When I Grow Up I Wanna Be like Yuri Kochiyama

Blogger: Jacqueline Ma

“I didn’t wake up and decide to become an activist. But you couldn’t help notice the inequities, the injustices. It was all around you.” –Yuri Kochiyama (LA Times)

Malcolm X was shot to death during an address he was making. Right after his bullet ridden body fell to the ground, Yuri Kochiyama fell to her knees and cradled his face in her lap and told him persistently to not die. Unfortunately, he passed away in the arms of his great friend (NY Times). Although, Yuri Kochiyama and Malcolm X were not friends for a long time, their friendship paved the way for continued activism for Civil Rights in the face of adversity for future generations.

What many do not realize is that the Civil Rights movement was a collaborative effort achieved by many different types of People of Color, as opposed to it being solely by one single race in the United States of America. Growing up, I was not taught about the struggles that Asian Americans went through nor was I taught about the Chicano Americans that struggled with equality, I feel as if when I was younger, I was really only taught what was written in a McGraw-Hill textbook about Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. So for my cultural artifact, I chose a photo from life magazine that I felt was the end to a short, but significant friendship that was a motivator for continued activism even after Malcolm X passed away.

 

Yuri Kochiyama LIFE magazine

One day, during my sophomore year of high school, I discovered a local Seattle Band called Blue Scholars. In 2011, they had composed an album called Cinemetropolis that highlighted on life and music that had a few songs about local activists and people who really sought to change life for people of color in America. One song that truly stuck with me was the song they wrote about Yuri Kochiyama, although at the time I had no idea who she was. It was not until the end of my freshman year at the University of Washington that I finally made the correlation of who Yuri Kochiyama was and why it was important for myself as well as to the generations of Asian Americans who live in the United States in this day and age to know who she is.

Yuri Kochiyama was a second generation Japanese American, a Nisei, who lived, played, worked, in the name of America (LA Times). She grew up in San Pedro, California and lived a mostly assimilated life, until she was taken into internment with the rest of her family after the Bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese (Time). Yuri Kochiyama took her experience from her internment into the future and created a call to action for many people of color as well as whites to make sure that the amount of Japanese who were innocent and interned at these camps would never occur or be pushed onto another race again for as long as the United States continued to be a diverse nation.

As a Nisei, Kochiyama did not follow the same assimilated path that many followed after WWII ended. Many of the Niseis and Japanese Americans who continued to live in the United States would try and keep their heads down due to the stigma that shrouded and surrounded them after the Allies ended up defeated. This was an unfortunate consequence of human nature, where humans tend to group together people who look the same and then pose negative assumptions about them towards a whole group, just because of a few individuals. Many Japanese went through years of segregation and ridicule, just as many other people of color did during the Civil Rights era. They were banned from places, they were treated unequally, and they were judged for their skin color and actions of people of the same race. Yuri instead lived in “an apartment in Harlem and enrolled in freedom school to learn about black history and culture. Soon Kochiyama was meeting with radicals of various stripes” (LA Times). She knew that that “was [her] entrance into the Asian American movement” (LA Times).

Sadly, a lot of this information is not all that accessible to people, nor do they truly even know about it. When I typed in “Who is Yuri Kochiyama” into google, I was warranted with the same three links about her death and the same three general summaries about what she apparently did for the civil rights movement. The summary that I compiled for her life was mostly based off the same generalizations that she was a radicalist who strived for Black, Asian, and Latino rights, she was Asian, and she was a Nisei who had previously assimilated to white culture.

Personally, I want more people to know who Yuri Kochiyama is. I want them to understand and realize how significant she is, and was, to not only the Asian American struggle for equality but how significant she is to the community between between all races of people of color in the United States. Her alliance with Malcolm X created a safe space for many to understand and see how important it is to stay united although the causes you are fighting for may be seen differently by those who oppress you and the individuals that you may identify with.

Kochiyama always stated that Malcolm X was “just a very, very warm human being and [that she doesn’t] think the nationality mattered” to him and his cause (Dartmouth). This is a huge testament to the unity that surrounded the two individuals who were leaders in both of their communities for civil rights. Yuri also believed that the similarities in the struggle of New African Freedom Fighters and the Asian Pacific American people were similar in the sense that they had “the commonality of suffering” (Dartmouth). At the end of the day, for myself, I believe that as people of color, we still struggle together in this day and age. We still have the racial barriers that we had 50 years ago, it just is not as apparent. If you look at statistics, you will see that the United States still struggles with this problem and will continue to struggle until something is either done or realized by the majority of Americans who continue to eat, breathe, live and play in this country.

When I began this blog post, I thought of Yuri Kochiyama as a leader and I wanted to figure out how I would be able to show many people who she was and why they should actually get to know her. For myself, I found out more history about myself and my community while listening to music and so after using my cultural artifact of the LIFE magazine picture, I  thought that I would include Blue Scholar’s song, Yuri Kochiyama, because I felt as if it resonated deeply with the message I was and still am trying to portray. The message ultimately being “When I grow up I wanna be like Yuri Kochiyama” because I believe that she brought together people during the hugely important Civil Rights era. She is the epitome of what it means to be an activist and to make a change. I want everyone to understand that the struggle people of color face today should be a group effort and that nobody should be left out because other races may seem more assimilated than others. I believe that with unity, equality will be sought out and we will no longer have to listen to the stupidity of people such as Donald Trump who spout bigoted and inherently unhelpful information in moving forward in this current situation that we are in today. I know that one day many years ago, there was hope for progress when Yuri Kochiyama and Malcolm X became friends and although they are both not alive today, I know that progress will continue to be made even if times get tough like in the LIFE magazine picture.

 

Sources:

Cosgrove, Ben. “Yuri Kochiyama, at Malcolm X’s Side When He Died, Is Dead at 93.” Time. Time, 2 June 2014. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.

Woo, Elaine. “Yuri Kochiyama Dies at 93; Civil Rights Activist, Friend of Malcolm X.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 3 June 2014. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.

Yardley, William. “Yuri Kochiyama, Rights Activist Who Befriended Malcolm X, Dies at 93.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 04 June 2014. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.

Kochiyama, Yuri. “The Impact of Malcolm X on Asian-American Politics and Activism.” Lessons and Visions from the 1960s (n.d.): n. pag. Dartmouth.edu. Web. 11 Dec. 2015. <http://www.dartmouth.edu/~hist32/Hist33/Impact%20of%20Malcolm%20X.PDF&gt;.

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