“Ga(wo)man”: On Yuri Kochiyama & Sexism/Patriarchy in Japanese American Culture


Click image to read Angry Asian Man's post, "Yuri Kochiyama, A Real American hero"


Note: For readers who are not of Nikkei heritage, Gaman means “to persevere through extremely difficult times with patience, grace and dignity.”

With March being Women’s Herstory Month, we may assume by inference – if we are to look deep enough together – that January, February, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November and December honor the histories of men. Since our ancestors from what today is known as China and Korea, crossed the sea to murder and/or mix with our indigenous Ainu and Okinawan (among many others) ancestors, our various foremothers have and continue to fight with great conviction, to identify and strive towards their own humanity and determination over their own lives.

We have and continue to witness this same warrior spirit today in women like Yuri Kochiyama Sensei. As a Nisei woman who moved to a predominantly Black community in Harlem upon her and her husband’s liberation from the Internment Camps, Yuri took a strong stance in allying herself with Civil/Human Rights movements, and most notably, with a Muslim Minister named El Hajj Malik el Shabazz – better known to the world as Malcolm X. And while Spike Lee chose to rewrite history and remove her existence from his film about Malcolm’s life, reality tells the story of a Nikkei woman befriending and standing in solidarity with one of humanity’s most profound voices for righteous indignation. Reality also shows her gently cradling his head as he lay dying on the stage floor of Harlem’s Audobon ballroom.

Yuri Kochiyama. photo by Glodean Champion
Yuri Kochiyama. photo by Glodean Champion

Yuri Kochiyama Sensei is so important not only to our community, but to the world in general because of the way she helps all those who learn of her, to expand our individual and collective imaginations. There are today, a multitude of “common sense” understandings in the minds of too many Americans, that assume U.S. citizens of Asian heritage always strive to assimilate into white, middle-class American ideals; that Japanese heritage Americans are particularly good at this; that we are “a quiet people”; and that Asian/Japanese American women are especially talented at being assimilated and silent. By destroying these fictitious beliefs almost single-handedly, Kochiyama Sensei paints a new picture of possibility and utter hostility and contempt toward injustice.

As a Yonsei and young adult Nikkei/Asian American heterosexual male, I am filled with gratitude by the wealth of strong women I have had the privilege of growing up around and learning from. My mother always strived to challenge the sexism and homophobia our society taught me in ways that were patient with me and impatient with unjust suffering. I am also thoroughly honored to have had men like my father whom I witnessed so often pushing back in an imperfect/human manner, against his own internalized sexism and homophobia. I would argue that one of the many reasons that sexism survives and thrives today, is due to the ways in which men who openly detest the mistreatment, dehumanization, disrespect, etc. of women, get taught from a very young age, that we will be the targets of that same or similar abuse should we choose to do so. Far more often than not, my Sansei father’s courageous example was both contagious and taught me otherwise.

From the time I was a little boy, I am able to recall the hammer of Patriarchy fall with great repetition, on my female friends and family. It tended to come in the form of what author and clinical psychologist Frantz Fanon labeled “micro-agressions.” These were small, quick and sharp psychological jabs/nicks/cuts that informed my sisters, aunties, mother, grandmothers, etc. from a very young age and in varying ways, that in order to gain love and respect, they must rely on physical appearance as opposed to intellectual substance and moral character. At best, this sounded a lot like, “you’re face is so pretty, honey…are you sure you want to eat all of that?” Often, it sounded like, “f— you, you ugly, stupid b—-!” At worst, it was female friends and family being beaten, raped, molested, disrespected, degraded and/or generally encouraged to doubt their own thinking and intelligence. The addition of racism looks something like the degrading and dehumanizing internet sites that one would find if they are to simply google-search the words “japanese woman.”

Coming from a community that has been associated in many ways with femininity (due to racist stereotypes of Asian/Japanese culture and a “model minority” myth), in a country that associates femininity with weakness, has had various consequences. When I interviewed Filipino Rapper/Educator/Activist, Kiwi Illafonte for my M.A. thesis on Asian American masculinity, he told me that “when people are made to feel inferior, I think it is that much harder for them to acknowledge their own privilege.” In this respect, I would argue that Nikkei men (myself included), are many times unable or unwilling to challenge the unearned privilege that we are born into as males, due to the various hurts we carry from internalized racism and white supremacy.

As Nikkei men, we often times deny the fact that many of our brothers, uncles, cousins, selves and even the Samurai(!) were and are homosexual. We many times deny that the women in our lives mean so much more to us than some escape into orgiastic pleasure. We many times deny that love and belonging matters deeply to us and deny our own ability to shed tears that might move us toward healing ourselves. Patriarchy robs us of these world-changing tools from the time we are babies. However, while this action (or inaction, rather) is completely understandable due to the ways white supremacist bombardment has affected our lives and histories, it is in no way justifiable. And as Yuri Kochiyama reminds us all, if a more just and humane world is to ever come about, we must always strive to know the difference.

For Kaoru Morita Ehara and all of our future daughters (and sons),


4 responses to ““Ga(wo)man”: On Yuri Kochiyama & Sexism/Patriarchy in Japanese American Culture”

  1. Jill Avatar

    Colin – so proud to be your auntie – much love, Jill

  2. Betty McAfee Avatar
    Betty McAfee

    What a fine writing! I have loved watching you grow up to become the strong feminist man you are. Thanks for this good work. Love, Your great aunt Betty.

  3. Cary Avatar

    So moving. Thank you. Love and respect.

  4. Marlan Warren Avatar

    A friend just sent me this insightful and accurate essay that you so honestly wrote. I completely agree and it ties in with my film project: WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR, MOMMY?: KOCHIYAMA’S CRUSADERS that we are currently trying to finish. The film focuses on the roles of girls and women during the Japanese American internment and how they were affected by the war effort mounted by Yuri Kochiyama when she was 20 years old and interned in a U.S. concentration camp. For more info, I hope you will visit our website at http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/99993 and contact me. I’d love to interview you for this film. Thank you for having the courage to say what needs to be said.

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