Yuri Kochiyama (1921–2014) was a Japanese-American civil rights activist known for her untiring advocacy for civil and political rights in the United States. During World War II, then a young woman, Kochiyama was placed with her family in a government-mandated internment camp for two years. Together with her husband, she fought for reparations for internees, many of whom lost their homes, businesses, and possessions. She also advocated on behalf of other social-justice issues, and in 2005 she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Yuri Kochiyama grew up in a middle-class family in southern California, lived in a mostly white neighborhood, and belonged to the local Presbyterian Church. Her comfortable world changed on December 7, 1941, when the FBI showed up at their door and took her father into custody without explanation. The U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawai'i, and been attacked by Japan, and all West Coast residents of Japanese ancestry were now considered potential enemies of the United States. The Kochiyama family was soon sent to an internment camp in far-away Arkansas, where they spent the remainder of the war. Angered by this injustice, Kochiyama would spend many years seeking reparations for her fellow Japanese-American internees and fighting for social justice. Although she became controversial due to her sometimes extreme views, her lifelong dedication to peace and civil rights won her wide respect.
Kochiyama was born Mary Yuriko Nakahara on May 19, 1921, in San Pedro, California, the daughter of Japanese immigrants. Her father, Seiichi Nakahara, was a merchant in the fishing industry, and her mother, Tsuyako Sawaguchi Nakahara, was a college-educated piano teacher. The family lived happily in a mostly white neighborhood, attending the local Presbyterian church. Kochiyama had a twin brother, Arthur, as well as an older brother, Peter. She attended San Pedro High School, where she wrote for the student newspaper, played tennis, and was the first female to be elected to the student council. After graduation, she attended Compton Junior College, studying English, journalism, and art. During and after college, she taught Sunday school at her family's church.
A businessman involved in California's busy fish industry, Seiichi Nakara had become a U.S. citizen and had connections to prominent Japanese, including the Japanese ambassador to the United States. The FBI was suspicious of his correspondence with acquaintances in Japan, thinking that these letters might contain coded information. Nakahara had also supplied Japanese ships docked at San Pedro with fish and other goods, and he had entertained their officers in his home. He might, the government agents reasoned, have supplied these Japanese nationals with information about U.S. military bases. Nakara was held in detention for six weeks and released after no evidence of wrongdoing was found. His health had been affected by his captivity, however, and he died within 12 hours of his return.
Kochiyama's father was not the only Japanese American to have been taken by government agents; following his arrest, many West Coast families of Japanese heritage were in contact, asking what men had been taken. The western states held the greatest Asian immigrant population, and the U.S. government considered these states at greatest risk for further attacks by Japan due to their location. Military leaders also viewed with suspicion of people of Japanese descent, and within weeks this attitude was common among the U.S. population at large.
The Issei (Japanese for immigrant), of whom several thousand were arrested in the days following Pearl Harbor, were investigated closely by the federal government. No evidence of espionage, sabotage, or any illegal activity was discovered in these cases; on the contrary, all those arrested were found to be loyal to the United States. Their arrests had created lasting suspicion, however, and this quickly extended to the Nissei, their offspring, a generation whose members were U.S. citizens from birth.
On February 19, 1942, shortly after Seiichi Nakara's death, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which mobilized the relocation of approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast to internment camps located in the interior United States. Kochiyama, together with her mother and brothers, was forced from her home and sent to Santa Anita, California, staying in a temporary camp converted from a horse stable. Within weeks, the family was moved to an internment camp in Jerome, Arkansas, where they would live for three years. They were fortunate to remain together; it was not unusual for family members to be separated during this process.
From a popular and community-oriented young woman, Kochiyama now found herself imprisoned with hundreds of other Japanese Americans. All of them were forbidden to own property, to vote, or to step outside the camp's walls. All had stories to share regarding their treatment at the hands of U.S. authorities. While Kochiyama had experienced some racial discrimination in her California neighborhood and watched it increase as the fear of Japanese people spread, she now feared for her safety, realizing that the rights of American citizens were no longer accorded to her. Strong willed and determined to fight this injustice, she listened carefully to her fellow inmates’ experiences and awaited the day that her internment would be over.
Life in Japanese internment camps was difficult, with most people occupying poorly built, cramped quarters and having access to few amenities. To keep spirits up, internees did what they could to improve their dwellings, and most occupied their time with study or hobbies. Kochiyama organized a letter-writing campaign to the thousands of Japanese-American soldiers fighting in Europe. She met one such soldier, her future husband Bill Kochiyama, when he visited relatives at the camp were she was staying. A private in the U.S. Army, Bill had been assigned to an all-Japanese regiment fighting on the front lines. Falling in love, the two agreed to postpone marriage until after the war, due to the high risk he faced in battle. In December of 1944 Executive Order 9066 was suspended by the president and Kochiyama and her family were soon free to go back to their home. Like many Japanese returning from the camps, their former sense of safety and feeling of community were gone.
At one such protest, Kochiyama and several hundred others were arrested for blocking the entrance to a construction site. A courtroom appearance followed, at which she met well-known civil-rights leader Malcolm X. The two became friends, and their talks challenged each other's thinking. Malcolm X was associated with a black separatist group and advocated the separation of races, Kochiyama was committed to nonviolence and integration. As his stance eventually softened to a more inclusive approach, hers became more radical. She eventually joined the black nationalist Revolutionary Action Movement, which was inspired by Marxist communism. It was at this point that she ceased using her Anglo name Mary and became known as Yuri Kochiyama.
On February 21, 1965, less than a year and a half after meeting Malcolm X, Kochiyama was in the audience to see him speak when members of an extremist group assassinated him amid a hail of bullets. She pushed her way to the stage, where she cradled Malcolm's head in her lap as he died. When the moment was captured in a photograph published in the preeminent Life magazine, it forever linked her to radical protest.
Following Malcolm X's murder, Kochiyama dedicated to helping those who put their own lives at risk for the sake of the greater cause of social justice. In addition to advocating for black militants such as Mumia Abu-Jamal and Assata Shakur, both of whom had been convicted of murder, she aided radicals who were increasingly targeted by the FBI for arrest or surveillance, tracking the government's harassment in painstakingly detailed records. She wrote letters to political prisoners and became a source of information for those interested in helping and looking forward to their release. Her efforts were appreciated, and many credited her support with sustaining their own passion and commitment. Kochiyama became known for her warmth and caring when interacting with protestors and dissidents from numerous causes. She was also a careful and respectful speaker, seeking areas of agreement among different groups.
Continuing to petition the U.S. government, Yuri and Bill Kochiyama led the fight in gaining financial reparations for Japanese Americans interned in camps during World War II. Most internees lost everything during their incarceration and had to rebuild their lives after the war in a hostile environment. Their fight ended on August 10, 1988, when Republican President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Civil Liberties Act, which acknowledged and apologized for the injustice done to internees, set aside funds for education regarding internment, and awarded $20,000 to each surviving internee. The couple were by now committed social activists, and they turned their attention to fighting the racial profiling of Muslims, Middle Easterners, and others, viewing it as on a par with what had been done to Japanese Americans.
In her broader activism, Kochiyama became a controversial figure, holding sometimes contradictory views regarding racial integration and separation and also endorsing the use of violent methods to end war. She spoke in support of terrorists if she thought their methods could prove detrimental to the U.S. government, supporting a Puerto Rican group that opened fire in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1977, and in 1986 aiding Yû Kikumura, a Japanese communist who had attempted to bomb a U.S. Navy recruitment office. Kochiyama even voiced support for the brutal communist rebel group Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), which terrorized rural Peru from the 1980s through the early 1990s and left 70,000 people dead.
While her ideology became increasingly radicalized, on the personal level, Kochiyama remained a compassionate and supportive member of her local community. She volunteered in soup kitchens and homeless shelters, and taught English to immigrants. An avid reader, she kept a journal of favorite quotations, which ranged from the poetry of Emerson, Keats, and Yeats to political thought and literary classics. She was a frequent speaker at high schools and colleges, and wanted to be remembered as one who helped people “build bridges rather than walls.” She eventually returned to California, where she died, in Berkeley, on June 1, 2014. In addition to her memoir Passing It On, Kochiyama's story was the subject of the documentary films Yuri Kochiyama: Passion for Justice (1993) and Mountains That Take Wing (2009).
Fujino, Diane Carol, Heartbeat of Struggle: The Revolutionary Life of Yuri Kochiyama, University of Minnesota Press, 2005.
Gore, Dayo F., and others, editors, Want to Start a Revolution? Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle, New York University Press, 2009.
Kochiyama, Yuri, Passing It On: A Memoir, UCLA Asian-American Studies Center, 2004.
Swirski, Peter, editor, All Roads Lead to the American City, Hong Kong University Press, 2007.
New York Times, June 4, 2014, William Yardley, “Yuri Kochiyama, Rights Activist Who Befriended Malcolm X,” p. B19.
Christian Science Monitor online, http://www.csmonitor.com/ (May 1, 2016), Story Hinckley, “Yuri Kochiyama: A Nisei ahead of Her Time.”
Democracy Now Independent Global News online, https://www.democracynow.org/ (February 20, 2008), Amy Goodman, “Civil Rights Activist Yuri Kochiyama on Her Internment in a WWII Japanese American Detention Camp & Malcolm X's Assassination.”❑