Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Yuri Kochiyama's Revolutionary Spirit

Most USians have never heard of Yuri Kochiyama. Her story is not taught in most schools. The lessons of her experience go unlearned. That is a real shame because Kochiyama has been one of the leading social justice advocates in the United States for more than 40 years:

• In a 1965 Life magazine photograph taken moments after the assassination of Malcolm X, Yuri is the woman in thick black glasses cradling his head in her hands as his bullet-riddled body lies splayed on the floor. As a longtime resident of Harlem, Yuri, a petite Japanese-American woman and mother of six, fought for black nationalism and Black Power.

• In 1977 Kochiyama was one of thirty people who stormed the Statue of Liberty and held it for nine hours to bring attention to the struggle for Puerto Rican independence.

• In the 1980s, Kochiyama and her husband -- whom she met at a World War II internment camp -- lobbied for reparations to Japanese Americans who were imprisoned by the government during that war.

• In recent years, Kochiyama has been a passionate critic of American foreign policy, drawing links between her internment during WWII and the detainment and harassment of thousands of Middle Easterners since September 11.

A 2002 article in the East Bay Express explains, "To mainstream America, the Movement may be dead, little more than textbook photographs of protesters marching arm in arm. But to Yuri Kochiyama, the Movement is alive and well and living in the Bay Area. And one of its most emphatic voices comes not from an idealistic Berkeley student, but from an eighty-year-old who gets around with a walker."

So who is Yuri Kochiyama? What is her story?

Yuri Kochiyama was born in 1921 in San Pedro, California. As teenagers, Yuri and her two brothers lived a red-white-and-blue, oh-so-apple-pie existence. Yuri taught Sunday school, volunteered for the YWCA and Girl Scouts, attended every football game in a town where high-school sports mattered above all else, and even joined the Women's Ambulance and Defense Corps of America, which preceded the Women's Army Corps.

Religious and baseball-obsessed, Yuri grew up as Mary Yuriko Nakahara in San Pedro, a port town just south of Los Angeles. Her father had come to America by himself, later returning to Japan to find a wife. He found her teaching at the school where his father was principal. In San Pedro, Seichi Nakahara owned a fish market. He often did business with Japanese steamships and sometimes brought ship officers home for dinner.

Most of the residents of Terminal Island, located just across the bay, were Japanese immigrants, but in the town where the Nakaharas lived the population was mostly white, working-class Italian and Yugoslavian immigrants. "We Japanese kids never felt embarrassed that our parents couldn't speak perfect English, because no one's parents spoke perfect English," Yuri said.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor radically changed Yuri Kochiyama's life:

But all that changed on December 7, 1941. Yuri had just returned home from Sunday school when a knock came at the door. Three FBI agents wanted to see her father. He was sleeping, having returned just the day before from the hospital where he underwent an ulcer operation. Within minutes, though, the agents rushed him into his bathrobe and slippers and whisked him away. The Japanese were bombing Pearl Harbor.

The next day, agents returned and rifled through everything in the house. For days the family didn't know where their father was. Finally, a lawyer located him in a federal prison across the bay on Terminal Island. Yuri's mother pleaded with authorities to take him to the hospital and send him back to jail when he was better. Meanwhile, Yuri's twin brother Peter, then a student at UC Berkeley, hitchhiked home, since no one would sell him a train ticket. By December 10, both her brothers tried to sign up for military service. Peter was accepted even though his father was accused of spying.

When Seichi Nakahara was finally returned to a hospital, his bed was the only one in the ward bearing the sign "Prisoner of War." The children were allowed to visit only once. Peter came in his uniform, and his father quivered when he saw him. Unable to recognize his son, he thought that someone had come to interrogate him. A week later, on the evening of the 20th, the hospital sent Seichi home in an ambulance. Overjoyed at first, the Nakaharas soon realized he was dying.

"Because he couldn't talk, we didn't know if he could hear," Yuri said. "We waved our fingers in front of his eyes, but he didn't move."

By next morning he was dead at age sixty. The FBI called to warn that anyone attending the funeral would be under surveillance. Friends defied the five-mile travel ban placed on Japanese Americans to show up at his service. FBI agents stood at the doors.

And, of course, internment made a deep and lasting impression on Kochiyama:

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order No. 9066, authorizing the military to remove people of Japanese ancestry from their homes to prison camps. Yuri considers her family lucky because they had more than a month to prepare, while some only had forty-eight hours. After being forced to live for six months in a horse stall at the Santa Anita racetrack, Yuri, her mother, and oldest brother were tagged, numbered, and loaded onto cattle trains. No one knew where they were going. The Nakaharas ended up in a concentration camp in Jerome, Arkansas. Two of Yuri's brothers joined the U.S. military during the war.

They lived in barracks, twelve to a block. The camps ran self-sufficiently. Everyone had a job. First-generation Issei women ordered cloth from the Sears-Roebuck catalogue to make curtains for the toilet stalls. Yuri continued to teach Sunday school. Many of the second-generation Nisei GIs were stationed in the south and would visit by the busloads on the weekends. The young women formed their own USO in the camp for them.

Here is Sandra Oh reading the words of Yuri Kochiyama from Howard Zinn's Voices of a People's History:

Because of her experiences during the Second World War, Kochiyama is most riled by unjust imprisonment -- whether of Movement revolutionaries, Iranians during the Iran-Contra affair, or Middle Eastern immigrants today. She tirelessly follows hundreds of cases of Americans she considers political prisoners, including Mutulu Shakur, Yu Kikumura, George Baba Eng, Bashir Hameed, Abdul Majid, Oscar Lopez Rivera, Mumia Abu Jamal, Ed Poindexter, Mondo we langa, and others. She writes regularly to many of these prisoners and publishes her own newsletter.

Here is a nice segment from Democracy Now! that features Yuri Kochiyama discussing her internment during WWII as well as the assassination of Malcolm X:

She is also featured in a documentary, titled "Freedom Fighters":

So, what makes Yuri Kochiyama unique?

First, as an Asian American, she represents a history, a set of experiences, a perspective, a community that is often ignored, or overlooked, both in the broader U.S. culture, as well as in Movement annals.

Similarly, the same could be said about the fact that Kochiyama is a female activist/organizer/leader. Although we know that women were integrally involved in all of the social movements of the 1960s-era, their contributions are often ignored altogether or overshadowed by male public leaders who hogged the limelight.

Third, Kochiyama is "unusual even among activists. While many pay lip service to the notion of diversity, few, if any, have worked for so many causes and embraced so many distinct ethnic groups. 'I don't think there are too many people you can really say were involved simultaneously in cross-cultures in a real day-to-day basis,' said family friend Nyisha Shakur, who used to make prison visits with Yuri on the East Coast. 'I don't think I know of any others.'"

Here is a good video clip on this point:

Fourth, Yuri Kochiyama's is a profound example of a "life led in struggle." She embodies "a revolutionary spirit," a total commitment to social justice.

More should know about her. Spread the word...

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