The Enduring Appeal of Activist Yuri Kochiyama

You’ve seen the photograph. In it Yuri Kochiyama is mid-sentence, holding a handheld microphone away from her mouth. She’s wearing white-framed glasses, especially stark in the black and white photo. They arc in a dramatic cat’s eye under her knitted brow. Her dark hair is tied back under a kerchief, which I’ve always imagined as being red. Her shoulders are bare, her hands slightly veined, and on her wrist is a watch, telegraphing pragmatism and urgency. Her face is bare but determined, joyful, and in the moment. 

When exactly did I see this photo for the first time? Was it in a youth training at the Japanese American Citizens League? Or was it in 2016, when a friend wanted to be Yuri for Halloween? We pored over the image, not knowing that our October fawning over this activist hero would feel uncomfortably prescient come November. Wherever I was in my life, temporally or politically, this image of Yuri has been like a religious icon for me: pushing me onward, encouraging me to engage and speak out, doing whatever I must to help procure a more just future. 

Yuri with her Sunday School kids in Camp Jerome. From the Japanese American National Museum

Yuri Kochiyama was born in San Pedro, California, in 1921. When she was twenty years old, her father was arrested by the FBI after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Detained for over six weeks and arrested right after leaving surgery, Kochiyama’s father died the day after he was released from FBI custody. A few months after that, FDR signed Executive Order 9066, forcibly relocating Yuri, her mother, and her siblings to internment camps in Arkansas. While there, Yuri met and married her future husband Bill Kochiyama. After the war, the couple moved to New York, where they had six children and lived in public housing, becoming more and more involved with various organizing efforts in the city. 

It was when Yuri joined the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), at age 39, in 1960, that she met her dear friend, Malcom X. In an interview with Democracy Now, she recounts seeing him for the first time, mobbed by all the other activists, and how she geared herself up to ask him if she could shake his hand. From that first instance, a deep friendship blossomed, the two exchanging postcards and letters. When Malcolm X was tragically assassinated, it was Yuri who held his head in her lap, begging him not to die. 

Yuri Kochiyama’s activism was voracious and far-reaching. She helped shut down the Statue of Liberty in 1977 to raise awareness of the need for Puerto Rican independence. She was a friend and supporter of Black Liberation Army member Assata Shakur. She led letter writing campaigns to free political prisoners like David Wong, and helped spearhead the movement by Japanese Americans to demand an apology and reparations for their internment. She held open houses in her apartment, inviting Freedom Riders to come speak. She volunteered at soup kitchens. In 2005 she was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Hers was a sense of justice and compassion that transcended borders. 

From our current moment, Yuri’s pursuit of justice and freedom shows us that the fight for liberation isn’t something tied to just one political issue or topic; it’s ubiquitous and mundane and everywhere. It’s a communal, pragmatic pursuit, a lesson that reverberates even louder in our current political moment as we face a pandemic, while demanding the dismantling of racist societal systems. 

Source: Google. Fair use image

Looking at that iconic photograph of Yuri now, I’m reminded that while  Yuri Kochiyama championed and accomplished many things in her lifetime, that isn’t what makes her so memorable in my mind. It’s instead her friendship with Malcolm X, her inviting people into her home, her feeding the hungry that shows me that it’s commitment to relationships and working side by side that makes her so iconic. 

Even in that photograph, Yuri is speaking into the boxy microphone framed in her hand, connected via a spiral cord to what I imagine is a speaker just outside of the frame. She’s not posing alone or shouting into the void. She’s in conversation with a mass of people, lifting up other voices even as she speaks out herself. This isn’t a striking photograph of a singularly powerful person; it’s a photo of someone in the middle of encouraging a crowd, deep in the thick of serving her community. 

Source: Google

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