LOS ANGELES (June 2, 2014) — Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles mourns the passing of Yuri Kochiyama, a giant in the struggle for racial justice for all communities of color.
Born Mary Yuriko Nakahara in 1921, she and her first-generation Japanese immigrant family spent her first years in San Pedro, Calif., a working class neighborhood of Los Angeles. With the outbreak of World War II, they were among the more than 100,000 Japanese Americans rounded up by the U.S. government and interned in camps, their liberty stripped and property stolen – the very worst historical example of Asian Americans being treated as perpetual foreigners. (Kochiyama’s family was relocated to a camp in Arkansas.)
This searing experience proved formative for Kochiyama, setting her on a path of lifelong activism on behalf of marginalized communities. A survivor of the arbitrary use of state power to sanction racist action against her community, she grasped the parallels to Jim Crow and the situation of African Americans in the most immediately personal and visceral ways.
This connection propelled Kochiyama and her husband Bill into their initial engagement with racial justice activism, with the modern U.S. Civil Rights Movement serving as context of their activities. This work led her to make the acquaintance of Malcolm X, with whom she shared a celebrated, if tragically brief, friendship. (Interest in Malcolm X’s first public address after his break with the Nation of Islam led her to the Audubon Ballroom in New York City on February 21, 1965, the occasion of his assassination. When the bullets flew, most everyone else in the place ducked for cover; but Kochiyama raced over to the fallen civil rights leader, cradling his dying figure in her arms.)
In the following decades, Kochiyama would turn her energies toward a range of pressing justice issues: the rights of political prisoners, Puerto Rican independence, nuclear disarmament, and reparations for Japanese American internees, to name just a few. Throughout, her work was fired by an unshakeable commitment to working in coalition with other communities of color and marginalized communities, making her an inspiration and model for generations of activists.
“We mourn the passing of Yuri Kochiyama, who inspired generations of racial justice activists and paved the way for contemporary racial and social justice groups like Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles,” said Stewart Kwoh, president and executive director of Advancing Justice – LA. “We honor her memory by continuing to fight for justice for all marginalized communities and standing up for everyone whose rights have been infringed upon, regardless of race or ethnicity.”
Sharon M. Wong, President, Organization of Chinese Americans – Las Vegas Chapter, said, “As many of you may already be aware, Yuri Kochiyama passed away over the weekend at the age of 92. She was a prominent and influential Asian American social justice, human rights, and civil rights activist who served as an inspiration to all civil rights leaders. Yuri was a lifelong advocate who staunchly supported and advanced civil rights, redress and reparations for Japanese Americans, various movements for ethnic studies, and other causes.
“Yuri demonstrated the need for our community to work within and outside ourselves,” Wong added. “She was perhaps most well-known for her friendship with Malcom X, her work within the African American and Native American movements, and the bridges she built between communities of color. Civil rights is not a zero sum game and her work has single handedly demonstrated this principle. Yuri has shown us that the movement cannot only lift one community but must simultaneously uplift all of us. In 2001, we were honored to award her with the OCA Outstanding Citizen Achievement Award at our National Convention in Seattle, Washington for her work and passion for our community.
“She has paved many roads for our communities and built strong bonds with other communities through her work and dedication to justice,” Wong said. “Though she may no longer be with us, her legacy lives on as a new generation of leaders continues the march toward equality and equity for all. Let us remember her with gratitude and open minds.”
Members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) released the following statements:
Congresswoman Judy Chu (CA-27), CAPAC Chair: “Yesterday, the world lost an American icon with the passing of Yuri Kochiyama. A tireless civil rights activist and fierce coalition builder, Yuri was at the heart of numerous movements, including efforts to provide redress for the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. With her deep commitment to creating a more just society, she mentored and empowered generations of Asian American and Pacific Islander leaders. While she is no longer with us, her life and legacy will continue to inspire Americans for generations to come.”
Congressman Mike Honda (CA-17), CAPAC Chair Emeritus: “Today we celebrate the life, and mourn the loss, of an incredible civil rights activist and community leader. Yuri Kochiyama, a Japanese American who, like me, was interned during WWII, used her experiences from both the war and living in the housing projects in New York City as fuel for her activism and community organizing. During a time of incredible racial tension, her work was inclusive of all communities and connected people across many different walks of life. Mrs. Kochiyama was a dedicated leader who successfully fought for redress for the internment of Japanese Americans. She was a true visionary and trailblazer. She will be missed.”
Congresswoman Barbara Lee (CA-13): “I was deeply saddened to learn of Yuri Kochiyama’s passing yesterday in Berkeley. A champion for social justice and equality, Yuri’s tireless commitment to activism spanned generations. From her experience living in an internment camp during World War II, her fight to secure reparations for Japanese American internment survivors, and her close friendship with Malcom X, Yuri sought to root out racism and injustice in every form. The world will miss her boundless optimism and wisdom, but her legacy lives on in the people she inspired and the change she affected.”
The Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) is comprised of Members of Congress of Asian and Pacific Islander descent and Members who have a strong dedication to promoting the well-being of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. Currently chaired by Congresswoman Judy Chu, CAPAC has been addressing the needs of the AAPI community in all areas of American life since it was founded in 1994.