Yuri Kochiyama speaks at an anti-war demonstration in New York City's Central Park around 1968. Courtesy of the Kochiyama family/UCLA Asian American Studies Center.
Yuri Kochiyama (1921 – 2014) was a political activist who dedicated her life to fighting for social justice and human rights.
Born and raised in San Pedro, California, Yuri was deeply affected by early events in her life as a Japanese American during WWII. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, her father, just out of surgery, was arrested and detained in a hospital. “He was the only Japanese in that hospital,” Kochiyama recalls, “so they hung a sheet around him that said, ‘Prisoner of War.’” He died shortly thereafter. In 1943, under President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, Kochiyama and her family were sent to a concentration camp in Jerome, Arkansas, for two years. This experience and her father’s death made Kochiyama highly aware of governmental abuses and would forever bond her to those engaged in political struggles. After being released, she moved to New York and married Bill Kochiyama, veteran of the all-Japanese American 442nd combat unit of the U.S. Army.
Kochiyama’s activism started in Harlem in the early 1960s, where she participated in the Asian American, Black, and Third World movements for civil and human rights, ethnic studies, and against the war in Vietnam. She was a fixture in support movements involving organizations such as the Young Lords and the Harlem Community for Self Defense. As founder of Asian Americans for Action, she also sought to build a more political Asian American movement that would link itself to the struggle for Black liberation. In 1963, she met Malcolm X and joined his group, the Organization for Afro-American Unity, to work for racial justice and human rights. Yuri was present on the day he was tragically shot and killed in 1965. In the Life magazine article “Death of Malcolm X,” she can be seen crouched in the background, cradling Malcolm X’s head.
In the 1980s, Kochiyama worked in the redress and reparations movement for Japanese-Americans along with her husband Bill. Support for political prisoners—African American, Puerto Rican, Native American, Asian American, and progressive whites—has been a consistent thread in her work. Yuri Kochiyama witnessed firsthand and fought against the many ways that an Ecology of Inequality persists in the United States.
The word ecology comes from the Greek root “oikos” meaning home or habitat. An ecology is a system that includes invisible connections like relationships. Our homes –cities, towns, countries, planet Earth – are a few examples of ecologies.
The United States, a complex network of social and biological ecologies, was founded on stolen lands, with stolen hands. In order to justify these inequalities, ideologies were created that assigned more value to some lives than others, along lines of race, class, gender and many other dimensions. Though these ideologies have changed over time, their effects are embedded in our ecosystem, in our institutions, in our collective unconscious, and in our relationships with one another.
Since we live in this ecology, by default, we are active participants and can do our bit to reproduce and manage inequality or to act against it to transform our ecology into one of radical equity.
Below, Molly Rose Kaufman reads a text by Yuri Kochiyama discussing her time in a Japanese Internment Camp and how it changed her understanding of historical context.
From Stolen Hands, Stolen Lands: From 1619 to a Just Future at The Riverside Church, NYC, 2019. Courtesy of The Riverside Church.
Yuri Kochiyama, Human Rights Activist