, guesthouse, drop-in center, and family hostel that welcomed Asian, Black, and Puerto Rican comrades. 

“To me, apartment 3C was a movement sanctuary, a place you went to touch the truth. I loved sitting in its altar of a kitchen, table layered with leaflets for upcoming rallies and walls postered with images of political prisoners—FREE THE PANTHER 21!, FREE RUCHELL MAGEE, STOP THE WAR IN VIETNAM, CHIMURENGA, ATTICA.”

Nobuko Miyamoto, “Asian American Sisters in the Movement for Racial Liberation”

Yuri met Malcolm X in 1963 and joined his group, the Organization for Afro-American Unity (OAAU), to work for racial and human rights. Through her lessons at the OAAU’s Liberation School and exchanges with Malcolm, Yuri’s perspectives became more radicalized and international in scope. Although their friendship lasted only eighteen months before Malcolm’s assassination, he profoundly influenced Yuri, transforming her from a liberal civil rights activist to a revolutionary anti-imperialist. 

Yuri remained by Malcolm’s side when he was assassinated while leading an OAAU meeting at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem on February 21, 1965. On March 5, 1965, LIFE magazine published an article on the assassination of Malcolm X, showing a photo of Malcolm X laying on the floor, Yuri cradling his head in her hands. 

What Yuri Kochiyama’s Legacy Means Today

As young Asian Americans, we may have witnessed members of our community responding to the past year of civil unrest by regurgitating the term “allyship” until it is brutally exhausted. We have seen “Yellow Peril Supports Black Power” and “Asians for Black Lives” all over our timelines. While the intentions appear to be good, these proclamations of solidarity are rather performative, and center Asians in the struggle for Black liberation.

One thing that we can take away from the friendship of Yuri Kochiyama and Malcolm X is the necessity of radical compassion and the need for solidarity that looks beyond marketability and self-interest.

“Yes, I think that there are two crucial lessons: The first one is this need for solidarity that we cannot only look to the interests of our own people. First of all, who are our own people? Many of us cross multiple groups and at the same time, working only out of self-interest gets us in a trap. It's like the model minority myth where we work out of self-interest but the gains that one group makes come at the expense of other groups. This is not a model of liberation. It's a very problematic model and one that Yuri always resisted. [She] always said and operated by the ethos that my people's liberation is intricately linked to your people's liberation. I cannot be free if you're not free. We need to think about how things impact the most vulnerable among us and work out of those best interests.

Diane Fujino, Professor of Asian American studies at UC Santa Barbara and author of Heartbeat of Struggle: The Revolutionary Life of Yuri Kochiyama

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