Civil rights activist Yuri Kochiyama passed away over the weekend at the age of 93. But sadly, outside of the Asian American and Black Power activism communities, she is not well known. You may recognize Kochiyama as the woman in the cat-eye glasses next to Malcolm X after he was fatally shotin 1965.
Kochiyama spent two years as a young woman at an Arkansas internment camp for Japanese Americans. After World War II, she married Bill Kochiyama, a veteran of the all Japanese American 442nd regiment, and moved to a low-income housing development in Harlem, where she became involved with the Civil Rights Movement and developed a close friendship with Malcolm X. As Kochiyama's granddaughter, Maya Kochiyama explains in a 2011 piece for Discover Nikkei:
The most influential political figure in Yuri’s life was Malcolm X. He truly turned her world upside down. During this period, there were two main prospects that people were fighting for, integration led by Martin Luther King Jr. and Black Nationalism led by Malcolm X.
Malcolm X believed in self-determination and self-defense because there could not be integration in such a racist society. He also believed that black people should not assimilate to become like the white people in power who were oppressing them.
Kochiyama became a vocal anti-war protester and a leader in the Asian American movement of the late 1960s. In the 1980s, the Kochiyamas were key players in the push for federal reparations to the Japanese American internees.
While her legacy may not be remembered with as much fanfare as other leaders of our age, Yuri Kochiyama's mark upon the Asian American Movement — and especially among women — is unforgettable. Asian American feminists are remembering Kochiyama across the blogosphere.
From Jenn Fang at Reappropriate:
"Yuri Kochiyama was my hero. Yesterday, I wrote about the 12 year anniversary of Reappropriate; this blog would not have been built had I not been inspired as a student by Yuri Kochiyama’s life of activism, and the work of other civil rights legends in her generation."
Juliet Shen writes at Fascinasians:
"Through her, we’ve all learned how to be better. How to be more loving. How to be more powerful. How to show real solidarity. One of her quotes has always guided me in my own activism: "Remember that consciousness is power. Tomorrow’s world is yours to build."
Through her 90s, Yuri Kochiyama was an unapologetic crusader for racial equity. She defied the stereotypes of a quiet or "Model Minority" Asian, and I have to wonder if that is part of the reason her legacy is something that does not fit neatly into the canon of U.S. history.
Rest in power, Yuri Kochiyama.
Image Credit: AAAJ-ALC, Vimeo
News and Politics Editor Grace Hwang Lynch blogs about raising an Asian mixed-race family at HapaMama.
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