Put Yo Fists Up!

By Josh Joh-Jung
New Organizing Project blogger
Part 2 of the Asian Pacific American Heritage Month series
Click here to read Part 1

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When you think of people’s activism what are the first images that come to mind? Malcolm X? Martin Luther King Jr.? Cesar Chavez? How about Yuri Kochiyama? No? Never heard that last one? Well then ya’ll need to be educated on who this radical sister is, so put your fist up in the air and listen up!

(Photo Credit: http://www.lib.berkeley.edu)

First off, Yuri Kochiyama is a grassroots human rights organizer and activist who has been involved heavily in the black power movement led by Malcolm X, political prisoners, and reparations for Japanese Americans who were interned. One of her most sensationalized activities was storming the Statue of Liberty with a group of Puerto Rican independence activists. Dang, I don’t know bout ya’ll but that’s some serious stuff right there. This woman isn’t afraid of anything! So let’s dive into a lil bit about who this woman is.

Yuri Kochiyama was born in 1921 in San Pedro, California to immigrant Japanese parents. In the early days of World War II, her father was arrested and labeled as a prisoner of war and interrogated. Since the FBI could not find him disloyal they released him back to his family only to die shortly after. To put salt on wounds, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which imprisoned thousands upon thousands of Japanese American citizens into remotely located camps throughout the United States. Yuri was placed in Jerome, Arkansas internment camp, that is one heck of a haul from California.

While in the camp she wrote letters to soldiers in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the all-Japanese American unit in the Army to promote morale. She led Sunday school and worked closely with the community inside the barbed wire fence. After the war and her release, Yuri Kochiyama’s work in the community sparked her interest in grassroots organizing. She struggled for reparations for interned Japanese Americans, in this time however, she also discovered that not just Japanese Americans but other minority groups are in a struggle for the same goal, the civil liberties of all minorities.

Yuri Kochiyama and her husband then moved to Harlem where involvement in the black community and civil rights movement was at its peak. Yuri was part of the Harlem Parents Committee, which demanded change in their local neighborhood such as sanitation and street lamps. She worked in the Black Power Movement with Malcolm X and became an active fighter for Black Nationalism.

Now some of ya’ll reading are thinking “What? A Japanese woman fighting for Black Nationalism? She’s Asian American though!” Well for ya’ll haters who believe that an ethnically homogenous movement is the best movement, then please, go somewhere else.

Yuri Kochiyama passed and bridged the cultural boundaries that we see today. While we have different cultures and colors of skin we were voiceless minorities in the eyes of the government. Her importance to the Asian American community and the African American community was how she bridged them together under the banner for human rights, that all people are created equal. Her experiences in the internment camp saw similarities how Blacks in the South were treated just like prisoners in the camps and denied civil rights. She strived to unite all minority groups under this banner. She worked with Black Panthers and Puerto Rican independence activists. She linked many cultures and at the same time radicalized both politics and racial philosophy on grassroots movement.

(Yuri Kochiyama cradling Malcolm X’s head as he took his last breaths. Photo Credit: http://www.fittedhawaii.com)

So for all ya’ll out there who is thinking Yuri Kochiyama passed away sometime as a martyr for human rights, GUESS AGAIN! The woman is still alive and kicking thank you very much. She still continues her work for human rights and is still an avid activist for the Asian American and African American community. 😀 (fist up “ye-yeah!”)