Born in 1921 in San Pedro, CA as the daughter of two affluent Japanese immigrants, Yuri Kochiyama (born Mary Yuriko Nakahara) had her whole world turned upside down on December 7, 1941 with the attack on Pearl Harbor. At 20-years-old she saw her father dragged from her home by two FBI agents because the US government had deemed him a threat to national security; at this point her father was weak and sick, having recently been discharged from the hospital. His six week imprisonment aggravated his existing health problems, and he died a day after his return home.
This traumatic experience lit a fire in Kochiyama’s belly for freedom and equality for all peoples, and the flame was only fanned when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 which forced roughly 120,000 people of Japanese heritage out of their homes on the West Coast, and into internment camps across the country. Kochiyama was “evacuated” (really America? If you’re imprisoning people unjustly, at least call it what it is) to an internment camp in Jerome, Arkansas, where she lived with her mother and brother for the next three years. Conditions were so bad in the camps that she, along with many survivors, termed them concentration camps. 1940s American White Male Logic: “The great Nazi evil we’re fighting across the Atlantic is forcing their own people into brutal prison camps; golly gee, we should take a page from their book!”
While interned, Yuri met her husband Bill Kochiyama, and when they were finally released the couple moved to New York City and lived in public housing. Here, Yuri was further exposed to the suffering of different minorities in the US as she lived side-by-side with black and Latino residents. Yuri knew she had to use her voice and take action against the suffering of marginalized Americans. She dedicated her life to advocating for black civil rights, Latino and Asian American liberation and empowerment, nuclear disarmament, the anti-war movement, reparations for Japanese-American internees, and the rights of political prisoners held by the United States government.
Through her activism, Yuri became close friends with black civil rights leader Malcolm X, who inspired her to never give up the fight for equality. A famous image of her cradling Malcolm’s head in her lap as he lay dying was published in LIFE magazine, and drew attention to their cause.
Yuri was famous for her compassion and the tirelessness with which she fought for equality and attempted to raise awareness until her passing in 2014. While she held some unpopular opinions in her activism (she supported black nationalism and the Maoist revolution), the amount of good she did because she refused to stay silent on important issues make her an American civil rights hero. She refused to turn her back on her country and tried to effect change, even when her country saw her as a second-class citizen.
When Yuri was featured on Google’s homepage as a Google Doodle on her 95th birthday in May, 2016, the image sparked a lot of controversy and anger among white Americans, many of whom branded her as a “terrorist.” It is true that a woman who opens her mouth to shout truth and refuses to be silent may strike terror into the heart of many small men.
Equality for All. Peace.