Yuri Kochiyama dies: activist got reparations for interned Japanese

Yuri Kochiyama, whose activism led to reparations for Japanese interned during World War II, and who cradled Malcolm X‘s head as he lay dying from an assassin’s bullets, died in her sleep Sunday in her Berkeley home. She was 93.

Her path to social work had just begun in 1965 when Mrs. Kochiyama, seated in the front row of the Harlem Audubon Ballroom, rushed the stage and held the 39-year-old civil rights leader’s head in her lap as he died of multiple gunshot wounds.

The moment was immortalized in a Life magazine photo showing Mrs. Kochiyama worried and peering at Malcolm X through her trademark cat-eye glasses. It was a crystallizing experience for the budding activist, whose family had been interned during World War II.

The parallels she saw between the treatment of African Americans in the Jim Crow South and Japanese Americans during World War II inspired her to become one of the few Asian Americans who, early on, forged deep bonds with blacks in some of their most important struggles for equality.

She was “one of the most prominent Asian American activists to emerge from the 1960s,” according to Diane Fujino, an associate professor of Asian American studies at UC Santa Barbara who wrote a book about her, “Yuri Kochiyama, Heartbeat of Struggle.”

“She operated on two levels simultaneously,” Fujino said. “She cared very much for the person in front of her, and she also worked to fight against the structural racism and imperialism in society.”

A mother of six who took to revolutionary causes, Mrs. Kochiyama brought her children to protests and was arrested for occupying the Statue of Liberty to draw attention to the struggle for Puerto Rican independence.

In 2005, Mrs. Kochiyama was among those nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by a group of international organizations dedicated to promoting female peace workers, “1,000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize.”

She stood up for revolutionary causes for more than half a century, becoming a mentor to generations of students and a pen pal to hundreds of imprisoned activists. The student cultural center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst is named after her.

Mrs. Kochiyama also wrote a memoir, “Passing It On,” in which she describes a childhood in San Pedro, a small coastal community in Los Angeles. Her parents were well-educated immigrants. Her father owned a successful fish store, and she and two brothers were raised in a custom-built house in the white section of town.

Mary Yuriko Nakahara, as she was then known, was popular – she and twin brother Peter were school class officers. Full of energy, she loved teaching Sunday school, organized drives for the poor and even started writing about sports for the San Pedro News-Pilot.

This life was shattered after Pearl Harbor, when her father, a well-known community leader, was arrested and imprisoned briefly. He had just undergone ulcer surgery before his arrest, and died shortly after being released.

The family, along with 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, most of them American citizens like the Nakahara children, were then forced into internment camps during the war.

The trauma of internment and her father’s death would be themes in Mrs. Kochiyama’s later activism.

At camp, she met and fell in love with a handsome nisei from New York, Bill Kochiyama, who served with the legendary, all-nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

After marrying and settling in New York City, the Kochiyamas began raising a family. But soon, their little apartment became a meeting point for visiting former nisei GIs and San Pedro friends.

When her children were old enough, they protested, alongside their mother, against the Vietnam War. Mrs. Kochiyama lost two children in early deaths, one by suicide and the other in a car accident.

In the 1980s, she and her husband pushed for reparations and a formal government apology for Japanese American internees through the Civil Liberties Act, which President Ronald Reagan signed into law in 1988.

Her continued dedication to social causes inspired younger generations of activists, especially within the Asian American community.

Her husband died in 1993.

She is survived by four children, Eddie Kochiyama and Audee Kochiyama-Holman, both of the Bay Area; and Jimmy and Tommy Kochiyama, both of Los Angeles.

Meredith May is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: mmay@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @meredithmaysf

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Yuri Kochiyama dies: activist got reparations for interned Japanese
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