A Brief History: Yuri Kochiyama, Japanese-American Civil Rights Activist

The Asian American community has a glossed over history of allying with other minority communities in the fight for civil rights. We should never forget this fact and an important figure, incredible woman, and friend of Malcolm X, Yuri Kochiyama.

Let’s talk more about important Asian figures in American history.

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Yuri Kochiyama – [Wikipedia]

Early Life and Origins of Activism

Born Mary Yuriko Nakahara in San Pedro, California (1921) to Japanese immigrants.
Her and her family spent two years in an internment camp during the Second World War in Jerome, Arkansas.  She met her husband Bill Kochiyama, a US Veteran, while at the internment camp.

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Yuri Kochiyama with the kids at Camp Jerome, Arkansas; the Kochiyama collection at the Japanese American National Museum [source].
Living in Arkansas she had many black neighbors and witnessed racism toward African-Americans. Seeing striking similarities between the treatment of Japanese Americans and African Americans in the Jim Crow South Kochiyama felt she was able to relate to this racial discrimination and was inspired her to become an activist for marginalized groups.

Kochiyama moved to New York City and became an activist for the African American Civil Rights Movement. In Manhattan she lived in housing projects among a community of black and Puerto Rican neighbors.

Kochiyama participated in sit-ins and invited the Freedom Riders to speak at open houses every week at her apartment. Her and her husband also became members of the Harlem Parents Committee while her husband enrolled in the Harlem “freedom schools” to learn about black culture and history.

Yuri & Malcolm X

They first met in October 1963 at a Brooklyn courthouse:

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”All the young blacks were surrounding him,” she recalled.

”But because I wasn’t black, I didn’t know whether I should approach him. I kept going closer to his circle. Then when I was about 15 yards away, Malcolm looked up briefly and probably wondered who this Asian woman was.”

– From Harlem’s Japanese Sister, NY Times

After becoming friends they continuously inspired each other through writing postcards.

Malcolm X wrote Kochiyama from Kuwait:

”Still trying to travel and broaden my scope since I’ve learned what a mess can be made by narrow-minded people. Bro. Malcolm X.” [NY Times]

In the famous photograph of Malcolm X’s controversial assasination Kochiyama is the woman knelt by his side in the Audobon Ballroom in New York City.  Before her death, Mrs. Kochiyama would visit Malcolm X’s gravesite every year on his birthday.

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March 5. 1965 issue of LIFE: A photo by Malcolm X’s close associate Earl Grant shows Yuri Kochiyama (above left, in glasses) cradling the fatally wounded human rights activist’s head at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, Feb. 21, 1965.

Despite her very active involvement with the African American civil rights movement she did still experience moments of not being welcomed into the movement.

Kochiyama directly addresses this and does not overlook her identity as an Asian American, “you have to keep in mind you’re not black” she told the New York Times.

Yet, black activists at the time supported her and told her to forget her uneasiness, “you’re totally in this thing.” [NY Times]

Moving Forward

What can we learn from Miss Kochiyama?

The biggest things we can learn from Yuri Kochiyama is that the movement for rights is not divided.

Crossing borders and working with other communities was at the forefront of Yuri Kochiyama’s philosophy as an activist.

Now more than ever does the AAPI community in America need to work with the black community and all other communities of color and marginalized groups.

Speak to your Asian American Brethern and educate and inform, we are all in this together.  We have a lot to learn from the civil rights activists that have come before us.

“So, transform yourself first…Because you are young and have dreams and want to do something meaningful, that in itself, makes you our future and our hope. Keep expanding your horizon, decolonize your mind, and cross borders.” 

—  Yuri Kochiyama


Featured Image from – Illustrated Women in History

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