Yuri Kochiyama (1921–2014)

Yuri Kochiyama, the daughter of Japanese immigrants, was incarcerated during World War II at the Jerome Relocation Center in Arkansas. She later became a human rights activist and was famously photographed cradling the head of Malcom X following his assassination. Kochiyama was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.

Mary Yuriko (Yuri) Nakahara was born on May 19, 1921, in a working-class neighborhood in San Pedro, California, to Japanese immigrants Seiichi Nakahara and Tsuyako Nakahara. She attended San Pedro High School, where she became student body vice president, played on the tennis team, and served as a sports writer for the San Pedro News-Pilot. After graduating from high school in 1939, she attended Compton Junior College. Her community service and activism began when she was a Sunday school teacher and a leader in various young women’s organizations.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7, 1941, her father, who was recovering from ulcer surgery, was taken by Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents to the Terminal Island federal penitentiary hospital amid rumors that he was an enemy spy. After being detained for six weeks, her father died on January 21, 1942, the day after his release.

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized the military to ban citizens of Japanese ancestry and resident aliens from coastal areas between Washington and California, and southern Arizona. It additionally compelled them to be transported away from their home communities to hastily and crudely constructed military-governed relocation centers in California, Arizona, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, and Arkansas.

Her family was first incarcerated at the Santa Anita, California, assembly center and then in Arkansas at the Jerome Relocation Center in Arkansas. While in the center, she taught Sunday school and wrote letters to Nisei (or first-generation Japanese American) soldiers.

After she was released from the center, she moved to New York City and, in 1946, married Bill Kochiyama, a veteran of the all–Japanese American 442nd Infantry Regiment. They had two daughters and four sons. While living in low-income housing in Harlem, New York, in the early 1960s, Yuri Kochiyama became involved in Asian American, African American, and Third World movements for civil and human rights. She also protested the Vietnam War. In 1963, Kochiyama met Malcolm X and joined his newly formed Organization for Afro-American Unity and the Republic of New Africa, a Harlem-based black nationalist organization. When Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965, she was photographed cradling his head. The photo appeared in the now famous Life magazine article “Death of Malcolm X.”

In the years that followed, Kochiyama’s activism only increased. She joined the Young Lords Party, a Puerto Rican political action group, and labored to free political prisoners. She was also a part of the redress and reparations movement for Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II. In the twenty-first century, Kochiyama protested the post-9/11 racial profiling of Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians and delivered a speech at a San Francisco Bay Area peace vigil urging Japanese Americans to “remember Pearl Harbor.” In 2005, she was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her activism.

Kochiyama continued to fight against racism and imperialism and for what she called “the togetherness of all peoples” until her death on June 1, 2014, in Berkeley, California.

For additional information:
Fujino, Diane. Heartbeat of a Struggle: The Revolutionary Life of Yuri Kochiyama. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.

Kochiyama, Yuri. Passing It On: A Memoir. Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press, 2004.

“May 19, 1921: Yuri Kochiyama Born.” Zinn Education Project. https://www.zinnedproject.org/news/tdih/yuri-kochiyama-was-born/ (accessed August 20, 2019).

Onishi, Norimitsu. “Harlem’s Japanese Sister.” New York Times, September 22, 1996, pp. 41, 47.

Yardley, William. “Yuri Kochiyama, 93, Civil Rights Activist.” New York Times, June 5, 2014, p. 19B.

“Yuri Kochiyama.” Densho Encyclopedia. https://encyclopedia.densho.org/Yuri_Kochiyama/ (accessed August 20, 2019).

Cherisse Jones-Branch
Arkansas State University

Last Updated: 09/23/2019