Great-granddaughter of Yuri Kochiyama discusses new book on activist at J-Sei’s Children’s Day event

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TALKING MOVEMENT — Kai Naima Williams (L), the great-granddaughter of civil rights activist Yuri Kochiyama, speaks about her new book “The Bridges Yuri Built: How Yuri Kochiyama Marched Across Movements” with fellow activist Miya Saika Chen. photo by Erkki Forster

EMERYVILLE, Calif. J-Sei held its Children’s Day book event on May 5, featuring a conversation with Kai Naima Williams, the great-granddaughter of Japanese American civil rights activist Yuri Kochiyama, about her newly released book “The Bridges Yuri Built: How Yuri Kochiyama Marched Across Movements.”

Community members from all ages filled J-Sei’s Thomas Fujisaka Atrium to hear Williams speak with fellow activist Miya Saika Chen about her great-grandmother’s enduring legacy and the journey of penning the book.

The book, which Anastasia Magloire Williams illustrated, was conceived after a tweet Kai Naima Williams posted about Kochiyama went viral in May 2020 and an editor contacted her about writing a children’s book about Kochiyama.

“No one has written a children’s book about Yuri before. She’s appeared in different sort of anthologies of children’s literature, but there’s never been a book that was just sort of a biography for kids about her,” Williams said.

Williams, who is a multidisciplinary writer and artist, noted the challenges of writing a children’s book, but emphasized the importance of telling Kochiyama’s story to children.

Kochiyama, who was born in 1921, is best known today for her work as a civil rights activist while she was based in Harlem during the 1960s and 1970s. But according to Williams, she was passionate about community service from a young age. As a school girl, Kochiyama was a Girl Scout and cheerleader, and worked on her high school’s school newspaper.

In 1942, during the World War II, Kochiyama and her family were forcibly relocated to a prison camp in Arkansas as part of Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

“(Her time in the concentration camp was) incredibly formative, and also transformative for her in terms of her consciousness about race relations and racism,” Williams said.

After the war, Kochiyama moved to New York City, and eventually became heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement with her husband Bill Kochiyama during the 1960s. The book chronicles how Kochiyama was drawn into organizations such as Asian Americans for Action and the Black liberation movement.

“I knew that it was really important to follow her into her entry into activism in Harlem, and to talk about the ways that being in community with Black Americans politicized her and radicalized her,” Williams said.

After a first meeting in 1963, Kochiyama became good friends with Malcom X, with whom she exchanged letters, and invited him over for her regular Saturday dinner gatherings, until his assassination in 1965, when he died in her arms.

Kochiyama was committed to fighting injustice, including advocating for the rights of political prisoners and for reparations to the Japanese Americans who were unjustly incarcerated during World War II, until her death in 2014. However, the book only chronicles her life until the mid-1960s. According to Williams, there was simply too much ground to cover, and she wanted to focus on Kochiyama’s development into an activist.

“Yuri was always active even before she was an activist,” Williams said. “So I really want children to take away the idea that they can currently and immediately jump in and be in service to others.”

Some of Kochiyama’s family and friends attended the event and spoke fondly about their interactions with the late activist and her ability to connect with people and build community. Patty Hirota-Cohen, who was an activist as part of the Asian American Movement, met Kochiyama in Harlem in 1971.

“We would have meetings at her house… we would gather there all the time. It was a really exciting time period,” Hirota-Cohen said.

Building bridges between different people and groups, as the book’s title suggests, was Kochiyama’s strength. Williams reflected on the continued importance of Kochiyama’s legacy of coalition-building.

“I think that it is crucial to be in solidarity with others and to be coalitional, particularly when we’re talking about communities that have been historically positioned against each other, like Black and Asian communities in the United States, to serve the interests of white supremacy,” she said.

Kochiyama’s daughter, Audee Kochiyama-Holman, was there to support Williams. Kochiyama-Holman works at Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus and is the co-founder of the Yuri Kochiyama Solidarity Project, which seeks to “improve communications and solidarity between BIPOC communities.”

She was happy to see her mother’s legacy of social justice work be passed on to younger generations through Williams.

“It makes me proud to see that through a children’s book, we could share her message of giving back to the community to support important social justice work and to be involved in making change,” she said.

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