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11:51 pm
Sun June 1, 2014

Yuri Kochiyama, Activist And Former World War II Internee, Dies At 93

Originally published on Mon June 2, 2014 5:50 pm

Japanese-American activist Yuri Kochiyama has died of natural causes in Berkeley, Calif., at age 93. The lifelong champion of civil rights causes in the black, Latino, Native American and Asian-American communities died peacefully in her sleep Sunday morning, according to her family.

Born in 1921 as Mary Yuriko Nakahara, Kochiyama spent the early years of her life in San Pedro, Calif., a small town south of Los Angeles. Months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, she and her family were forced to relocate to internment camps along with tens of thousands of other Japanese-Americans. She met her late husband, Bill Kochiyama, who served with other Japanese-American soldiers in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, at the Jerome Relocation Center in Arkansas, where she spent two years.

The couple married after World War II and moved to start their family in New York City. Living in housing projects among black and Puerto Rican neighbors inspired her interest in the civil rights movement. Kochiyama held weekly open houses for activists in the family's apartment, where she taped newspaper clippings to the walls and kept piles of leaflets on the kitchen table. "Our house felt like it was the movement 24/7," said her eldest daughter, Audee Kochiyama-Holman.

Her brief but formative friendship with Malcolm X, whom she first met in 1963, helped radicalize her activism. Kochiyama began focusing her work on black nationalism and was with Malcolm X during his final moments. Minutes after gunmen fired at Malcolm X in 1965 during his last speech in New York City, she rushed toward him and cradled his head on her lap. A black-and-white photo in Life magazine shows Kochiyama peering worriedly through horn-rimmed glasses at Malcolm X's bullet-riddled body.

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.

"She was not your typical Japanese-American person, especially a nisei," or a second-generation Japanese-American, said Tim Toyama, Kochiyama's second cousin, who wrote a one-act play about her relationship with Malcolm X.

"She was definitely ahead of her time, and we caught up with her."

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A prominent Japanese-American activist has died in Berkeley, California, at age 93. Yuri Kochiyama died on Sunday. She led a life of relentless political activism. Among her allies was the black nationalist, Malcolm X. NPR's Han Si Lo Wang has this remembrance.

HAN SI LO WANG, BYLINE: The U.S. government rounded up more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II, they were forced to live behind barbed wire. Among them was San Pedro, California, native Yuri Kochiyama, who spoke with NPR in 2004.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

YURI KOCHIYAMA: Well, the government calls them interment centers, I guess. We called them concentration camps. But it changed the life of every person of Japanese ancestry.

WANG: Yuri Kochiyama met her late husband, Bill, at the Jerome Relocation Center in Arkansas. He fought in Europe with the all Japanese 442nd Regimental Combat Team. After the war ended, the couple moved to New York City, where together, they started a new life and Yuri found a new calling.

AUDEE KOCHIYAMA-HOLMAN: Our house felt like it was the movement 24/7.

WANG: Yuri's eldest daughter, Audee Kochiyama-Holman.

KOCHIYAMA-HOLMAN: There was always meetings going on, there were people coming in from out of town.

WANG: Audee remembers newspaper articles about the civil rights movement taped to the walls of their Harlem apartment. On their kitchen table, political leaflets often shared space with dinner plates.

In 1963, Yuri Kochiyama met Malcolm X. The 42-year-old mother of six was radicalized by her brief friendship with the black nationalist leader. Just 16 months after their first handshake, tragedy struck.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KOCHIYAMA: It began with two guys rising up from their seat, and one saying get your hands out of my pocket.

WANG: Minutes after gunfire interrupted Malcolm X's last speech in 1965, Yuri Kochiyama rushed towards his bullet-riddled body amidst a bloody scene she described in a 2008 interview with "Democracy Now."

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

KOCHIYAMA: Malcolm had fallen straight back and he was on his back lying on the floor. And so I just picked up his head and just put it on my lap. I said, please, Malcolm, please, Malcolm, stay alive.

TIM TOYAMA: Malcolm X's movement was probably the last thing you would imagine a Japanese-American person, especially a woman, to be involved with.

WANG: Kochiyama's second cousin, Tim Toyama, wrote a play about her relationship with Malcolm X. The FBI considered her a ring leader any black nationalists and a, quote, "Red Chinese agent."

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

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: No payment can make up for those lost years. So what is most important in this bill has less to do with property than with honor. For here, we admit a wrong.

REPORTER: A wrong that Yuri Kochiyama helped make right. Han Si Lo Wang, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YURI KOCHIYAMA")

BLUE SCHOLARS: (Singing) And if she ever heard this it's an honor 'cause when I grow up I wanna be just like Yuri Kochiyama. I'm gonna, serve the people proper, when I grow up I wanna be just like Yuri Kochiyama.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.