Yuri Kochiyama: A life in struggle

by Mumia Abu-Jamal

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Yuri Kochiyama – Photo: Kamau Amen-Ra

Her name was Yuri, a Japanese woman born in the United States. I hesitate to call her a Japanese-American, for to do so suggests she was a citizen.

In light of how she, her family and her community were treated during World War II, especially after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, to call any of them citizens would be an exaggeration.

Yuri was barely 20 when she, her parents, her brothers and the Japanese living on the West Coast – some 110,000 children, women and men – were forced to leave their homes, their schools, their jobs and businesses, and were transported to concentration camps in the nation’s interior.

Two-thirds of these people – like Yuri – were born in the United States, and thus American citizens according to the Constitution.

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Yuri Kochiyama cradles the head of her friend, Malcolm X, a moment after he was shot in the Audubon Ballroom on Feb. 21, 1965. – Photo: LIFE Magazine

This meant nothing. They were Japanese – that was enough.

She remembered her experiences in those camps as a naïve banana (yellow on the outside, white on the inside). She recounted to oral historians:

“I was red, white and blue when I was growing up. I taught Sunday school and was very, very American. But I was also provincial. We were just kids rooting for our high school …

“Everything changed for me on the day Pearl Harbor was bombed. On that very day –Dec. 7, the FBI came and took my father. He had just come home from the hospital the day before. For several days we didn’t know where they had taken him. Then we found out that he was taken to the federal prison at Terminal Island. Overnight, things changed for us.”*

In December 1944, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “military necessity” was the basis of the mass evacuation and detention of tens of thousands of Japanese in the Korematsu case.

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Yuri and Malcolm Shabazz eagerly embrace when they finally met after years of correspondence while Malcolm was in prison. Yuri was like a godmother to Malcolm, grandson of her dear friend, Malcolm X. – Photo: JR Valrey, Block Report

Yuri would later become a strong supporter of Malcolm X and the Black Freedom Movement. She joined and worked in various liberation organizations and grew to become an icon of the Black Freedom and Asian-American rights movements.

Born Yuri Nakahara on May 19, 1921 (four years to the day before Malcolm was born), she married Bill Kochiyama. The Kochiyamas moved to Harlem in 1960, where they worked for the civil rights movement, in education and fair housing practices.

Yuri Kochiyama, freedom fighter, after 93 summers, has become an ancestor.

*Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove, “Voices of a People’s History of the United States,” second edition (NY, 7 Stories Press, 2009)

© Copyright 2014 Mumia Abu-Jamal. Read Mumia’s latest book, “The Classroom and the Cell: Conversations on Black Life in America,” co-authored by Columbia University professor Marc Lamont Hill, available from Third World Press, TWPBooks.com. Keep updated at www.freemumia.com. For Mumia’s commentaries, visit www.prisonradio.org. For recent interviews with Mumia, visit www.blockreportradio.com. Encourage the media to publish and broadcast Mumia’s commentaries and interviews. Send our brotha some love and light: Mumia Abu-Jamal, AM 8335, SCI-Mahanoy, 301 Morea Road, Frackville, PA 17932.

Yuri sprang to life: ‘We have to help Mutulu,’ she repeated over and over

by Nobuko Miyamoto

I visited Yuri mid-April with my friend Patty Hirota. We didn’t expect much because the last couple visits she had been drifting in great discomfort. We were filling time browsing the wall of photos above her bed, cozied with her stuffed animals. She stirred a bit and seemed willing to eat. While feeding her, I said, “Mutulu is coming up for parole in August.”

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Angela Davis and Yuri Kochiyama in the film “Mountains That Take Wing,” directed by C.A. Griffith – Photo: ©QUAD Productions

She somehow sprang to life. “Where is he? What is happening?” Patty and I looked at each as Yuri went on, “We have to get everyone together … We have to help Mutulu,” she repeated over and over. Then she lifted her frail hand in my direction and said, “You have to get everyone together.”

I shared this with Mutulu when Tatsuo and I visited last weekend. Mutulu, as always, shared his deep concern for her. On the morning of June 1, dear sister Yuri finally left her body.

With loving respect for her wishes … ”We have to get everyone together.”

From Mutulu:


From your last discussion concerning your visit to Yuri, I yearned for her to be free, something that we do not like to say to each other. But most of my life, Yuri’s spirit has been a comforting factor in all matters to our lives in struggle. A true ally and sister, friend and comforter.

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. She was a person with a driving thirst to accomplish, and in her next life we better get on our Ps and Qs. She will be guiding our lazy spirits that yearn for rest. We must answer Yuri’s call and her example of a thriving spirit in all stages of existence.

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Yuri greets Amiri Baraka. Her love for activists and artists devoted to the struggle was fierce and passionate. – Photo: Kamau Amen-Ra

She called my name and remembered my love for her. I am thankful. For me, it’s an affirmation of the role she will play in my life at her next stage. I will always love her and remember her. Hear from you later, Yuri. Enjoy the ride. I see your beautiful smile already.

Fate is a strange and twisted fiber that runs through the material of our lives. The inevitable meeting between Yuri and I was not by chance. The combined destiny of our lives, at least for me, was spiritual. We followed each other in a dynamic evolution. I benefited extraordinarily from Sister Yuri’s sacrifices and audacity in the struggle.

She became a bridge to her world that I did not know. I began to see through her eyes, meeting brothers and sisters of I Wor Kuen, discovering acupuncture from her introduction. And she followed me to places, unbeknownst to my then young mind, in search for the truth. As part of the Republic of New Africa, we went together to Mound Bayou, Mississippi, to El Malik (the first piece of land dedicated to RNA). She followed to help me watch my steps, never untangling or disloyal to our collective fate.

I’m not missing you, Yuri, for you are within me. Your life has set a standard with which solidarity is built. There are very few in the world that can compare a lifestyle I committed myself to over these years to give honor to your mentorship. I’m so thankful for your example. Much of what our struggle has accomplished, you have been a driving force. I am so thankful.

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Freedom fighters Yuri Kochiyama and Kiilu Nyasha have been close friends for decades.

I take the prerogative to thank you for the many who are waiting for you in the universe, and the many who are unaware of your transition. We love you so very dearly. I will continue to follow your example, and spread that special love for life and justice all over the world.

It is said that still waters run deep. But your love, Yuri, was never still, yet very deep. Troubled waters was when you shined and made love manifest. Such love is always in the eyes of the stars.

We will never forget WA 6-7412 (reference unknown – ed.). Look out, comrades out there in the universe! Here she comes! What a show! And to the Kochiyama family, lest we forget, love goes on forever because it is born in a part of us that cannot die. I love you all and thank you for being Yuri’s rock and inspiration.

Love you always. Stiff resistance,

Your brother,

Dr. Mutulu Shakur

Send our brother some love and light: Dr. Mutulu Shakur, 83205-012, Victorville USP, P.O. Box 3900, Adelanto, CA 92301.

Remembering Yuri

Billy X Jennings, Black Panther historian: I met Yuri when I was 14 years old. This woman from Japan welcomed me into her family and I in mine. I connected Yuri to my daughter Ksisay when she was pregnant with my first born grandchild and they became the best of friends. Ksisay loved Yuri so much she named her daughter Yuri Amala Sadiki Torres.

Yuri Kochiyama became my grandchild’s godmother. She was the greatest godmother one could hope for. She would do things like send Lil Yuri dolls that were Latin and African books with the same and different cultures. But Yuri always loved freedom fighters. And she didn’t play around with Lil Yuri. She wanted to know did you write your grandfather? How is he? Her grandfather is a POW Kamau Sadiki.

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Yuri and Elbert “Big Man” Howard at Richard Aoki’s Memorial Service at UC Berkeley in May 2009 – Photo: Carole Hyams

I don’t know if anyone can understand, but I am mourning Yuri Kochiyama like she was my mother.

Carole and Elbert “Big Man” Howard, Black Panther alumni: On June 1, an amazing and beautiful revolutionary woman passed on and is with the ancestors. Although she was already very elderly when Big Man and I met her at various events, her spirit and interest in each person she came in contact with was amazing.

Critical Resistance: We look to Yuri Kochiyama’s legacy and see a lifelong commitment to movement building for self-determination and dignity. From her participation in the civil rights movement in Harlem with Black and Puerto Rican neighbors in the early 1960s to her work on revolutionary Black nationalism alongside her close comrade Malcolm X (she wrote the chapter, “The Impact of Malcolm X on Asian-American Politics and Activism,” in the book, “Blacks, Latinos and Asians in Urban America: Status and Prospects for Politics and Activism,” edited by James Jennings (London: Praeger, 1994), to her support of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army, to her work in the 1980s pressuring the U.S. government for reparations and a formal apology for internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, we see how her activism cultivated and strengthened the deep radical roots of our movement today.

We look to Yuri Kochiyama’s legacy and see a lifelong commitment to movement building for self-determination and dignity.

Today the legacies of the Black radical tradition and revolutionary Asian American movements are ever alive in our movement to abolish the prison industrial complex and to build self-determined, healthy and vibrant communities. We honor the multi-racial revolutionary legacy that Yuri leaves us with and are humbled to continue working towards a future that she so tirelessly convinced us is possible.

Asian Law Caucus: Yuri was a legendary champion of civil rights who dedicated her life to the pursuit of social justice across communities of color. … Yuri dedicated herself to a lifetime of activism in so many causes ranging from advocacy for political prisoners who were victims of human rights violations, to anti-apartheid organizing and international liberation movements including Puerto Rican independence. Her commitment to social justice has inspired an entire generation of activists.

Yuri was a legendary champion of civil rights who dedicated her life to the pursuit of social justice across communities of color.

Rest in power, Yuri, and thank you for your legacy and inspiration.

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This time-worn card has warmed our hearts at the Bay View all these years. Yuri sent it when the Bay View “went dark” for a couple of months in 2008 after its little headquarters building was lost to foreclosure in 2008, so we couldn’t afford to print a paper, and the website had been hacked. She cut the masthead out of the paper and pasted it to the card. She mentions Marritte Funches, a prisoner who had been writing eloquently about the dire situation in Nevada. May Yuri’s strong words of encouragement to so many continue to motivate us and echo through the ages for generations to come!

Marina Drummer, Angola 3 Coalition: Yuri was one of my early mentors in getting the Angola 3 anti-solitary confinement effort going, and right through to last year there was never a time that I visited her that she didn’t ask about Albert and Herman. She was always gracious with her time and her memories and always supportive of the work we did, giving interviews, writing to Herman and Albert, speaking on the case.

Yuri had an extraordinary way of making whoever she was with feel very special. She always paid close attention to what her visitors were saying. Herman and Albert always asked about Yuri, as she was their special friend and Robert King always visited her whenever he came to town.

Yuri had an extraordinary way of making whoever she was with feel very special.

In 2003, Yuri Kochiyama said about the Angola Three: “Despite the fact that one of the Angola Three, Robert King Wilkerson is out, the name will remain the same, the Angola Three. The two that are still left in the infamous Angola Prison, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, are part of the trio that became recognized for their bold, revolutionary consciousness. The Angola Three aroused the social and political awareness of their inmate comrades in one of the harshest prison environments. The oppressive conditions of Angola did not restrain the Three from organizing a Black Panther Party prison chapter. The Three led campaigns to stop prison rape and improve conditions of the slave plantation. For their boldness, they became targets of the prison administration.

“Each of the Angola Three has spent some 31 years behind prison walls; 29 in solitary. Wilkerson has come out, still strong and outspoken; and Wallace and Woodfox are still unbroken and fighting to make prison a more humane place. These kinds of warriors must never be forgotten. They have been at the front line of struggle, fighting against the worst kind of brutalities and humiliations. We must get Wallace and Woodfox out!”

The Angola 3 Coalition’s sponsor, Community Futures Collective, is the fiscal sponsor of the Kochiyama family’s Yuri Kochiyama Archives Project and donations will be gratefully accepted by the family towards preparing the archives to be deposited in an appropriate institution where students and other researchers will have access to the treasure trove of material she collected over her life time of activism.

VIDEO from http://www.democracynow.org/2006/2/21/civil_rights_activist_yuri_kochiyama_remembers: