YURI KOCHIYAMA: Remembering a legend

Human rights activist Yuri Kochiyama was awarded the 2010 Clifford I. Uyeda Peace and Humanitarian Award at the annual Bay Area Day of Remembrance, held Feb. 21, 2010 at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas in San Francisco’s Japantown.  photo by Steve Wake

Human rights activist Yuri Kochiyama was awarded the 2010 Clifford I. Uyeda Peace and Humanitarian Award at the annual Bay Area Day of Remembrance, held Feb. 21, 2010 at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas in San Francisco’s Japantown.
photo by Steve Wake

Hundreds gathered Aug. 3 at the Scottish Rite Center in Oakland, Calif. to celebrate the life of Yuri Kochiyama, the Nisei human rights activist renown for her life-long passion and fervor for radical causes and boundless care and love she displayed to those around her.

Kochiyama died June 1, 2014 at the age of 93. 

Somei Yoshino Taiko opened the ceremony, which former California state Assemblymember Warren Furutani emceed. The service featured an eclectic ensemble of musicians, artists and speakers who knew Kochiyama. Performers included drummer Akira Tana, saxophonist Bob Kenmotsu, bassist Mark Izu, keyboardist Lynne Hall, vocalist Kim Nalley, dancer Arisika Razak, folk singer Charlie Chin and taiko drummer Kenny Endo.

Early Political Awakening

Yuri Kochiyama was born Mary Yuriko Nakahara May 19, 1921 in San Pedro, Calif. to Issei parents. Eddie Kochiyama, her son, said his mother cherished her life in San Pedro, but it was violently upturned after Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor. Her father, a fisherman, was arrested on suspicion of spying. Already frail from poor health, Kochiyama’s father died the day after he was released from custody by the federal government.

“Even as a teenager, mom had a firm belief that what was more important than life was how you treat each person with dignity and respect,” Eddie Kochiyama said. In “My Creed,” written by a teenaged Kochiyama in 1939 and read by her great-grandchildren at the memorial, Kochiyama detailed her thoughts and approach to equality and justice.

She would later say meeting Malcolm X would give her a political awakening, but her lifetime experiences prior to moving to New York served as a foundation for her life’s work.

While Kochiyama started her radical activities with African Americans in New York, she was well known in supporting any cause for the marginalized, including those afflicted by the War on Terror in Post-9/11 America.

“It didn’t take that much for Yuri to take what she learned from the African American liberation movement to the Asian Pacific Islander movement,” Furutani said. “She was really active in the Chol Soo Lee Case, Vincent Chin case, and Bill (her husband) was really active in redress. All of this came together … the dots were easily connected. It was about freedom and equality and hard ass work.”

Greg Morozumi, head of the EastSide Cultural Center in Oakland, noted the potential effect of her wartime experiences. “I think wartime incarceration made her especially interested in the fight for political prisoners,” he said. “Nothing would deter her … this became an issue later when she would fly without caution to war-torn countries.” 

Morozumi said Kochiyama’s key concerns were for political prisoners and added she never missed a chance to correspond with them.

Fellow activist, Angela Davis added Kochiyama’s prominence within many movements including civil rights, African and Asian American movements, for political prisoners, Puerto Rican liberation and the occupation of Palestine.

Even at the end of her life, Kochiyama fought for others. Artist Nobuko Miyamoto visited Kochiyama in April and recalled speaking to her about Mutulu Shakur, who has been in jail for the past 28 years. “Her last wish was for Dr. Mutulu Shakur to be free,” she said. 

While Kochiyama was not doing well in her final months, she had a moment of clarity when Miyamoto mentioned Shakur’s parole hearing in August. “She suddenly came out of this place and said, ‘Mutulu, where is he? What’s happening?’” Miyamoto said Kochiyama asked her to “get everyone together, we have to help Mutulu.”

Miyamoto read a statement Shakur wrote after Kochiyama passed away. “The last stages of her mental capacity must have been a task for her to comprehend. But knowing her and the many agendas she entertained, no thought, no statement, no directive did not have a precise objective,” Miyamoto read.

Grand Central Station

Kochiyama’s apartment was “Grand Central Station” for revolutionaries, Eddie Kochiyama recalled. Many of the speakers at the service echoed that sentiment.  

Furutani recalled visiting Kochiyama during his youth to help with protests. “Every time we go into New York, we’d go down to 126th Street in Harlem, walk into Apartment 3-B unannounced, uninvited, and then they offered food, drink, and a place to stay,” he said.

Morozumi called Kochiyama “a great connector, unifier” who served as a “crossroads for various movements.” He recalled crowded parties in her small apartment that invited many of the leading revolutionary activists, artists, musicians and writers visiting the city. “Anyone in the movement visiting New York had to come through her house at one time of another,” he said. Morozumi recalled being introduced to African American leaders at Kochiyama’s apartment because she “wanted them to know there existed Asian revolutionary organizations, too, and I was one of them.”

Peggy Saika, executive director of Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy, thanked Kochiyama’s family for sharing her. “I really want to echo how much you’ve done for her. On behalf of hundreds and hundreds, perhaps thousands, who stayed at your place in New York, who slept on the sofa or in your beds, invited or followed your mom to events, kept her away from the family by asking her to speak and write for all too many trips, programs and demonstrations,” she said.

Activism and Love

Eddie Kochiyama spoke on behalf of the family. He recounted his mother’s life and the principles she lived by. “Unlike the model minority stereotype for Asians, my mother was less concerned about what college we would attend or what career we would choose,” he said. “In fact, I remember how proud she was of me when I got suspended from junior high school organizing the first anti-war protest there.”

Despite meeting thousands of people over the years, Eddie Kochiyama said his mother remembered “every name, every face and every address” through the copious notes she took and added she “had a unique quality of expressing genuine curiosity to everyone she met.” Her son characterized her as the “ultimate cheerleader,” whether it be for a high school sport team or for a political prisoner.

Other speakers at the event recalled Kochiyama’s genuine love and concern for others. Saika spoke about Yuri and Bill Kochiyama’s work, their genuine devotion to each other and social justice. “You put into practice what Chris Iijima has always said, that it’s not what you look like, but what you stand for,” she said.

Karl Jagbandhansingh met Kochiyama in New York as a young activist in the 1980s. He told the Nichi Bei Weekly that she was the “only radical Asian role model we knew.” In her final years, Jagbandhansingh served as Kochiyama’s caretaker in Berkeley, Calif. He read a poem while holding back tears on stage. “You dared to love us in a world which teaches us to worship power and the powerful,” he read. “You reminded us and affirmed to the world that we are worthy, that we count.” 

Jagbandhansingh reaffirmed his commitment to Kochiyama’s cause for equality and justice, “like you stood up for us, we’ll stand up for the future.”

Morozumi added, that “some will celebrate her as a universal humanitarian, civil rights advocate or as a crusader who fought relentlessly for the downtrodden… But she was no Mother Teresa. I knew Yuri as a militant revolutionary, a mentor and friend who reminded me never to underestimate the purpose, potential and power of our brief lives on this planet to fight for liberation and self determination.”

Davis spoke about her relationship with Kochiyama. Davis considered “a living legend.” The two first briefly met in the 1980s and a decade later started work on C. A. Griffith and H.L.T. Quan’s 2009 documentary, “Mountains That Take Wing: Angela Davis and Yuri Kochiyama.”

“She was, at first, reluctant,” Davis recalled. “She was so humble, she said someone else should do it.”

Davis observed that Kochiyama had the ability to embrace both the individual’s plight and the broader cause and called her a “quintessential activist.”

Kai Williams, Kochiyama’s eldest great-grandchild, recalled learning about how legendary Kochiyama was at the age of 12. “I think I know better now, that my great-grandmother was not a superhero, but a person who possessed the ability to emphasize and recognize the humanity of all people … she was a person who fought tirelessly, extensively against any and all injustices,” she said. “The drive she had, the ability to recognize and dignify the lack of hatred or bias probably cannot be possessed by just anyone … If we can learn from one another and learn to raise each other up the way Yuri did, perhaps then we can truly emulate the incredible person she was.”

“Yuri lived according to her own beliefs and moral standards … She told us to speak up for what we believe, even at the sacrifice of our own comfort,” Eddie Kochiyama said. “We will miss you mom, more than you can imagine. Your spirit, values and unconditional love shall be in our hearts forever.”

 

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