The RW Interview
Yuri Kochiyama: With Justice In Her Heart
Revolutionary Worker #986, December 13, 1998
Yuri Kochiyama has been a dedicated fighter against the injustices of the system for almost 40 years. During World War 2 her family was forcibly removed from their home to an internment (concentration) camp along with 120,000 other Japanese-Americans. While at a camp in Arkansas, Yuri came face-to-face with the segregation of the Jim Crow south. The parallels between the oppression of Black people and the treatment of Japanese-Americans were striking. In 1960, Yuri and her husband Bill Kochiyama moved to an apartment in a housing project in Harlem. Yuri became involved in the Civil Rights Movement and was part of the major struggles of the '60s and '70s, especially the national liberation struggle of Black people and other oppressed nationalities. She has supported political prisoners and the fight of oppressed people against imperialism around the world.
Yuri Kochiyama was in the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem the day Malcolm X was assassinated and held him in her arms as he lay dying. She supported the work of the Black Panther Party. She took part in the takeover of the Statue of Liberty in 1977 to demand freedom for Puerto Rican political prisoners. Yuri and Bill Kochiyama were part of the successful fight to gain reparations for people of Japanese descent who were incarcerated during World War 2.
Recently, the RW had the opportunity to interview Yuri Kochiyama in her Harlem apartment. We talked for hours over snacks and tea that Yuri had spread out in her living room. We sat amidst stacks of leaflets for upcoming political events and mementos of her life, including beautiful photos of Malcolm X and pictures of her husband Bill who died a few years ago. Though she's now 77 years old and recently suffered a stroke, Yuri continues to remain active. She still speaks publicly, attends political events and protests and is working on her autobiography. Yuri Kochiyama has given her heart and devoted her life to the struggle of the people. Her commitment to change the world remains strong and her passion for justice is contagious.
The RW Interview: A special feature of the Revolutionary Worker to acquaint our readers with the views of significant figures in art, theater, music and literature, science, sports and politics. The views expressed by those we interview are, of course, their own; and they are not responsible for the views published elsewhere in our paper.
RW: Why don't you start by talking about your experiences growing up. What was it like with the intense racism against Japanese-Americans during World War 2?
YK: Well, first I'd better tell you what my name is. I was using Mary Nakahara when I was young, my maiden name. And I was born and raised in San Pedro, California. San Pedro is a small working class town on the coast. It's about 20 miles out of Los Angeles and it's a shipping and fishing town. But I must say that when I was young I was totally apolitical. I was very small townish, you know, provincial and also quite religious--going to Sunday school and teaching Sunday school in fact. So I was totally different from what I became. But it took me a long time. I mean it's not something that I changed into, transformed to overnight. It was through years and years of just living and learning and having different people come into my life.
Of course the biggest thing that happened was World War 2, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, which changed not just my life or Japanese-Americans, but changed the life of everyone here in America. After all, never had war come so close to this country and then eventually, of course, as it became a world war it affected the whole world. Until that time, I was just living a comfortable life, actually a middle class life in San Pedro. I wasn't even aware of the terrible situation for Jews in Europe in the `30s that was moving into the `40s. By 1941 I had just finished junior college--two years. And as I said, I was not political and I was not socially aware. So it was like an abrupt kind of a change when the U.S. government or President Roosevelt declared that all Japanese would have to be evacuated. It certainly changed our life.
But before that happened, on December 7, 1941 while the bombs were still falling on Honolulu, the FBI came to our house and took my father. At first we didn't know where they were going to take him. I was the only one home. Everyone else was away. And then we found out that he was taken to the federal prison on Terminal Island. My mother was so worried because the very day before he was taken, which would be December 6, he had just come home from the hospital where he had surgery for stomach ulcers. So he was very weak. And yet the FBI came in and asked for Mr. Seiichi Nakahara and I said, "Well, he's sleeping right now." And they just said, "Where is he?" And I said, "Well, he's in the bedroom." And they just walked in and went right to the bedroom and shook him up and told him to put on his slippers and bathrobe and they took him out. I didn't even have a chance to ask where they were taking him.
Then in a few days we found out through our lawyer that he was taken to the federal prison. My mother kept getting in touch with anyone who had any power in that town to see if she could get him out of the prison into the hospital until he got better. And I don't know how long it took--maybe it took a couple of weeks--but they put him in the local hospital, San Pedro Hospital. But that was the hospital where all the merchant marines that were injured in the South Pacific were being taken to. And so my father was taken there, too. And my mother said she was so shocked the first time she went to the hospital--they opened up one huge room where all these people were being brought in, the merchant marines--and only around my father's bed they had a sheet around it and it said "prisoner of war." And my mother was afraid that all those guys in there would be wanting to beat him up or she couldn't imagine what they were going to do to him. So she asked the hospital if he could have a room of his own. I don't know if it was a matter of days or weeks, but they did put him in a room by himself.
So he was taken away right on December 7, the day of the bombing. My mother had been seeing my father at the prison, but the whole family got to see him for the first time on January 7. My twin brother was attending U.C. Berkeley and he said, "You know, they don't want Japanese students on the campus. They would like to get us all off." And he said, "We're all trying to get off the campus, but we can't even buy tickets at the train station or bus station." We said, "Well, hitchhike if you can." But at the time we thought, too, maybe that wasn't the safest thing. We didn't know how he came home, but he came home. And as soon as he came home, he did the American thing. I mean he wanted to--he wanted to join the U.S. service. And so he went to the draft board. And it seemed strange--here my father was taken by the FBI and yet the draft board said oh, it's fine, he could join the U.S. army.
My older brother, three years older, he also immediately tried to get in to volunteer, but his health wasn't that good. He has asthma and other problems. So he was rejected. But my twin brother Pete got into the service. And I remember on January 13--he had just gone into the service and they were outfitting him and he was still at the local army station right in our town--I went with my brother to see my father. And Pete was so proud, wearing his American uniform. But when my father saw my brother walk in the room, he thought that he was a police or someone to interrogate him and he was just shaking. And we couldn't figure out why. By the time we saw my father, we could see that something was happening to his mind. He asked, well, who beat you up or something like that, because his mind was being affected with the interrogations. We said oh, nothing happened to us.
My mother kept asking the army authorities if they could let my father come home until he got better and then they could take him back again. The following week, on January 20, we got word that they were going to send him home and we were so happy. But they sent him home because they knew he was dying. And he came home in the evening and by the morning, the next day, 12 hours later, he was gone. And then, of course, the FBI called and said if anyone comes to the funeral, they would be under surveillance and there was already a five mile travel ban [for Japanese people]. But a lot of our Japanese friends came to the funeral. And of course, sure enough, the FBI was there looking everybody over.
RW: You were old enough to remember being evacuated to the concentration camps?
YK: Yeah, because I was 20, 21.
RW: What was that like?
YK: Well, at first we couldn't believe it. There was a lot of stuff in the paper that evacuation might take place. But we didn't believe it. We said no, no. Not this country. This country is supposed to be the symbol of democracy and humanitarian concern and we didn't think it could happen. But we saw how quickly things were moving to getting us out. On February 19, President Roosevelt declared 9066, which gave the military on the west coast the power to remove the Japanese or do whatever they thought best for the safety of the west coast. And so things moved along quite quickly and by April 1 all people of Japanese ancestry were being moved out of the area.
Our group, which was the Los Angeles area, Long Beach, San Pedro, Wilmington, Gardena, went by a car caravan. Others went by buses or trains or in different ways. And of course none of us knew where we were going. We were going to "assembly centers." No concentration camps were built yet.
We were sent to Santa Anita, which was the largest assembly center. There were maybe 30 assembly centers throughout California and the west coast.
We were only supposed to bring what we could carry. Anyway, we didn't know if we were going to stay long. We thought well, it could be only for a couple of weeks, a couple of months. We didn't know how long we were going to be sent to camps. We didn't even know that Santa Anita was going to be a temporary stop. We thought we might be in a camp in California for the rest of the time. We didn't know we were going to be sent inland.
But 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry--70 percent who were American citizens who were born here and 30 percent who were our parents, who were not allowed to receive citizenship so they were considered aliens-- were sent out. We were all moved from California, Oregon, Washington. 120,000 Japanese were removed. And the army did it rather smoothly, I think, because the Japanese were so cooperative. This was one way that we could show we were true Americans, I guess. There may have been some Japanese who were against it, but I don't think they could have fought back. I mean, the hysteria against the Japanese was so strong.
RW: We know this is a famous story and you've been asked to tell it many times. But can you describe when you first met Malcolm X?
YK: It was at the Brooklyn courthouse and Malcolm walked into the foyer and all the Black young people ran down and circled him and were shaking his hands. But since I wasn't Black, I didn't think I should go down there because at that time, there was an article in Life magazine where a white student came into Harlem, the Shabazz Restaurant and saw Malcolm, went up to him and said, "What can I do for you?" and Malcolm just said, "Nothing." And she went out crying. Benjamin Karim's book says Malcolm regretted that. He didn't want to treat her like that but he had some Nation of Islam lieutenants with him and they were watching him carefully, so he responded the way he thought he should.
I kept edging closer to the group and I thought, now or never. I thought how could I attract his attention. And he looked up and I couldn't believe it. I said, "Can I shake your hand?" He looked at me strange, like, what is this Asian woman doing here? And he said, "What for?" And I said, "To congratulate you." And he said, "For what?" And I said, "For what you're doing for your people." And then he said, "And what am I doing for my people?" And I didn't know what to say, but I said, "You're giving direction." And then all of a sudden, I don't know, he just changed his demeanor and he smiled and he came out of the group and he held out his hand. So I ran forward and I grabbed it. I couldn't believe I was shaking hands with the Malcolm X.
I didn't know hardly anything about the civil rights movement and I didn't even know there was such a thing as the Black liberation movement, but I said, "I admire the things you're doing and saying, but I don't agree with you about something-- your strong stance against integration." Can you imagine having the nerve to say I don't agree with you? And he just said, "I don't have the time to give a two or three minute lecture on the pros and cons of integration." Then he said why don't you come to the office.
Well that never happened because on November 22 Kennedy was killed and Malcolm made the statement about "chickens coming home to roost," and he was silenced by Elijah Muhammed. I thought, I'll never see Malcolm again, because I think he was taken out of the 125th Street office. And so it just sort of ended there for a while. It wasn't until the Hiroshima-Nagasaki World Peace Study Mission toured the country. They were speaking out against nuclear proliferation. That group had three writers and they wanted to meet Malcolm more than any other person in America. It gave me a chance to hope to try to get in touch with him again. I left messages at the office, though no one let me know whether Malcolm would comply.
We couldn't believe it but on June 6 when we were having a reception, Malcolm showed up. When he came here, he first thanked the Japanese for coming to Harlem. That was the year that Harlem had "The World's Worst Fair"--when the World's Fair was happening in Flushing Meadows. So the Japanese went to "The World's Worst Fair." And it was a good thing because all the while coming across the country they had never seen anything like it. They were invited to all these nice luncheons and garden parties in churches and schools. And then they came to Harlem where they saw one of the worst blocks on 114th Street, the Jesse Grays section. They came to see "The World's Worst Fair"--the actual living conditions of the people--and they saw broken stairwells and toilets that wouldn't flush and bathtubs that were clogged and all the garbage on the streets because the sanitation department hadn't picked it up. The Japanese saw all that. Then when they came to our apartment, Malcolm said to them, "You have been bombed and you saw that we have been bombed, too...by racism."
And then we had a little program. Malcolm spoke of his respect for China. He admired Mao because Mao fought against foreign domination, against corruption in his own government and against feudalism. And then he mentioned Vietnam. Now this was 1964, and I don't know if America had started to send its troops over--they were sending advisers to Vietnam. But he said if America starts sending troops, I hope you will protest. And it was too bad he didn't live long enough to see how the anti-war movement mushroomed and became so big. But he was speaking out even then.
He was so open when he was here and he was so gracious to everyone. He shook hands with everyone. People said he probably wouldn't shake hands with whites. Not true. He shook hands with everyone and he was as warm to whites as to Blacks.
RW: You lived in Harlem during the 1960s. What was it like?
YK: It was like the movement was coming up north from the south. But one of the most exciting things that was happening, in '59 or so, Cuba won its revolution. So we were having a lot of meetings, everybody would be sitting around here on the floor and we would listen to people who had just come back from Cuba. People would bring over videos on Cuba. It was just exciting what was happening. And then at the same time, '59, '60, '61, there were people who were going on the Freedom Rides down south. And we would be inviting people like Jim Peck who came back out of the hospital with 57 stitches in his face. It was in Alabama that he was beaten. And then of course the biggest thing was probably the death of Patrice Lumumba [a revolutionary leader in the Congo] around '61 and Black people were going to the UN and were doing actions down there.
It was like something was happening continuously once it became the '60s. We just moved here in the '60s. A lot of children were being hit by cars because above 110th, there weren't traffic signals on every block. So Harlem Parents Committee organized all the parents to bring their toddlers and we put all the kids on the streets to stop traffic. This was on 131st and Fifth Avenue, because so many children had been hit there. At that corner is a school and a little park across the street. And yet cars were coming through there without stopping. But after we had the demonstrations, traffic signals were installed.
The Puerto Ricans did something similar in their section, throwing garbage in the street just to get the sanitation department to pick up the garbage. We even made it possible that trains coming into 125th Street had to slow down to lessen the noise.
Living in the '60s in Harlem was really exciting.
RW: There was a progression nationwide from the civil rights movement to the Black liberation movement to people trying to figure out revolution like the Panthers and the Young Lords. What impact did that have on the neighborhood?
YK: Well, at first we were in just the civil rights movement with the Harlem Parents Committee. 1961, '62, '63 was strictly civil rights kind of things. But by '64 and '65--Harlem started having demonstrations against the war before downtown was doing it, because the Yorubas (an African religious group) were marching then and I think it was because Malcolm was speaking out against the eventuality of a war in Southeast Asia. The people here were already alerted. And I think that the people here were ahead of the people in the mainstream anti-war movement.
The Africans were trying to free themselves from the colonization by Europeans and Malcolm would talk about that every week. I could not help but feel that between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, Malcolm X was more "on target."
And so I think the atmosphere in Harlem was much, much more radical than what was happening downtown in the civil rights movement and I think we were lucky to be living up here to hear some very good speakers. So many people go to hear speakers because they're known by the media. But here in Harlem, people just get up and the kind of things they speak about are things that you may not read about in the newspapers. But I think that's what educated us. It was more Afrocentric.
I was in both the civil rights movement and the Black liberation movement and they were so different, just totally different. I think King was hoping that we would all want to go into the mainstream, while Malcolm was saying we've got to stay away from the mainstream and get away from the jurisdiction of the United States. And when Malcolm spoke about nationalism, he was speaking about independence and sovereignty and a nation of his own, a Black nation. So that in itself was different. But it was good that there were both of these movements--that you could see the differences and people could make a choice of which movement they wanted to follow.
And while this was going on--now we're talking from about '60 to '65 because Malcolm didn't live beyond '65--we were hearing a lot about what the Puerto Ricans were doing. The Puerto Ricans wanted independence and they were fighting against the colonization by the United States. So I think this is important because if we did not know about the Puerto Rican movement, we would not see how there were so many people all over the world who were trying to free themselves from imperialism. And I think the '60s really pointed out how important it was to know about the dangers of imperialism.
By 1960 my kids were from about 2 to 15 or 16 and all this impacted on them. I had two daughters who were in fifth and sixth grade to eighth and ninth grade and they had just started taking ballet. But once they started hearing about the movement, they didn't want to go to ballet class. They said they were going to go with me to demonstrations. So they gave up their ballet and then they started going with me everywhere to demonstrations.
When my older daughter Audee was 15, she went to Macomb, Mississippi with a high school SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee). The same year, my son, Billy, 17 going on 18, was finishing high school and he didn't even go to his high school graduation. His fellow members of a group called Students Against Social Injustice went out and raised the money so that he could go to Mississippi. And he went to Mississippi and stayed there the whole summer.
Audee and Billy lived with Black families. It was an experience that they would never forget. Almost 15 years later, my husband and I went down to Mississippi and met the very family that my son stayed with. It was nostalgic.
I think coming up to Harlem in the '60s was the best time that we could have come because everything was happening and it also involved our children. The children were all engulfed by all of this action. And then we even had the younger ones involved that could hardly walk yet. But we'd put 'em in the stroller and take them here and there and other people would carry them to the marches too. It was a good experience for them. Later, I took my grandchildren, Zulu and Akemi.
Also, I'd like to say how lucky I was to have the kind of husband I had--someone who was so open, broad-minded, sensitive, who enjoyed people, who was an active father and homemaker and a thoughtful husband. Also I was lucky to have children who thought of family as a priority but had other interests, other than the struggle. Our family was very close, made more tightly knit because of the several tragedies in our family--losing two children. We are forever grateful to all the people who came into our lives at the time, supporting us, also opening doors and windows to a fuller life.
RW: You've been active in the movement to free political prisoners for many years, including the fight to free Mumia Abu-Jamal. And you have gone out to talk to different groups about Mumia. What response do you get?
YK: Once people learn about Mumia, they can't help but love Mumia because not only was he such a radical and such a courageous kind of guy and his support for the MOVE group has been contagious. He has supported everyone, all the underdogs and the marginalized. And when you think of it, there has been no political prisoner who has been able to galvanize so many people the way Mumia has--and not just here in this country, but all over the world. And I'm amazed that 26 members of the Diet [top government body] in Japan are supporting Mumia, too.
But people won't believe how Mumia and I got started corresponding. It had nothing to do with the movement. It had nothing to do with political prisoners. I couldn't believe it but one day I got a letter from him and he wrote in Japanese--Hiragana, which is one of the forms of writing Japanese. There's Katakana, the simplest. Then there's Hiragana and then there's the regular Chinese calligraphy. But he was using the Japanese Hiragana and I couldn't believe it. And I said how did you learn? And he said he was studying Japanese just by himself in prison.
But how this came about was that I had just read something by Velina Houston, the famous Black/Asian/Indian playwright. She wrote about a Black samurai in the sixth or eighth century. And so I wrote to Mumia about him and he said, "You won't believe it but I've just been reading about him myself." But just before that he wrote in Japanese, and that's how we got started to know each other.
The other day we had a four-way conversation with Assata Shakur, thanks to Susan Burnett. Assata expressed her admiration for Mumia. She said he is extraordinary, bringing people together. I think that's maybe his calling. But it's just that he has so much courage to come out with the kind of issues he has supported, especially his support for the MOVE people. I think the police department can't forget that. But his contribution to the struggle will be forever remembered. And he has already left a mark in the struggle.
There's a question of what makes Mumia different from other political prisoners. And I just say, well he has the same quality of leadership and courage and yet his humbleness gives him another dimension.
RW: You've taken a strong stand in support of the right of oppressed nations to wage armed struggle for liberation from imperialist domination. And you traveled to the Philippines and Japan to talk about your experience as a member of one of the international delegations that went to Peru to defend the life of Abimael Guzmán, the leader of the Communist Party of Peru, who is in prison. Could you talk some about this?
YK: About Peru--I felt privileged to be able to travel under the auspices of the IEC, the International Emergency Committee. There was such a difference between our experience in the Philippines as with the experience in Japan. The people in the Philippines understood so well what it was to be colonized because they have been colonized. They knew what Peru had gone through historically with what happened to them through Spain's colonization.
We were invited by Bayan, which has a membership of 1.5 million people and 21 different organizations. Gabriella, the women's group, comes under it and there are about five different college organizations. The press people, reporters come under it. Even the religious orders. I couldn't believe it, but we even met with the Catholic nuns and other sisters. We met with the street sweepers, the jeepney drivers, the fishermen, the farmers, the unemployed. They all came under Bayan and Bayan also has a couple of very revolutionary groups.
The news reporters were really interested because some of the news reporters that came to our sessions were people who themselves had been imprisoned under the Marcos government. They understood so well about what the indigenous and the poor people in Peru had been going through. You didn't even have to tell them that there's no way that Peru is going to change unless it's through revolutionary change. They understood.
But when we went to Japan, it was totally different. I think one of the reasons was sadly because Fujimori is Japanese. They seem to be so proud that a Japanese was head of another nation. In Tokyo, we met with many organizations. They were supposed to be progressives or liberals. Some were with the churches. But they were not for Sendero Luminoso. [The Communist Party of Peru is called "Sendero Luminoso"--Shining Path--in the mainstream press --RW note]. They did not think that it was necessary for them to wage that kind of struggle and probably they didn't like them because they were communists.
But when we went to Kyushu, an island south of the main island of Japan, it was different. We were meeting with mostly workers and they told us not to use the word leftist there, but I think the groups we met were leftist and we also met with Burakumin, the group that's considered outcasts in Japan. The only thing they told us was that they didn't think we should meet with Peruvians in Japan in Kyushu, even if they were there, because they were being watched carefully and we might endanger them.
But in Honshu, the main island, the one group that understood what the Peruvian outcasts--the indigenous and the poor-- what they were going through, were the Koreans because they themselves were marginalized people in Japan. And we met with a group of Koreans and I thought that was just wonderful to be able to meet with them.
RW: The documentary film "Yuri Kochiyama: Passion for Justice" shows you lecturing and speaking to young people of different nationalities. A lot of our readers are young, involved in different struggles and trying to figure out where they fit in and how to carry the struggle forward. What would you say to them?
YK: I've spoken to kids as young as second and third graders. A school here in Harlem--the teachers were both Black and white, but the students were all Black--asked if I would come and speak to them about Malcolm X. And I couldn't believe how much these second and third grade students already knew about Malcolm. But it was because their parents knew about Malcolm. And I've spoken to junior high schools, one in Greenwich Village. I've spoken to about six high schools and to colleges all over the country, and the enthusiasm and interest of the students, regardless of what age, has amazed me. And it's been very, very heartening. They really are interested. They really want to change society. They want it to become a better society than they are living in now.
What I would say to students or young people today. I just want to give a quote by Franz Fanon. And the quote is, "Each generation must, out of its relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it."
And I think today part of the mission would be to fight against racism and polarization, learn from each other's struggle, but also understand national liberation struggles--that ethnic groups need their own space and they need their own leaders. They need their own privacy. But there are enough issues that we could all work together on. And certainly support for political prisoners is one of them. We could all fight together and we must not forget our battle cry is that "They fought for us. Now we must fight for them!"
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