A famous Life magazine photograph from 1965 shows Malcolm X lying on the stage of a New York City ballroom moments after assassins had shot him down. One of the first people who rushed to his side was a petite Asian woman in glasses who is seen cradling his head in her hands.
A hotbed of black liberation was an unlikely place to find a middle-aged Japanese American mother of six who had grown up teaching Sunday school in a mostly white section of San Pedro.
But history’s twists had turned Yuri Kochiyama onto an unexpected path.
Kochiyama, who straddled black revolutionary politics and Asian American empowerment movements during four decades of activism that was just beginning when she met Malcolm X, died Sunday of natural causes in Berkeley, her family said. She was 93.
She married a Japanese American GI she had met during the war and in 1960 moved with him to Harlem, where she raised a large family and joined her poor black and Puerto Rican neighbors to fight for better schools and safer streets.
Radicalized by her association with Malcolm X, the fiery Nation of Islam leader, Kochiyama plunged into campaigns for Puerto Rican independence, nuclear disarmament and reparations for Japanese American internees.
“I didn’t wake up and decide to become an activist,” she told the Dallas Morning News in 2004. “But you couldn’t help notice the inequities, the injustices. It was all around you.”
I didn’t wake up and decide to become an activist. But you couldn’t help notice the inequities, the injustices. It was all around you.
Known as “Sister Yuri” in a wide circle of African American activists that included the firebrand poet Amiri Baraka and ‘60s radical Angela Davis, Kochiyama also became an advocate for prisoners, organizing supporters across racial lines to press for reconsideration of charges many considered politically motivated.
“She was part of a very unique group of Nisei — primarily women — who were progressive activists … left of liberal,” former state Assemblyman Warren Furutani said Tuesday. “She was an icon, and icon is not an overstatement.”
She was born Mary Yuriko Nakahara in San Pedro on May 19, 1921. Her father, Seiichi, owned a fish and marine supply business and was prominent in the Japanese American community. Her mother, Tsuyako, “was a bit unusual,” said UC Santa Barbara professor Diane C. Fujino, who wrote a biography of Kochiyama in 2005. “She had a college degree. She smoked. She taught piano. At the same time, she took care of the house and children.”
Kochiyama was a model of assimilation. She was believed to be the first girl elected to the student council at San Pedro High School, wrote a sports column for the San Pedro News-Pilot and was a Sunday school teacher at the local Presbyterian church. She went on to study journalism at Compton Community College.
Being of Japanese descent never seemed to be a problem — until Dec. 7, 1941.
That day she was at home with her father when FBI agents knocked on their door and arrested him. He was among hundreds of people of Japanese descent, most of them American citizens, who were unjustly accused of espionage and sent to prison after the bombing at Pearl Harbor. Although he had just undergone ulcer surgery, he was denied medical care in prison and died six weeks later.
Yuri and the rest of the family were sent to an internment camp in Jerome, Ark., where she organized other young women to write letters to the thousands of Japanese American GIs who were serving their country during the war. She was released in 1944 to help run a USO center for the soldiers in Hattiesburg, Miss. That is where she met Bill Kochiyama, a member of the highly decorated 442nd Regimental Combat Team made up almost entirely of Japanese American soldiers.
Married in 1946, she and her husband moved into a housing project behind Lincoln Center in New York City. As the ‘60s dawned, they relocated to an apartment in Harlem and enrolled in “freedom schools” to learn about black history and culture. Soon Kochiyama was meeting with radicals of various stripes. “She was a border crosser,” said Los Angeles actress-activist Nobuko Miyamoto, who met her around 1970 at a gathering of the Puerto Rican nationalist group Young Lords. “She said, ‘Are you connected with any groups?’ That was my entrance into the Asian American movement.”
Kochiyama’s apartment became Grand Central for the left. “People were in and out of our place 24/7,” said her daughter, Audee Kochiyama Holman. “There was not a lot of privacy.”
Furutani recalled that the apartment was so cramped Kochiyama used an ironing board for a desk. “There was a kitchen table, but you couldn’t ever really eat on it. There were always fliers, papers, magazine articles all over it.”
In 1963 Kochiyama was among several hundred people detained at a protest over discriminatory hiring practices. While she was awaiting arraignment at a Brooklyn courthouse, Malcolm X arrived to lend support to the arrestees, most of whom were African American.
When the crowd surged toward him, Kochiyama hung back. “I felt so bad that I wasn’t black, that this should be just a black thing,” she recalled on the news show “Democracy Now” several years ago. “But the more I see them all so happily shaking his hand and Malcolm so happy, I said, gosh darn it, I’m going to try and meet him somehow.”
An iconic Bay Area tunnel, commonly known as the Waldo Tunnel or Rainbow Tunnel, will be named after the late actor Robin Williams.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
At an opportune moment she called out, “Can I shake your hand?” After a brief exchange, he stuck out his hand and a friendship was born.
She did not see eye-to-eye with him at first: She believed in racial integration, not separatism. But she began to study his ideas and joined his Organization of Afro-American Unity; she also became a Muslim for a short time. In 1964 the charismatic leader came to her apartment to meet atomic bomb survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“He certainly changed my life,” Kochiyama said in a 1972 interview for KPFK radio. “I was heading in one direction, integration, and he was going in another, total liberation, and he opened my eyes.”
On Feb. 21, 1965, she went to hear him speak at the Audubon Ballroom, acutely aware of the threats against his life. When the shots rang out, she crawled toward him and “picked up his head and just put it on my lap. I said, ‘Please, Malcolm … stay alive,’” but he was dying.
Over the next decades, she campaigned against the Vietnam War and in 1977 was arrested with Puerto Rican nationalists at the Statue of Liberty. Her prison work intensified. “She was known for writing along the bottom of her Christmas cards ‘Save Mumia! Save Mumia!’”, said Johanna Fernandez, a Baruch College professor involved in the campaign to free Mumia Abu-Jamal, who is serving a life sentence for killing a Philadelphia police officer more than 30 years ago despite his claims of innocence.
Kochiyama moved to Oakland in 1999 after a stroke to be closer to her family. In addition to her daughter, she is survived by sons Eddie, Jimmy and Tommy; nine grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Her husband died in 1993. Two of her children died following car accidents.
She remained active into her 90s, often encouraging youths to become politically involved. After meeting her, the hip-hop duo Blue Scholars wrote a song about her. “When I grow up,” the lyrics go, “I wanna be just like Yuri Kochiyama. And if she ever hear this it’s an honor.”