Honoring Yuri Kochiyama's Legacy of Asian and Black Solidarity

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Yuri Kochiyama and her granddaughter, Akemi Kochiyama smile for a photo while in Yuri's apartment in Harlem.
Yuri Kochiyama and her granddaughter, Akemi Kochiyama smile for a photo while in Yuri's apartment in Harlem. (Via Akemi Kochiyama)

Yuri Kochiyama's story is American history. Detained as a Japanese American and sent to a concentration camp during World War II, she would emerge as a well-recognized freedom fighter and community organizer whose work spanned the latter half of the 20th century and continued into the 21st.

She fought against Islamophobia after 9/11, denounced nuclear war after World War II and kneeled beside her friend, Malcolm X, just after he was assassinated.

Now, nearly a decade after Kochiyama's passing, activists are honoring her legacy by building solidarity among oppressed people of color around the world. Activists like her granddaughter, Akemi Kochiyama.

On Tuesday, March 8, International Women's Day, Akemi will lead a discussion with Frances Perez-Rodriguez, Shaun Lin, Lehna Huie, and Julien Terrell—a collective of intersectional activists, artists and organizers.



The virtual event, Remembering Yuri Kochiyama's Legacy: Her life as a political and feminist activist and champion for racial solidarity, will be a recorded roundtable conversation posted to Hella Heart Oakland Giving Circle's Facebook page. Co-presented by Hella Heart Oakland, The Women's Foundation of California, and New Breath Foundation; the conversation will be moderated by Jaimee Swift of Black Women Radicals.

Over the phone, Akemi tells me that the central focus of the discussion is the young organizers and activists "who are all way to too young to have met Yuri." But, she says, "These are people in their late 20s and early 30s, who learned through their organizing, and came to understand [Yuri's] work."

The event is the first of three virtual discussions (other discussion dates TBD) that the crew plans to hold with Hella Heart Oakland, leading up to the launch of the Yuri Kochiyama website and solidarity fund, which aims to support grassroots activists, educators and organizers. The launch is scheduled for May 19, the 101st anniversary of Kochiyama's birth.

A Japanese American woman who was born and raised in the Southern California neighborhood of San Pedro, Kochiyama and her family were sent to a concentration camp in Jerome, Arkansas after the United States implemented Executive Order 9066 during World War II.

Yuri, birth name Mary Yuriko Nakahara, married Bill Kochiyama, a veteran who served as a part of the all-Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The duo relocated to Harlem, where Yuri became politically active in the 1960s. Through her political activism and community organizing, she met El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, widely known as Malcolm X.

The two were contemporaries in the struggle for civil rights and international solidarity among people of color around the world. Yuri became a member of Malcolm X's Pan-African collective, the Organization for Afro-American Unity.

An image of Yuri Kochiyama taken from the cover of her autobiography, Passing It On: A Memoir.
An image of Yuri Kochiyama taken from the cover of her autobiography, 'Passing It On: A Memoir.' (Via UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press)

Born on the same day four years apart, their friendship was immortalized in photographic form when Kochiyama was shown cradling Malcolm X's head in the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan on Feb. 21, 1965, moments after the great orator and leader was assassinated.

Often associated with this incident, Kochiyama did so much more.

She fought for nuclear disarmament by working with hibakusha⁠—people who survived the 1945 nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 1977 she stood alongside members of the Young Lords as they took over the Statue of Liberty to draw attention to the struggle for Puerto Rican independence.

Kochiyama was a vocal advocate for the passing of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, after which Congress granted $20,000 and a formal apology to each survivor of the U.S. government's Japanese internment. In 2005, she was one of 1,000 women around the globe nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for their activism.

Kochiyama spent her later years living in the Bay Area. After she passed away in June 2014, a special acknowledgement from the White House quoted Yuri Kochiyama's 2002 speech from the steps of San Francisco's Federal Building: "An injury or injustice to one is an injury and injustice to all."

This legacy has poured into her granddaughter, Akemi Kochiyama.

Akemi is an educator and organizer, and in 2017, along with a handful of artists, she created From Harlem With Love: A Mural for Yuri and Malcolm. She says the duo's work toward solidarity across Asian and African American communities is as meaningful today as it was 60 years ago.

A mural dedicated to Yuri Kochiyama and Malcolm X in Harlem.
A mural dedicated to Yuri Kochiyama and Malcolm X in Harlem. (via Akemi Kochiyama)

When the mural in Harlem went up, participants in the project started doing speaking engagements. They held seven public workshops over a three year period: in Yuri's former home of the Manhattanville Public Housing Projects, at the Brooklyn Museum, and at a "Know Your Rights" workshop with Colin Kaepernick at the Audubon Ballroom—now called the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Cultural Center.

Akemi says the goal of this Tuesday's conversation is for people to realize "how much we have in common, and how much more powerful we are in fighting for justice if we're on the same side of this."

The history is so important, Akemi emphasizes, and there's a reason that the stories of people of color working together to resist oppression and imperialism are not widely taught. "This has gone on a long time," says Akemi. "And it's important, particularly in this moment, to understand that this history exists."

Akemi's belief—that solidarity amongst oppressed people is an empowering step toward liberation—echoes the words of her grandmother, who urged people to "build bridges, not walls."

Remembering Yuri Kochiyama's Legacy: Her life as a political and feminist activist and champion for racial solidarity starts at 4pm on March 4, 2022. Registration information and further details here. 

Editor's note: KQED is using the term "concentration camp" to describe the facilities in which Japanese American and Japanese people were imprisoned by the United States during World War II. The term "internment" most appropriately applies to the detention of foreign nationals during wartime — but during World War II, 70,000 U.S. citizens were incarcerated in camps. The phrase "internment camp," in this context, is a euphemism and therefore misleading. "Concentration camp" is most associated with the facilities where millions of Jewish (and non-Jewish) people were forcibly relocated and massacred by the Nazis during the Holocaust. It is also appropriate for the experience of Japanese and Japanese American people in the U.S. during World War II, as the definition of "concentration camp" is "a place where large numbers of people, especially political prisoners or members of persecuted minorities, are deliberately imprisoned in a relatively small area with inadequate facilities, sometimes to provide forced labor or to await mass execution."