Yuri Kochiyama was a Japanese American political activist and lifelong champion of civil rights for Black, Latino, Native American and Asian-American communities.
Kochiyama was born in 1921 in San Pedro, California to Japanese immigrant parents Seiichi Nakahara and Tsuyako Nakahara. Kochiyama grew up in a predominantly white neighbourhood and became the first female student body officer at San Pedro High School, where she also wrote for the school newspaper. Kochiyama continued her education at Compton Junior College, studying English, journalism and art. She graduated in 1941, the same year that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour. Kochiyama’s father was arrested by the FBI and held in federal prison, where he was denied medical care. This ultimately led to his death the day after his release in 1942.
Kochiyama and her family were forced into internment camps with around 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry. During her years in the War Relocation Authority internment camp at Jerome, Arkansas, Kochiyama decided to devote herself to struggles against racial injustice. Following the end of World War II, she married, and moved to New York City to start a family. Kochiyama lived in housing projects where she held weekly open houses for activists in her apartment. In 1960, she moved to Harlem where she joined the Harlem Parents Committee to fight for safer streets and integrated education and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). In 1963, she met Malcolm X during a protest against the arrest of about 600 minority construction workers in Brooklyn, who had been protesting for jobs. Kochiyama joined Malcolm X’s pan-Africanist Organization of Afro-American Unity and activism took a far more radical turn, focusing on black nationalism. She was at the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights, New York City with him when he was assassinated while speaking to the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU). She held him in her arms as he died.
During, and following the Vietnam War protests, Kochiyama became a mentor for young activists in the Asian American movement and advocated for reparations and a government apology for injustices toward Japanese-Americans during the internment. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act which awarded $20,000 to each Japanese-American internment survivor. Kochiyama then went on to actively oppose racial profiling and bigotry against Muslims, Middle Easterners, and South Asians in the U.S, which she felt was similar to the experience of Japanese Americans during World War II.
Kochiyama participated in the Black, Asian-American, and Third World movements for civil rights, human rights, Black liberation, nuclear disarmament, reparations for the internment of Japanese Americans, ethnic studies, anti-war, and other social justice issues. She spoke at over 100 high schools and colleges, including Harvard, Yale and Princeton and served the community by teaching English to immigrant students and volunteered at soup kitchens and homeless shelters in New York City.
Kochiyama continued her activism until her death in 2015. She was the recipient of a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 for her work in civil rights and in 2014 she was honoured by the White House on its website for dedicating “her life to the pursuit of social justice, not only for the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, but all communities of colour.”