Yuri Kochiyama is a prominent Japanese-American activist whose work was deeply admirable. Considered an important non-black ally, she left a lasting legacy as a lifelong champion of the civil rights movement in the Black, Latino, Native American and Asian-American communities.
During four decades of activism, Yuri Kochiyama straddled black revolutionary politics and Asian American empowerment movements. Through her campaigns for Puerto Rican independence, nuclear disarmament and reparations for Japanese American internees, Kochiyama worked closely with the Revolutionary Action Movement and had a radicalized and unlikely friendship with Malcolm X, the fiery Nation of Islam leader.
Mary Yuriko Nakahara was born on May 19, 1921, in San Pedro, California to Japanese immigrant parents. Her father Seiichi Nakahara was a successful entrepreneur and fish merchant while her mother Tsuyako Nakahara was a college-educated homemaker and piano teacher. Yuri Kochiyama grew up in a largely Caucasian neighborhood and attended San Pedro High School. While in high school, she played sports, wrote for the school newspaper (San Pedro News-Pilot) and is believed to be the first girl elected to the student council. She was also a Sunday school teacher at the local Presbyterian church. She further graduated from Compton Junior College in 1941 with a degree in English, journalism, and art. Yuri Kochiyama was politically inactive until her father was taken into custody by the F.B.I. following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. While in detention, her father who was an ulcer patient was denied treatment and died the day after he was released.
During the Second World War, she and her family were forced to relocate to internment camps in Jerome, Arkansas where they spent two years. It was while at the internment camp that she first met her husband, Bill Kochiyama, a Japanese-American soldier serving in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, one of the most decorated units in American military history. After World War II, the couple married and moved to start their family in New York where Kochiyama became an activist for the African American Civil Rights Movement.
Yuri Kochiyama’s Activism, Relationship With Malcolm X
She lived among many black and Puerto Rican neighbors and witnessed racism toward African-Americans. This racial discrimination inspired her to become an activist and fuelled her interest in the civil rights movement. In the 1960s and ’70s, Yuri and Bill became active in the civil rights movement. Kochiyama held and participated in open houses for activists in her family’s apartment while her husband was also actively involved in the freedom movement and enrolled in the Harlem “freedom schools” to learn about black culture and history. The couple also became members of the Harlem Parents Committee.
Kochiyama met Malcolm X, the radical Nation of Islam activist for the first time in October 1963, at a Brooklyn courthouse. They soon became friends and Malcolm X helped radicalize her activism as well as inspired her work on black nationalism. However, her friendship with Malcolm X was shortlived as he was shot by assassins during a speech in New York City on 21 February 1965. Kochiyama is also famously noted for being with Malcolm X during his final moments. Shortly after the assassins shot Malcolm X, a historic photo in Life magazine shows Kochiyama cradling his wounded body and holding his head on her lap.
Yuri Kochiyama and her husband remained dedicated activists to social causes inspiring younger generations of activists, especially in the Asian American movement. She staged several demonstrations in the 1970s pushing for the rights of political prisoners and campaign against nuclear disarmament. She was an advocate for prisoners, irrespective of racial lines pressing for reconsideration of charges many considered politically motivated. In the 1980s, The couple pushed for reparations and a formal government apology for Japanese – American internees. Though Kochiyama fought for the equality of people across racial lines, she, however, had some radical and controversial views such as her support for Osama Bin Laden whom she viewed as a freedom fighter rather than a terrorist.
For her relentless struggles and revolutionary aspirations against imperialism and racial separation, Yuri Kochiyama was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.
Family and Death
Yuri married Bill Kochiyama in 1946 and their union produced six children – two girls and four boys some of whom took after their parents and become actively involved in the Asian-American movement, black liberation struggles, and the anti-war movement.
Yuri lost two children during her lifetime, a son, Billy who died in the 1970s, and a daughter, Aichi, who died in 1989. Her husband passed away in 1993 while Kochiyama died of natural causes on June 1, 2014, at age 93. She was survived by four children, Audee, Eddie, Jimmy and Tommy, nine grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.