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Yuri Kochiyama, 1921-2014

Commentary by Masao Suzuki |
June 3, 2014
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Yuri Kochiyama
Yuri Kochiyama

Berkeley, CA - I just heard about the passing of Yuri Kochiyama from my father, another Nisei (second generation Japanese American) political activist, who lives in Berkeley about a mile from where Yuri was living. I didn’t know Yuri well, having only met her once when we were both attending the same program in the Asian American community. Nevertheless, she was the single most prominent individual Asian American activist of the 20th century and her life and politics pioneered the Asian American movement born in the late 1960s.

Yuri and her husband Bill moved to Harlem in New York City in 1960 and became involved in the growing civil rights movement. She came to know African American revolutionary Malcolm X and her image of kneeling beside the mortally wounded Malcolm in 1964 was highlighted in LIFE magazine photos. Yuri’s identification with Malcolm and the broader Black Liberation Movement blazed the path for a generation of younger Asian American activists. The first revolutionary Asian American organization that I joined, the I Wor Kuen, was directly inspired by the Black Panther Party and began with a very similar political program in 1969.

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.

Yuri was also involved in the 1980s movement among Japanese Americans for redress (an official government apology) and reparations (monetary compensation) for the 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent put into concentration and prison camps during World War II. Yuri’s own father, Seiichi Nakahara, was arrested the day of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and was denied medicines. He died within days, and the rest of Yuri’s family was sent to the Santa Anita Assembly Center, where they had to live in horse stall, and were eventually sent to a concentration camp in Jerome, Arkansas.

This movement not only won redress and reparations from the federal government in the late 1980s, but also paved the way for Japanese American solidarity with and support for Arab Americans and American Muslims targeted by the U.S. government after Sept. 11, 2001. Yuri was again a pioneer in this solidarity effort, organizing Japanese Americans to join Iranian Americans following the 1979 revolution in Iran to combat the growing anti-Iranian sentiment in the U.S.

Masao Suzuki is a long time activist in the San José, California Japanese American community and chair of the Joint Nationalities Commission of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO).