On Yuri Kochiyama’s 100th birthday, her granddaughter Akemi Kochiyama reflects on her radical anti-imperialist, anti-racist, and internationalist politic and praxis
May 19, 2021
“My priority would be to fight against polarization. Because this whole society is so polarized. I think there are so many issues that all people of color should come together on, and there are forces in this country who want this polarization to take place.”
On May 19, 1921, in San Pedro, California, Mary Yuriko Nakahara—popularly known as Yuri Kochiyama—was born. A formidable Japanese American civil rights activist who was a staunch ally and champion for the rights and freedom of Black, Asian, and communities of color, Kochiyama left an indelible mark in history as a radical leader, organizer, and educator. She was—and still is—a profound example of what cross-racial solidarity and activism can and should look like.
Kochiyama was a survivor of the Japanese American incarceration camps during World War II, during which the U.S. government, enacted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, forcibly imprisoned Japanese Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor. She later met her husband Bill Kochiyama, who served on the 442nd Infantry U.S. Regiment, the segregated all-Japanese regiment which fought on the frontlines of World War II. The couple relocated to New York City and lived in Manhattanville, a low-income public housing project in Harlem, alongside Black and Latino communities. In 1963, Yuri Kochiyama met Malcolm X, an encounter that radicalized her. A subsequent friendship between them blossomed. Both she and Malcolm share the same birthday, May 19, on which Kochiyama was born in 1921 and Malcolm was born in 1925. In 1964, she hosted a reception for three Japanese writers and a cohort of Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb survivors who were a part of a World Peace Study Mission to meet and speak with Malcolm X in her apartment.
A member of Malcolm X’s Organization for Afro-American Unity, Kochiyama was at the Audubon Ballroom (which is now the Malcolm X & Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center) where Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21, 1965. A Life magazine photo shows Kochiyama cradling him in her arms as he laid lifeless on the ground. Kochiyama stated that Malcolm “…certainly changed my life. I was heading in one direction, integration, and he was going in another, total liberation, and he opened my eyes.”
Her activism for Black, Asian, and Third World Liberation spanned the gamut—she joined the Young Lords Party, was active in the Harlem Community for Self-Defense, and was an opponent of the Vietnam War. She invited and hosted countless activists in her home, with her political meetings being affectionately known as “Grand Central Station” or the “The Revolutionary Salon.” Kochiyama was the founder of Asian Americans for Action, an organization with a mission to catalyze Asian American political movement building in solidarity with Black liberation struggles. In 1977, she was a part of a protest with Puerto Rican activists who took over the Statue of Liberty to raise awareness about Puerto Rican independence.
Fighting for reparations for Japanese Americans, she was also on the frontlines to free political prisoners. Kochiyama and Chinese American activist and organizer Gloria Lum co-founded Asians for Mumia, an organization that sought to bring together Asians and Asian Americans to collectively organize for the release of former Black Panther and radio journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was accused of murdering a police officer in 1981. She was also a friend and ally to former Black Panther and ex-political prisoner Assata Shakur. Kochiyama was also a part of the New York Justice for Vincent Chin Coalition, a collective that demanded justice for Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man who was beaten to death by two white men in Detroit, Michigan in 1982. A Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Kochiyama was featured alongside Dr. Angela Y. Davis in the 2009 documentary, Mountains That Take Wing, in which the two powerhouse activists discussed their individual, collective, and overlapping experiences for human and civil rights.
After decades of activism and organizing, Yuri Kochiyama passed away on June 1, 2014.
On her 100th birthday, scholar-activist and community builder Akemi Kochiyama reflects on her grandmother’s life, legacy, and leadership and gives insights to the radical organizer and activist that was, is, and will always be Yuri Kochiyama.
Jaimee Swift (JS): Do you mind sharing your favorite memories of your grandmother? What did she teach you personally, politically, and spiritually?
Akemi Kochiyama (AK): I remember her very fondly interacting with people—in our neighborhood in Harlem, on the streets, in the community, at public events, and especially at performances. She was always so supportive. I had the opportunity to accompany her on her college speaking circuit when I was older. I watched both my grandmother and grandfather so graciously and generously host others in their home. They were so warm and open to everyone who walked through their door—and there were a lot of people who walked through there. For a couple of decades, they would host an open house party on Saturday night where everybody was welcome. I witnessed the last 10 or so years of their hosting. I think as a kid it was a tremendous opportunity to see your family do that over and over again. It teaches you how to be a human being.
Seeing my grandmother interact with so many people—whether it was a random person on the street or a student meeting her for the first time at a college—she was so enthusiastic about every person she met. She wanted to know their life story, where they were from, and how they got where they are. She would take little notes, take their address, and stay in touch with them [laughs]. She would take all that information home and in a very disciplined way, I watched her every night put that information into her address book and organize it. She organized your information by name but also by where you are from and your background so that when she was mailing or inviting people to an event, she could easily find you. It was incredible to watch her graciousness and the respect she had for everyone around her. I saw her interact with well-known people in the political world, celebrities, and everyday people. She treated everyone the same. For me, that was an amazing experience and that experience of her continues to impact me now.
JS: Do you recall your grandmother sharing stories about her friendship with Malcolm X? If so, what stood out to you the most about what she said about him? How did Malcolm X shape your politics?
AK: Yuri talked about Malcolm constantly during my childhood and throughout my life. He was a part of the culture of the Kochiyama family. Prior to Yuri’s passing, May 19 was always about celebrating and honoring Malcolm. Sometimes, I went to three or four events with Yuri in Harlem to celebrate Malcolm’s birthday on May 19. If you were hanging with Yuri that day, that is what we were doing. At some point throughout the day, we would try to do something privately as a family for her birthday but it was always about honoring Malcolm. And she honored Malcolm not only on his birthday but all the time. She met Malcolm a couple of years before he died. She always said meeting him was the beginning of her radical consciousness. He had a profound impact on her and because of him, she started thinking more broadly in terms of having an internationalist and anti-imperialist scope. She really started to understand what was happening in Africa, Asia, and in the United States because of Malcolm. She also began to have a more historical view of certain inequities. That impact resonated throughout my family, including my mother and her siblings. If you look at our letters and family communication back then, we were always talking about Malcolm. We often talked about his radical love for his people and for all people of color.
Because of her and Malcolm’s closeness, Attallah [Malcolm X’s and Dr. Betty Shabazz eldest daughter] was always in the Kochiyama household, as well as her sisters. We were always interacting with Betty and the Shabazz family, so there was always this constant presence of him. Our relationship with the Shabazz family is important to the Kochiyama family. In terms of my politics, Malcolm also influenced me to have a more internationalist view. As someone of Black and Japanese descent, the internationalist view made a lot of sense to me and it connects very neatly with my family’s understandings of anti-racism, anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism, and anti-sexism. My family was already really steeped in Malcolm’s teachings before I was even born. I was born in the midst of Black nationalism, which was a really radical time period. My father was a Black Panther and so was my stepfather. Malcolm’s presence and teachings were always so seamlessly tied throughout my life.
I think what is really interesting is that my grandparents hosted Japanese writers and a group of atomic bomb survivors who really wanted to meet Malcolm. They were on a world peace tour and study mission and they were really interested in Malcolm and believed what he said was relevant to them. Yuri said that more than anyone else, they wanted to meet Malcolm. I think those connections show broader international contexts.
JS: What does solidarity mean to you? In what ways did your grandmother teach you about solidarity?
AK: I had the benefit of growing up in an extremely multicultural, multiracial, and multigenerational radical and anti-imperialist family and broader community. I had many layers in which I was exposed to understanding my identity and the world around me. I am Japanese and Black and I grew up in Harlem but my Japanese family is from public housing. Being in that context made it really easy for me to understand all the connections between capitalism, sexism, racism, imperialism, colonialism, and all the systems that are very purposeful in oppressing various groups of people. In my own experience as a Black Nikkei (a person of African and Japanese descent), I see how these oppressions are very common experiences of Black and Japanese Americans. It is very interesting to see in the media that the current presentation of Black and Asian relations is on anti-Asian violence. However, statistically if you look at the reported anti-Asian incidents of violence, most of the perpetrators are actually not Black. It is very interesting and not surprising to me that what is being presented is Black-on-Asian violence and that is a part of a larger narrative and purposeful reinforcement of the “model-minority” versus Black people. I think that is very destructive. All of that informs my desire to really work against that and to put a longer history and personal context to alternative narratives.
My story is one of many stories. I used to think my story was an anomaly that my family—the Kochiyamas—ended up in public housing. I felt that was only particular to our family history. However, I learned later on about Japanese families living in Manhattanville also. I also learned that a lot of Japanese families coming out of internment camps ended up relocating to predominantly Black communities because of the purposeful disenfranchisement they faced under Executive Order 9066. They lost everything. After they were released from the internment camps, not only did they have to rebuild their lives but they also had the negative stamp of being an enemy of the state. It was actually very common for Japanese communities to be with Black communities during that time period.
Also, another commonality between Black and Asian communities was the G.I. Bill. My grandfather was a part of the 442nd Infantry Regiment, which was the all-Japanese regiment that fought on the frontlines of World War II. They were highly decorated because they lost so many lives. My grandfather was from Harlem and grew up on 126th street in a predominately white orphanage. At the age of 18, he moved to California and he started to see what it was like to be an Asian American, and then Executive Order 9066 happened. He ended up in Topaz, Utah at an internment camp. He jumped at a chance to join the army and to get out of the internment camp to prove his patriotism. He ended up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi at the Camp Shelby Army Base, where there were only Black and Japanese soldiers.
Ironically, my grandparents met in Hattiesburg because [my grandmother] was at an internment camp in Jerome, Arkansas. At the time, she and other young women were given the opportunity to work at an all-Japanese United Service Organization. My grandmother volunteered so she could get out of the internment camp. She arrived at Hattiesburg and she met my grandfather. It was love at first sight. They wrote letters to each other all during the war and they were married right afterward. They eventually moved to New York City, where my grandfather is from.
However, in all of those instances, my grandmother said that when she arrived in Hattiesburg was the first time she experienced Jim Crow segregation. She was from California, so she had never experienced segregation like that until then. She told me that years later she ended up working at Chock full o’Nuts in Harlem with all these Black people from Hattiesburg, and they provided her with more context for her experience. She said it was so incredibly useful for her to have context of what was going on in Hattiesburg because at the time she did not understand.
It is so interesting to know all the ways in which Black and Japanese Americans have had these parallel experiences since World War II that are sort of unspoken or people are unaware of. It is really important to document those stories. I am currently working on my grandmother’s archive right now. Archiving and documenting are really important parts of radical interventions to fight against these narratives that oppress us and try to disrupt Black, Asian, Indigenous, and People of Color solidarity.
JS: You shared you are working on Yuri’s archive. What has the process been like to ensure that your grandmother’s legacy of radical activism and organizing is known to current and future generations?
AK: It has been a long process [laughs]. My aunt and I are co-directors of the Yuri Kochiyama Archives Project. About 12 or 13 years ago, when my grandmother was still alive, we all agreed we should start thinking about her legacy. We all were very aware of her papers because it was a family joke that as her children started to move out of her apartment, the rooms were replaced by all her papers [laughs]. We realized that with all her papers and newspaper clippings, we had to do something about them. Later on, we actually had to move my grandmother out to California in 1999 because she became physically unable to stay in Manhattanville independently and she needed more support. When we had to empty that four-bedroom apartment that she and my grandfather had lived in for almost 50 years, we had all these materials that had to be organized.
It was an incredible process, and I have to thank all my family members who helped. People flew in from California and all over the United States to help with my grandmother’s archives. We were able to organize her archives into categories. We had teams of people working on Yuri’s archives on Black nationalism, Black arts, Asian American politics, and so much more. We were also able to track down some of her work she previously donated. Over the course of her life, she donated hundreds of boxes of her work to UCLA’s Asian American Studies Department, Medgar-Evers College, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and the University of Connecticut. There was also a lot of Yuri’s work in my home, my aunt’s home in California, and a family friend’s home in Brooklyn. We were very concerned about protecting her work.
There were a lot of different processes in terms of archiving her work. We met with archival brokers, which was a new term for me at the time. We went through many iterations of this to find the right type of relationship and we ended up working with Columbia University. It was a long process and it took almost 10 years before we came to an agreement. We ended up selling and donating parts of Yuri’s archive to Columbia University but there are significant parts of the archive already at UCLA. One of the most important goals as a family in looking for the right partners, people, and institutions to work with was working with an institution that could provide the most free public access. However, it has been a long process. I’ve learned the importance of protecting materials and being cognizant of where one’s materials go and who has access.
JS: Being that you are Black Nikkei, how did your family teach you about the importance of honoring and embracing your Black and Japanese heritages and traditions? Were you ever made to feel that you had to “choose” one identity over the other? And if so, how did you navigate this?
AK: I am very lucky with how I grew up. I was able to study classical Japanese dance and karate as a child at a Buddhist temple. My cousin Zulu—who is also Black Nikkei—and I, we studied there and felt very welcomed. I learned so much about Japanese culture. I also worked at the Japan Society. I was in all these spaces of Japanese-ness and also Blackness. I grew up in Harlem. I am from the Manhattanville Project and I grew up in Sugar Hill. I went to public school then to private school and then back to public. Then I went to Spelman College. I felt comfortable with myself in all those spaces in every single way.
One of the first instances I had where my Blackness was questioned was when I was at Spelman. Although it was only in one particular class, it was a really interesting experience. There was a debate in a social science class I was in about what makes people more Black. There was an argument that a person that looked like me could be less Black than a person who had blonde hair and blue eyes. It was an interesting conversation and debate to have for the first time in my life about my Blackness at the age of 19. Being that I was from Harlem, it was interesting to me that I didn’t encounter that type of questioning until I went to Georgia. In retrospect, now that I understand the dynamics of Georgia as opposed to New York, I understand why this came up in that context. I saw for the first time how Blackness and Asian-ness were defined and how often they were defined in conflict with each other in certain contexts.
JS: What are your hopes for the future of Black and Asian solidarities, especially at this political juncture?
AK: It is so important right now—it has always been important. I live in Harlem and there was an incident here where an elderly Asian man who collected cans because he lost his job in the restaurant industry due to the pandemic was brutally beaten by a Black man, who was probably mentally ill. He was in critical condition. It was so disturbing this took place near where I live. For me to know the larger context and the history, it is painful and so wrong. I really feel that if people had more context, education, and understanding of where Black and Asian histories overlap, intersect, and where we have common oppression, we can truly be in solidarity. It is so shocking to see violence escalate especially in a place like New York City. How could that happen here? But it keeps happening here, which says a lot. We can see how the impacts of racism are affecting all of us, and it seems like it is getting worse each day in America. I think Black and Asian conflict is something that people need to really understand, deconstruct, and move on from, and I am doing everything I can to help inform that process. Why would we not be concerned as people of color seeing violence happen to other people of color? It is very basic and it does impact us all.