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Yuri Kochiyama’s Biography

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Minority groups have suffered and endured much discrimination, oppression, racism, and social injustices in America. Asian and Asian American women are inclusive of this group. In addition to the above, they have experienced sexism, mistreatment, and objectification due to the added fact of being of female gender. Asian women were categorized and grouped as “women of color” and had to deal with the harsh laws and policies of immigration. In the workplace, they were unfairly and unjustly treated and endured poor working conditions. They were unequally represented and unfairly compensated for the work they completed while facing complete discrimination. Asian women experienced violence, both physically and mentally, were degraded, and stereotyped as sexual, erotic beings solely meant for the pleasure of men. They were not granted the same privileges and freedoms as Americans, and were viewed as unworthy of citizenship, but were expected to adhere to the ways of the American civilization and culture. Asian women have struggled to be accepted and viewed as more than just the identity given to them by preconceived notions and stereotypes. Asian American women like Yuri Kochiyama have fought to rectify the social injustices experienced by minorities and was a political activist who fought for civil and human rights for minority groups.

Early Life

On May 19, 1921, Yuri Kochiyama was born. The name given to her at birth was Mary Yuriko Nakahara and she was born and raised in San Pedro, California. Her parents were both Japanese immigrants who migrated to the United States and she had two siblings, one of which was her twin brother named Peter, and an older brother. Yuri’s father, Seiichi Nakahara, worked as an entrepreneur fish merchant who had links with those of the superior group of Japanese and provided them with ships, whereas as her mother, named Tsuyako Nakahara, had received a college education and was a stay at home mother who maintained the household. Yuri’s mother would also periodically teach piano. During her years as a youth, she was a teacher for children at Sunday school, engaged in sports, and led various organizations for girls. She was also the first female to become vice president of her high school, San Pedro High, where she graduated in 1939. Yuri contributed as a writer for the sports section of the newspaper called the San Pedro News-Pilot. She went on to attend Compton Junior College and graduated in 1941 after studying English, art, and journalism (Woo, 2014).

Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941 by the Japanese, marking a traumatic event in history for Americans and the United States. In addition to the current state of events, Yuri Kochiyama’s life was personally affected. On this same day, Yuri was home with her father, who was recovering from surgery, when FBI agents arrived and arrested and detained him. He was held at Terminal Island Federal Penitentiary (Weitz, 2014). He was unjustly accused of being a spy for the Japanese since he worked as a fish merchant who provided ships and had links to the Japanese. Kochiyama’s family later found out that the FBI had been monitoring them for some time. During his time in detainment, Yuri’s father, Mr. Nakahara, was interrogated regarding the broadcasts from Japan and a cable message, which the FBI had intercepted, sent to him from his longtime friend in Japan named Ambassador Kichisaburo Nomura. In that particular message, the Ambassador was sincerely apologizing to Mr. Nakahara for not being able to make the trip to see Mr. Nakahara and indulge in “sanma” due to having to tend to business in Washington. However, that specific word used during their conversation, which was a Japanese word, “sanma”, was foreign to the FBI, and was assumed to be a code word of some sort. Unbeknownst to the FBI, “sanma” was a type of fish enjoyed by the Japanese (Murase, 2007). The accusations and suspicions accounted for the unjust detainment of Yuri’s father, which aggravated his health causing it to deteriorate and ultimately lead to his death. Six-weeks after being released from detainment, Mr. Nakahara passed away on January 21, 1942.

Experience in Internment Camp

In February of 1942, President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 was signed and implemented in which the military was to remove any residents that were considered as enemy “aliens” from all western parts and relocate them. All second generation Japanese Americans, known as Nisei, were categorized as aliens and therefore sent to internment camps also known as “assembly centers.” Yuri and her family are Nisei and were impacted by the signing of the Executive Order 9066. They were relocated to an internment camp located in Jerome, Arkansas where they remained for approximately two years. It was during this time that she began to realize and experience the many social problems along with racism in the South known as Jim Crow laws. These laws implemented racial segregation in Southern parts of the United States. Yuri’s experiences during her young adulthood, including the unwarranted death of her father, are what prompted her awareness of the misuse of power by the government along with the issues politically. While in internment, Yuri remained positive and engaged with other individuals in the camp. Just as she had done prior to being relocated to the camp, she restarted her teaching of Sunday school. These group of youth to whom she taught to became known as the Crusaders, a group she created and structured. The Crusaders would compose and write numerous letters to the Nisei soldiers who were serving in the United States army during WWII as a means of providing a sense of support and positivity. Yuri endured a positive encounter at the Jerome USO. It was here that she met her husband-to be, Bill Kochiyama, who was a Nisei soldier in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which was a part of the United States Army that consisted of Japanese-Americans (Woo, 2014; Yardley, 2014).

Marriage, Activism, and Malcolm X

In 1946, Yuri Nakahara and Bill Kochiyama were married. They moved to New York City and lived in a small housing project. Together, they created six children. Despite the small size of their apartment, they had many guests and social gatherings due to their activeness and involvement in the community and the support they provided to those Chinese and Japanese soldiers headed to serve in the Korean War. Together, they wrote and produced Christmas Cheer, which was a family newsletter they continued every year between 1950 and 1968. During the early part of the 1960’s, Yuri and Bill made the decision to move to Harlem, moving to a neighborhood that housed working-class Puerto Ricans and Blacks. It was this move that added to the stimulation of her political activism. She extended invitations to other activists to speak at her home. In order to gain knowledge surrounding the culture and history of blacks, both Yuri and her husband enrolled in what was known as “freedom schools.” The Civil Rights Movement was in effect, and actively expanding, and Yuri became actively involved in this movement, fighting for equality and civil and human rights. The Civil Rights Movement was a movement occurring throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s that encompassed the struggle for African Americans to achieve freedom, equal rights, and privileges and eradicate racial discrimination and segregation. She fought for equal, quality education for inner-city youth by orchestrating boycotts at schools. In 1963, upon learning of the discrimination endured by the Puerto Ricans and the Blacks in regard to hiring for a particular job site, Yuri joined the protest which called for the hiring of these individuals, and ultimately was one of the hundreds of people who were arrested and detained. She was held at a Brooklyn courthouse and it was there that she had her first encounter with Malcolm X. She reached out to gesture for a handshake, and from that moment forward, a friendship was created. Yuri extended an Invitation to Malcolm X in June of 1964. Malcolm X accepted her invitation and arrived to meet with Japanese survivors of the atomic bomb that occurred in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There were also journalists present who were currently on a world peace tour. Yuri became interested in Malcolm’s fight for the liberation for Blacks and became a member of his group, the Organization for Afro-American Unity. While attending one of Malcolm X’s speeches held at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem on February 21, 1965, Yuri witnessed the assassination of her friend Malcolm X. Without hesitation, she ran to his side and placed his head in her lap as he lay dying, taking his last breaths. The scene in which Yuri has Malcolm X’s held cradled in her lap has been captured in pictures (Wang, 2013; Weitz, 2014; Woo, 2014).

Despite Malcolm X’s untimely death, Yuri continued her political activism and fight for human and civil rights. She led the Asian American Movement during the latter part of the 1960’s and became a member of the Asian Americans for Action to aid in their stand against the infringement upon Japan, Vietnam, and Cambodia by that of the United States military. She looked to create an Asian American movement that was more politically charged and could connect with the fight for the many freedoms sought for Blacks. She frequently visited prisons, lending support to imprisoned political activists and in the year 1977, she united with Puerto-Rican nationalists at the top of the Statue of Liberty to aid in their non-violent campaign for five political prisoners to be released. As the years passed, Yuri never stopped her fight for rights. She was also active in the movement for reparations for Japanese-Americans. Both Yuri and her husband campaigned for the reparations for those Japanese Americans detained during World War II, and ultimately won that battle. It resulted in President Reagan signing the Civil Liberties Act in 1988, thereby making it law, and thus those Japanese Americans who were detained during World War II were given $20,000 each, a form of justice in a sense (Weitz, 2014; Woo, 2014).

As Yuri aged, she continued to be active and involved politically, even as far as into her 90’s, while providing motivation to the younger generation to do the same. On June 1st, 2014, Yuri Kochiyama passed away. She was 93 years old. Throughout Yuri’s life, she was a contributor to social change by advocating for and engaging in social justice and human rights. She actively engaged in multiple human and civil right movements for Asian American and Black minority groups within the United States, as well as the movements located in Third World countries. She engaged in movements that focused on the liberation of the Black, Asian-American, and Hispanic, or Latino, minority groups and the fight to eradicate racism and undo the many injustices endured by minorities. Additionally, she fought for equal and quality education for inner-city youth. Yuri Kochiyama was one of the one-thousand women to receive a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in 2005 for the “1,000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize 2005” project. This award recognizes those women whose goal is to promote justice and peace worldwide and who have demonstrated determination and dedication to ensuring that the present and future generations lives are made better. Yuri Kochiyama was a powerful and influential active figure who made many contributions to the rectification and reparations of civil and human rights for minorities in society. “Our ultimate objective in learning about anything is to try to create and develop a more just society than we have seen,” (Kochiyama, 1993). In one of Yuri Kochiyama’s speeches, where she spoke about her detainment at the internment camp, she made a statement which I felt was powerful and one that is still relevant today. Kochiyama (1991) stated, “I was so red, white and blue, I couldn’t believe this was happening to us. . . I was naive about so many things. The more I think about, the more I realize how little you learn about American history. It’s just what they want you to know. . . . ,” (Kochiyama, 1991, “Voices of a People’s History,” para. 6). It seems when history is taught, it is never inclusive of the facts in its entirety, instead, it seems to be only what they feel they want us to know instead of the full reality. Yuri Kochiyama was an Asian-American woman who exhibited strength and determination regardless of the many obstacles encountered and did so with such a positive and motivating spirit.

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