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Forgotten Foremothers: Yuri Kochiyama

Kathryn S. Gardiner | Published on 5/30/2023

Forgotten Foremothers
Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights

Yuri Kochiyama

On Feb. 21, 1965, 39-year-old Malcolm X arrived at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan, New York City. He and his inner circle, including his wife Betty Shabazz and their children, came for the weekly meeting of the Organization of Afro-American Unity. When he took the stage, gunshots burst out. Amid screams, people fled or ducked for cover. Several bullets struck Malcolm in the chest. 

An associate of the group, Earl Grant, took photos as the rest performed CPR and tried to save their friend and leader. In these photographs, a woman—serious faced and tense—cradles Malcolm’s head in her lap. This was Yuri Kochiyama.

Yuri’s father, Seiichi Nakahara, immigrated to the United States in 1907. He worked picking oranges at a Los Angeles-area orchard before returning to Japan in 1917 to marry Tsuyako Sawaguchi. Theirs was an arranged union, and in many ways, a necessary one; at the time, Japanese women were permitted into the U.S. only in relation to a man, as either his wife, daughter, or mother. The married couple arrived in the country together on Jan. 30, 1918.

They welcomed their first child in December of that same year. Then, in 1921, Mary Yuri and her twin brother Peter Minoru were born on May 19. “That Yuri has the same birth date as Black militant leader Malcolm X (1925) and Vietnamese revolutionary Ho Chi Minh (1890) holds symbolic meaning for her later work as a radical activist,” wrote Diane Carol Fujino in the 2005 book Heartbeat of Struggle: The Revolutionary Life of Yuri Kochiyama.

Later in her life, Yuri would comment that racial strife was largely invisible to her during her childhood. Her family lived in San Pedro, Calif., where her father worked at a fish cannery; they were practicing Christians—theirs was a comfortable working-class lifestyle that fit well into the U.S. American ideal. Though there were few other Japanese people, her neighborhood had a vibrant immigrant community with families from Italy and Slovenia. “We Japanese kids never felt embarrassed that our parents couldn’t speak perfect English, because no one’s parents spoke perfect English,” Yuri told writer Melissa Hung in an article for the East Bay Express in 2002.

This allowed young Yuri to see the world as colorblind and ruled by meritocracy. “To Yuri back then,” Diane wrote, “anyone in the United States, even those with disadvantages could ‘make it’ through hard work and perseverance.”

But the rot of intolerance was there all along. These immigrant families all lived in the same neighborhood because non-white residents were not permitted in homes further north in the white areas. Yuri’s own birth had been at the hands of a local friend, Tanaka-san, because no hospitals allowed Japanese people to give birth in their facilities. 

This reality didn’t cast a shadow over Yuri’s childhood—or in her self-described naiveté, she didn’t see the shadow for what it was. She attended church regularly, went to school and got good grades. She learned tennis and played with her friends. She wrote for the school newspaper. She was driven and bold. At age 16, she wrote to the editor of the San Pedro News Pilot and convinced him to let her write articles about sports (she was given “D and C games,” and less locally popular sports like tennis and gymnastics). She was the first girl elected as San Pedro High School’s student body vice president. She graduated from high school in 1939, then just two years later from Compton College in 1941.

What tensions she might have felt seemed, at this time, largely internal. “I grew up like many other Nisei [second-generation],” she said. “Inside the home we were very Japanese, but outside we were ‘red, white, and blue’ Americans.”

December 7, 1941 was a Sunday, so Yuri spent her morning at her Presbyterian Church. She was a Sunday-school teacher, working primarily with teenage girls. This morning, however, they were ushered out of their classrooms into the assembly hall and Yuri felt a chill to the usual friendly atmosphere of her religious community. “I think what happened at that point was that, for the first time, they realized I was Japanese,” Yuri said. “Before, maybe they just thought of me as an American of Asian extraction. Beyond that it didn’t matter to them what I was. Then, all of a sudden, they realized I was part of an enemy country.”

That morning the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service had bombed the Pearl Harbor naval base in Honolulu, Hawaii. Yuri’s life changed instantly.

She left church and “not ten minutes after I came home, three tall white men came to our house, showing their FBI cards and asking for Mr. Seiichi Nakahara.” Her father had recently been hospitalized for an ulcer surgery and had returned home just the day before, but even with this information, the FBI agents did not pause. “They pushed their way right in, went to the back and told Pop to put on his bathrobe and slippers. They whisked him right out. The whole thing only took a couple of minutes, and I didn’t have a chance to ask anything, not even ‘Where are you taking him?’”

The FBI’s interest was stoked by Seiichi’s involvement with the navy, as well as the art prints on the home’s walls of Japanese naval vessels and their occasional visit from a Japanese naval officer for dinner. “The FBI’s suspicions were supposedly aroused by Mr. Nakahara’s sale of provisions to Japanese merchant ships, such as the Nippon Yunsen Kaisha (NYK), the Osaka Shosen Kaisha (OSK) and Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha (KKK), and ships of the Japanese Navy that visited San Pedro,” Kenji Murase wrote in An ‘Enemy Alien’s’ Mysterious Fate for the National Japanese American Historical Society. “What the FBI overlooked was the fact that Nakahara also sold supplies to the ships of the U.S. Navy.”

For long, terrible days, Yuri and her family did not know where her father had been taken. Her brothers, away at college, returned home; Peter had to hitchhike because no one would sell him a train ticket. Finally, a lawyer working for the family managed to locate Seiichi on nearby Terminal Island in the federal prison. 

After tireless petitioning by Yuri’s mother Tsuyako, Seiichi was released to a San Pedro hospital in early January 1942. On Jan. 13, Yuri and her brothers were finally able to see their father for the first time since his December 7 arrest. His time in the federal prison, denied adequate medical care and suffering hours of interrogation, had taken its toll; he was delirious and largely unable to recognize his own children.

“[I]t was the same ward where they placed seamen who had come back from the Pacific,” Yuri recalled. “My father’s bed was the only one in the ward that had a sheet around it with a sign: ‘Prisoner of War.’ Naturally, we were concerned for Pop’s safety and afraid the merchant marines might beat him up.” Tsuyako managed to advocate for her husband once again and got him moved to another area.

On Jan. 20, he was released back to his family. “When he came home, he couldn’t talk at all,” Yuri said. “He only made guttural sounds. There was no way to communicate with him.” On Jan. 21, he died. 

Over the following weeks, the FBI performed warrant-less raids on California fishing and Nisei communities, arresting people and ransacking homes. On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. This order “authorized military commanders to exclude civilians from military areas. Although the language of the order did not specify any ethnic group, Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt of the Western Defense Command proceeded to announce curfews that included only Japanese Americans,” according to the National Archives. Order 9066 passed the Senate and House of Representatives without a single dissenting vote and was later upheld by the Supreme Court in 1944. Across the nation, over 110,000 people would be arrested solely for being Japanese.

Yuri and her family, like Japanese Americans all over the country, began to see evacuation notices posted on shop windows and telephone poles. They watched neighborhoods cleared and knew their day was coming. “We got our evacuation notices at the end of March [1942],” Yuri said. “After seeing the Terminal Island people leave, we figured we’d have to leave at some point. But it was hard when it actually happened.”

The Nakahara family was relocated to a horse stable in Santa Anita Park, over 40 miles away. Melissa for the East Bay Express wrote, “Yuri considers her family lucky because they had more than a month to prepare, while some only had forty-eight hours. After being forced to live for six months in a horse stall at the Santa Anita racetrack, Yuri, her mother, and oldest brother were tagged, numbered, and loaded onto cattle trains. No one knew where they were going. The Nakaharas ended up in a concentration camp in Jerome, Arkansas.” Arkansas was chosen to isolate Japanese Americans from the West Coast.

Kept in these camps with no ability to leave and no idea when or if they may be permitted to return home, Yuri and the other prisoners tried to make the best of their lives there. The women sewed curtains for the toilet stalls. Yuri returned to teaching her Sunday school lessons, here in this new place with these new students. 

Nisei soldiers serving in the U.S. military would sometimes visit. On one such weekend, the Jerome camp welcomed the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an all-Japanese-American unit, including Manhattan-born Bill Kochiyama. Bill and Yuri fell for each other quickly. Yuri told East Bay Press, “He was very good-looking and he had a different kind of personality because he was brought up in New York and he never knew the kind of racism West-Coast Asians did. He was so confident and outgoing. I was crazy in love.”

With Bill (and twin brother Peter) off at war, Yuri wrote letters from the camp. When Bill began to feel guilty to receive so many letters when others had none, Yuri coordinated a letter-writing campaign within the camp, sending letters to the soldiers of 442nd Regiment.

Yuri was released from the Jerome camp in May of 1944 and returned to San Pedro. “We were filled with hope, excitement, relief as well as apprehension and fear as we made the long journey home,” Yuri said. “We had heard stories of Americans treating returning Japanese poorly, both on the West Coast and throughout their travels. We knew that anti-Japanese feelings ran high. Yet we were thrilled to leave the camps and to return to our beloved hometown.” Fortunately, the Nakaharas returned to a warm welcome from their neighbors who had even watched over their house during their absence. 

Bill was discharged from the military on Dec. 31, 1945, and returned to New York City. Yuri moved across the country to join him. The couple married on Feb. 9, 1946. They would go on to have six children: Billy, Audee, Aichi, Eddie, Jimmy, and Tommy. The bustling family settled in Harlem in 1960 into public housing. Yuri and Bill joined Harlem Parents Committee, which supported a 1964 boycott of segregated city schools, and the Harlem chapter of Congress of Racial Equality, an African American civil rights group. During one summer, the family vacationed to Birmingham, Ala., to see the damage left by the protests and learn more about the Civil Rights Movement. 

In Oct. 16, 1963, Yuri waited at a Brooklyn courthouse. She and her oldest son Billy, along with hundreds of others, had been arrested during a CORE protest against discriminatory hiring practices. Yuri told Democracy Now! in 2006:

And all of the young kids—they were all Black—they were all running downstairs to the foyer, and here was Malcolm coming in through the front door. No guards. He was there just by himself. I was quite surprised because it was a dangerous time for him. And all of the kids, they were maybe between 17 and 25, and they such energetic kids who—they really, like, mobbed him with admiration. Everybody wanted to shake his hands.

And as I watched, about 25 yards away, I felt so bad that I wasn’t Black, that this should be just a Black thing. But the more I see them all so happily shaking his hands and Malcolm so happy, I said “Gosh darn it, I'm going to try to meet him somehow.” And so, I kept getting closer, and I said, “If he looks up once, I'm going to run over there and see if I could shake his hand.” And so, that's what I did.

There was a time where—maybe he didn't look up, but I may have just thought he did or wished he did. And so, then I yelled and said, "Malcolm, can I shake your hands, too?" because all these young people were. And he said, "What for?" And I didn't know at first what to say. “What for?” I said, "Because what you’re doing for your people." And he said, "And what am I doing for my people?" Now, I thought, “What would I say to that?” And so I said, "You are giving directions." And then, he just changed and said—he came out of the center of that, you know, where everybody was there, came out and he stuck his hands out. So I ran and grabbed it. I couldn't believe that I was shaking Malcolm X's hand.

After this brush with its leadership, Yuri joined his Organization of Afro-American Unity. Inspired by Malcolm X’s shedding of his “slave name,” she stopped using the name Mary and began going to exclusively by Yuri. Throughout the ’60s, she worked alongside radical and revolutionary groups. Where there was a fight for liberation, Yuri was there. According to NPR, “FBI files later described her as a ‘ring leader’ of black nationalists and a ‘Red Chinese agent.’”

Yuri and Malcolm stayed in touch via postcards, and then two years later, at only the second or third time they met in person, she cradled his head on her lap after he’d been shot. “People ask, ‘What did he say?’ He didn't say anything. He was just having a difficult time breathing. ... I said, ‘Please, Malcolm, please, Malcolm, stay alive.’ But he was hit so many times.” She never forgot the details and heartbreak of this event.

Tragedy visited Yuri’s life again in November 1966 when her oldest children Billy and Audee, returning from an African ballet performance with friends, were injured in a car accident. Audee was fine and Billy survived a leg amputation, but he never fully recovered. On Oct. 15, 1975, at age 28, Billy died by suicide. Decades later in 1996, Yuri would still be defending his memory. “It’s hard for people to understand,” she said. “Some people think suicide is a cop-out. We don’t. It was his choice, tho[ugh] it hurts us to think about it. He felt he needed to ‘liberate’ himself. He went through so much... We loved and admired him dearly.” 

Yuri’s devotion to liberation in all its forms did not come without compromises. Her activism could, at times, take priority over family. Daughter Audee agreed with author Bibi Angola’s observation of Yuri: She “never saw herself as an individual. She’s always seen herself as part of the collective world. She’s always seen herself as a person who wanted to the improve the world.” Despite any sacrifices, her children consistently voiced deep admiration for their mother’s passions and often joined her at protests and marches.

In 1977, when demonstrators occupied the Statue of Liberty and draped the flag of Puerto Rico across her forehead, the papers referred to “30 Puerto Rican nationalists,” but it was 29 Puerto Rican activists, and Yuri. “Taking over the Statue of Liberty symbolized Puerto Rico’s control of its own destiny and freedom for the incarcerated nationalists. And those possibilities were exhilarating,” Diane wrote. “Plus, Yuri found her jail stay a learning experience. She recalled that in their group were three White lesbian women who spoke about gay liberation. ... ‘It was good for me to hear about the lesbian movement. ... We didn’t really talk about gay rights back then.’”

In the 1980s, Yuri’s activism focused on advocating for political prisoners and reparations for Japanese Americans who had been incarcerated during World War II. She consistently supported Black liberation and opposed bigotry against Muslims, South Asians, and people from the Middle East. In 1989, another shocking car accident claimed the life of Yuri’s daughter Aichi. Yuri lost Bill in 1993. Even grieving and struggling with her own mental health, Yuri remained an in-demand speaker, largely owing to her controversial, anti-imperialist views.

After the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, her speeches focused on the United States’ actions overseas. “It’s important that we all understand that the main terrorist and the main enemy of the world’s people is the U.S. government,” she said. “Racism has been a weakness of this country from the beginning. Throughout history, all people of color, and all people who don’t see eye-to-eye with the U.S. government have been subjected to American terror.”

She was active and fighting until the end, which came in Berkley, Calif. on June 1, 2014, at age 93. Her home was full of flyers, leaflets, and mailings about her latest activism projects and fights.

She left behind an autobiography, Passing It On, dedicated to her grandchildren in 2004. She meant the title quite literally. She wrote, “The ball is now in the hands of the third, fourth, and fifth generation Asian Americans. Some may not have the physical characteristics of their foreparents, but some knowledge of their heritage is important. ... [M]ost important, I feel, is sowing the seeds of love and justice in fertile minds that its regeneration can extinguish the continued fires of greed and imperialist wars. Mothers and daughters united—may make a qualitative different in this world of mushrooming uncertainties.”

Granddaughter Maya, who was only 12 when her grandmother wrote those words, felt the weight of this gift. In a 2011 online project titled “My Journey to Discover the Legacy of my Grandma, Yuri Kochiyama,” Berkley student Maya recalled:

After the ceremony and when all the cousins met up, I remember that we all just looked at each other like we knew that this was something pretty big. Our grandma was passing down her legacy to us. It was awesome, but at the same time, something else hit me for the first time. Pressure. Is everyone going to expect us to become human rights activists and speakers? How can we live up to all that Grandma has done? What if we want to do something totally different? These were some of the questions going through my mind. Although, it was kind of overwhelming at the time, at least that was when I started thinking about my place in this world and the reasons why I do what I do. That was definitely a turning point in my life. 

From reading her book, my family history materialized before my eyes. The stories that I’d only touched the surface of became so real, almost tangible. Because she had grown up a sheltered, “All-American” girl in the city of San Pedro, it made her accomplishments seem more attainable and I started to think, “Hey, maybe I can make a difference..."


Heartbeat of Struggle: The Revolutionary Life of Yuri Kochiyama by Diane Carol Fujino

East Bay Express: The Last Revolutionary

Democracy Now!: Civil Rights Activist Yuri Kochiyama Remembers the Day of Malcolm X’s Assassination to Her Internment in a WWII Japanese-American Detention Camp

Discover Nikkei: An "Enemy Alien's" Mysterious Fate, My Journey to Discover the Legacy of my Grandma, Yuri Kochiyama

Passing It On by Yuri Kochiyama

Wikipedia: Yuri Kochiyama

The New York Times: 30 in Puerto Rican Group Held in Liberty I. Protest

National Archives: Executive Order 9066: Resulting in Japanese-American Incarceration (1942)

Arkansas Heritage: Jerome Japanese American Relocation Center