Yuri Kochiyama : Hero for All

This was a piece I wrote for EnClave Los Angeles. It was originally published here. Yuri Kochiyama is one of my dearest heroes, who is so much more than a friend of Malcom X. She was a Japanese-American activist who worked tirelessly to unite all oppressed racial minorities in America. She truly lived an incredible life. 

August 31st, 2014: A sunny and quiet afternoon. Outside the Japanese American Cultural Community Center in Little Tokyo, a crowd of all kinds began to gather and file into the Aratani Theater. Elderly Japanese Americans dressed in their Sunday best walked through doors held open for them by young Black student activists sporting ‘End Racism’ t-shirts. To a casual observer, it might have been an odd sight. But in fact, the extremely diverse crowd of all ages was a perfect testament to the legacy of the powerful soul everyone had gathered to honor: Japanese American radical human rights activist, Yuri Kochiyama.

Inside the packed theater, a photo montage projected images from an incredible life: snapshots of a young Yuri in her Japanese American family home in San Pedro; portraits of Yuri and her twin brother in their US Army and War Medic uniforms; Yuri and her husband Bill Kochiyama smiling over their adorable brood of six children, packed in their Harlem apartment. But interspersed among the familial pictures were photos of another kind: Yuri leading civil rights marches through New York city streets; Yuri and Mutulu Shakur on a stage before a crowd of protesters; Yuri in old age, wheelchair adorned with ‘Free Mumia’ stickers and surrounded by student activists. Truly, this was a human spirit who had touched countless lives in very real, powerful ways. This was a person whose passion and love had ignited more of the same in all whom she met. One needed only to look at the gathered crowd to see living proof of a woman who reached across all boundaries of race, class, and nationality to foster activism and a lasting will to change the world for the better.

As the lights dimmed and the curtain rose, three drummers from the East LA Taiko group began the memorial with an incredible taiko performance.

The program’s emcee, Mr. Warren Furutani, spoke to the crowd, “We don’t quite know what this is yet, a celebration, a memorial service- we may all just end up marching down the streets after this!” His proclamation was met with a hearty round of applause. Mr. Furutani then spoke about his first trip to the Kochiyama’s Harlem apartment, and how it was the hub of activist activity in the 60s for Asian Americans, New Africans, and just about anyone willing to fight. “Yuri’s spirit will live on, as the movement will live on, in the lives and hearts of those here today. If Yuri were alive today, she would be in Ferguson, Missouri!” Again, a thunderous eruption of applause.

The eldest Kochiyama son, Eddie, gave a touching eulogy for his mother, in which he highlighted the familial, matriarchal side to Yuri. He recalled being expelled from junior high for organizing an anti-war protest, and the fear he felt when he had to confess to his parents. Only, Yuri jumped up and hugged him, smiling and yelling “I’m so proud of you!”

In between speakers, clips from various films about Yuri were shown. The first, from Yuri Kochiyama: Passion for Justice, gave a brief history of Yuri’s experience with World War II: how her father was baselessly taken by the FBI after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, only to die from mistreatment days later, her family then forced into a Japanese American concentration camp in Arkansas; Yuri recalling how she had always been a community organizer, but this was her catalyst for becoming politically aware and active.

Keiki Kawashima & Leslie Jones then gave a heartening and warm performance of a Maya Angelou poem, ‘Life Doesn’t Frighten Me’, accompanied by Scott Nagatani on the piano and Taiji Miyagawa on bass.

Bibi Angola gave a passionate and beautiful eulogy for Yuri, touching upon how Yuri had inspired her as a young activist, and mentored her for decades. She recounted stories of Yuri’s kindnesses and sense of humor, drawing many chuckles from the audience.

Traci Kato-Kiriyama, a community organizer and spoken word artist who hosts Little Tokyo’s popularTuesday Night Project open mic events, read a beautiful piece she wrote in honor of Yuri. It was so telling that every speaker could clearly recall the moment they met Yuri, what she had said to them, how she had made them feel special and loved. Traci read Malcolm X’s letter to Yuri’s daughter Audee: Do what you must to leave this world a better place. She closed by reminding us how Yuri had echoed that sentiment as well.

Aiko Yoshinaga-Herzig, a former member of Asian Americans for Action and prominent activist in her own right, recalled the early years with her friend in New York. Specifically how Yuri would run from one group meeting to the next, from an AAA to a Black Liberation Army gathering. “She said she never tired, because she had no time to think of herself, to be tired.” Yuri’s strong belief that all peoples should be united in the struggle for equity and liberation is certainly one of her most powerful, lasting impressions. One could not help but think how sorely needed that belief still is today. But one glance at the people gathered in that very theater affirmed how far-reaching Yuri’s influence is, and how very inspiring her words remain.

A friend of Yuri’s, prominent Japanese American actress and musician Nobuko Miyamoto, enchanted the theater with a heartfelt song written for Yuri and her dear friend, political prisoner Mutulu Shakur. “A single stone, many ripples in the pond, reaching out, far, far beyond…” Many times Yuri’s devotion to political prisoners was referenced; she was known for writing thousands of letters during her lifetime. This is a perfect example of what made Yuri’s approach to activism so personal, so powerful: she knew the heartbeat of struggle was in the small things, the kindnesses, the resistance to division and the need for open-armed inclusion. Multiple speakers also brought up Yuri’s lifelong habit of writing down the names and addresses of every person she met, in one of the hundreds of spiral notebooks she carried with her. This attention paid to the individual, above the theories and creeds of movements themselves, is how Yuri’s impact has stayed so alive in all the people she touched. Current movements could certainly gain a lot from this mentality.

One of the most touching moments was a reading of Yuri’s creed, by her grand daughters Maya & Aliya Kochiyama. “To never humiliate or look down on any person, group, creed, religion, nationality, race, employment, or station in life, but rather to respect. … To love everyone; to never know the meaning of hate, or have one enemy.”

A film clip from Mountains That Take Wing: Angela Davis & Yuri Kochiyama showing the two icons in conversation about the history of political groups crossing borders to join one another was especially poignant.

Ryan Kochiyama read a statement from Yuri’s grandchildren, further shedding light on Yuri’s family life. “Growing up, everyone always told us, ‘Your grandma is a badass.’ We thought that was funny, because adults were saying a bad word to us. But, today we can all say, we are fiercely proud to have a grandma who was such a badass.”

June Kuramoto, of the Japanese American band Hiroshima, performed a transcendent piece “When Winter Cries” on the koto, an ancient Japanese instrument. In sharp contrast to the taikos’ thundering call to attention, the koto’s gentle strings evoked remembrance and reflection.

In closing, Yuri’s youngest son Tommy thanked everyone for attending, and invited the audience to remember Yuri’s life and example, and to live together in the service of others.

In a perfect ending, a video tribute to Yuri’s life was played along with the Blue Scholar’s stirring, passionate song “Yuri Kochiyama.” Footage of Yuri taking over the Statue of Liberty in protest for Puerto Rican independence; of Yuri rousing crowds of students with her steady, impassioned speeches; Yuri being led in handcuffs into the back of a police van; the iconic images of Yuri cradling Malcolm X’s head as he lay dying from gunshot wounds, and ending with photos of an octogenarian Yuri, beaming smile on her face, surrounded by the next generation of activists she inspired. “Holla, swear to my kasamas, That when I grow up I wanna be just like Yuri Kochiyama. Imma serve the people proper, When I grow up, I wanna be just like Yuri Kochiyama.

“Keep expanding your horizon, decolonize your mind, and cross borders.” – Yuri Kochiyama, May 19, 1921 – June 1, 2014.

Rest in Power, sister Yuri