This Day in History

May 19, 1921: Yuri Kochiyama Born

Time Periods: Prosperity, Depression, & World War II: 1920 - 1944
Themes: Asian American, Democracy & Citizenship
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Yuri Kochiyama speaks at an anti-war demonstration in New York City’s Central Park around 1968. Courtesy of the Kochiyama family/UCLA Asian American Studies Center.

Yuri Kochiyama (May 19, 1921 – June 1, 2014) was a tireless political activist who dedicated her life to contributing to social change through her participation in social justice and human rights movements.

She was born and raised in San Pedro, California. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, her father, just out of surgery, was arrested and detained in a hospital. “He was the only Japanese in that hospital,” Kochiyama recalls, “so they hung a sheet around him that said, ‘Prisoner of War.’” He died shortly thereafter. In 1943, under President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, Kochiyama and her family were sent to a concentration camp in Jerome, Arkansas, for two years. This experience and her father’s death made Kochiyama highly aware of governmental abuses and would forever bond her to those engaged in political struggles. After being released, she moved to New York and married Bill Kochiyama, veteran of the all-Japanese American 442nd combat unit of the U.S. Army.

Kochiyama’s activism started in Harlem in the early 1960s, where she participated in the Asian American, Black, and Third World movements for civil and human rights, ethnic studies, and against the war in Vietnam. She was a fixture in support movements involving organizations such as the Young Lords and the Harlem Community for Self Defense. As founder of Asian Americans for Action, she also sought to build a more political Asian American movement that would link itself to the struggle for Black liberation. “Racism has placed all ethnic peoples in similar positions of oppression poverty and marginalization.” In 1963, she met Malcolm X. Their friendship and political alliance changed her life and outlook. She joined his group, the Organization for Afro-American Unity, to work for racial justice and human rights. Yuri was present on the day he was tragically shot and killed in 1965. In the Life magazine article “Death of Malcolm X,” she can be seen crouched in the background, cradling Malcolm X’s head.

Watch this remembrance clip from Asian Americans Advancing Justice:

In the 1980s, Kochiyama worked in the redress and reparations movement for Japanese-Americans along with her husband Bill. Support for political prisoners—African American, Puerto Rican, Native American, Asian American, and progressive whites—has been a consistent thread in her work.

Learn more about Kochiyama in her biography Passing It On and the film Passion for Justice.