Yuri Kochiyama (河内山 百合, Kōchiyama Yuri?, was a Japanese American human rights activist. She is notable as one of the few prominent non-black Black separatists. Influenced by Marxism, Maoism, and the thoughts of Malcolm X, she was an advocate for many revolutionary movements. She married a Japanese American GI she had met during the war and in 1960 moved with him to Harlem, where she raised a large family and joined her poor black and Puerto Rican neighbors to fight for better schools and safer streets.
Born on May 19, 1921 in San Pedro, California to Japanese immigrants Seiichi Nakahara, a fish merchant entrepreneur, and Tsuyako Nakahara, a college-educated homemaker and piano teacher. She had a twin brother, Peter, and an older brother, Arthur. Her family was relatively affluent and she grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood. In her youth she attended a Presbyterian church and taught Sunday school. Kochiyama attended San Pedro High School, where she served as the first female student body officer, wrote for the school newspaper, and played on the tennis team. She graduated from high school in 1939. She attended Compton Junior College, where she studied English, journalism, and art. Kochiyama graduated from Compton in 1941.
Her life changed on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese Empire bombed Pearl Harbor. Soon after she returned home from church, FBI agents arrested her father as a potential threat to national security. He was in poor health, having just come out of the hospital. While her father was in federal prison he was denied medical care, and by the time he was released on January 20, 1942, he had become too sick to speak. Her father died the day after his release.
Soon after the death of her father, United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the forced removal of approximately 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry from the Pacific coast. Yuri, her mother, and brother were “evacuated” to a converted horse stable at the Santa Anita Assembly Center for several months and then moved again to the War Relocation Authority internment camp at Jerome, Arkansas, where they lived for the next three years. While interned, she met her future husband, Bill Kochiyama, a Nisei soldier fighting for the United States. The couple married in 1946. Then, they moved to New York in 1948, had six children, and lived in public housing for the next twelve years. In 1960, Kochiyama and her husband Bill moved their family to Harlem and joined the Harlem Parents Committee and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).
Over the years, Kochiyama, known as “Sister Yuri” in a wide circle of African American activists that included the firebrand poet Amiri Baraka and ’60s radical Angela Davis, Kochiyama became an advocate for prisoners, organizing supporters across racial lines to press for reconsideration of charges many considered politically motivated and dedicated herself to various causes, such as the rights of those she regarded as political prisoners. She worked on behalf of Mumia Abu-Jamal, an African-American activist sentenced to death in 1982 for the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner, nuclear disarmament and reparations for the internment of Japanese Americans. Through her activism—starting in the 1960s and continuing into the mid-2000s—Yuri participated in the Black, Asian-American, and Third World movements for civil rights, human rights, Black liberation, political prisoners, ethnic studies, anti-war, and other social justice issues.
Kochiyama met the African-American activist Malcolm X, at the time a prominent member of the Nation of Islam, in October 1963 during a protest against the arrest of about 600 minority construction workers in Brooklyn, who had been protesting for jobs. Kochiyama joined his Pan-Africanist Organization of Afro-American Unity. She was present at his assassination on February 21, 1965, at the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights and held him in her arms as he lay dying. A famous photo appeared in Life magazine capturing that moment. Kochiyama in the mid-1960s joined the Revolutionary Action Movement, a clandestine revolutionary nationalist organization which was one of the first organizations in the black liberation movement to attempt to construct a revolutionary nationalism based on a synthesis of the thought of Malcolm X, Marx, Lenin, and Mao Zedong. She was one of the few non-blacks invited to join the Republic of New Africa (RNA), established in 1968 and which advocated the establishment of a separate black nation in the U.S South.
Kochiyama joined, and subsequently sided with an RNA faction that felt that the need to build a separate black nation was even more important than the struggle for civil rights in Northern cities.
In 2005, Kochiyama was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize through the “1,000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize 2005” project. In a lifetime of community service starting in her hometown of San Pedro, California, Yuri also taught English to immigrant students and volunteered at soup kitchens and homeless shelters in New York City. Yuri spoke at over 100 high schools and colleges in at least 15 states and Canada, including Harvard, Radcliffe, Yale, Princeton, Spelman, Temple, UMass/Amherst, New York University, UC Berkeley, and San Francisco State University. In 2010, she received an Honorary Doctorate Degree from California State University, East Bay. In Debbie Allen’s television series Cool Women (2001), Yuri stated, “The legacy I would like to leave is that people try to build bridges and not walls.”
In response to the United States’ actions following the September 11 attacks in 2001, Kochiyama stated that “the goal of the war [on terrorism] is more than just getting oil and fuel. The United States is intent on taking over the world” and “it’s important we all understand that the main terrorist and the main enemy of the world’s people is the U.S. government. Racism has been a weakness of this country from its beginning. Throughout history, all people of color, and all people who don’t see eye-to-eye with the U.S. government have been subject to American terror.”
Kochiyama died on June 1 2014 receded her husband who died in 1993 and two of her children; she left behind four children; three sons and one daughter, nine grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. “Sister Yuri” would be 95 years old today and Google is celebrating her life as a civil rights leader by configuring the Google logo as an image of her. Happy Birthday “Sister Yuri!”