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

Now more than ever do fellow Asian & Pacific Islander Americans need to unite with all other oppressed communities in the United States for a just and unified nation.

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.

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.

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:


”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.

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

On The Politics of Film Festivals and Non-Western Nations

Since the Era of Exploration and colonization, beginning in the early fifteenth century, the institutionalization of certain Western and ethnocentric ideas have been globally established and implemented.

The current politics that govern the modern world is centrally based on the various ideas that the Western world or “first world” acts as the core and the Global South or “second” and “third world” acts as the periphery areas surrounding the core.  Known as the World Systems Theory, the structure of this theory proceeds to form the culture of the modern globalized society.

These ideas continue to reign over all realms within the modern world, including the politics of circulation and judgement of art and cinema.

Specifically regarding cinema, the structure that is implicated by such a global theory shapes the cultural critique of quality in film around the world.

The world of cinema takes the guise of the World Systems Theory in governing the politics of cinema and its circulation. Where the core is the West: Hollywood (US) and European Cinema, the rest of cinema is located outside of the core in the Global South.

Practical techniques and genres of film in the Global South, that purposefully reflect the core’s constructed ideals of profound art, is highly regarded and awarded. These Western-centric concepts are all a social construction, yet they perpetually constitute ideas when critiquing cinema.

Regardless of the existence of an international hierarchy, it does not prevent the creation and growth of national and art cinema in the Global South.

The obstacles and politics regarding the circulation of films, that nations in the periphery have faced since the 1950s, may be explained by these certain theories (such as the systems theory); these theories simultaneously provide the context for the development and genesis of cinematic new waves within the Global South.

Emergence of cinema and Golden Ages in film and culture, are directly consequential of the political conditions and equilibrium within the nation at the time.

While the creation of film and film tools is a European invention, its original technical distributions were global and of a less prestigious exchange. The real challenges that the Global South have faced in developing a film culture, reside in the individual nation’s internal political climate.

The first step in creating a new wave of cinema rests in the hands of a nation’s government, as there must be a source of funding to promote such a culture.

Willingness for a government to invest in a film culture can be attributed to the government’s own agenda of creating a national identity, or nation-building. Through the desire for the creation of such an imagined community within the nation, national cinema may be used as a tool that specifically promotes national iconography in an attempt to unify a nation based on the sharing of a common culture.

Cinema can then be utilized and act precisely for the purposes of nation-building, physically performing the cultural values and ideas of a nation to the peoples of the nation and the world. Furthermore, such an interest in constructing and promoting a national identity most often occurs after political independence has been achieved following the separation of the “third world’ country from the colonizing, Western “first world” nation.

In opposition of the promotion of national cinema, is the Auteur European Art Cinema. Art Cinema employs the ideas of the individual artist, and film acts as an artistic and personal expression of the filmmaker.

Needless to say, when expression is granted to an individual there may not always be pleasant or positive opinions spoken by the individual about their political circumstances. As the independent nation moves on a momentum of constructing a specific identity, any ideas that interfere with the agenda of the government may be censored and banished. As a result, Art Cinema in the Global South encounters many internal culturally structured barriers.

Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi (1919-1980)

Instances of such censorship, taken in part by the government of a nation in the Global South, involve cinema in Iran. For much of the mid-twentieth century, the reign of the Shah, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, involved a massive national crusade for the construction of an imagined community and identity for Iran. This desire can be attributed to Iran’s long history of invasions and occupations by foreign invaders.

As a method taken in part with Iran’s quest for establishing an identity, the Iranian New Wave film movement was established by the Iranian government through the creation of various film institutions and festivals, such as the Tehran Film Festival; likewise, the promotion of a film culture was designed to serve the political agenda and interests of the Shah.

And where Art Cinema acts as a medium of expression for the filmmaker, films from the Iranian New Wave did not always reflect the positive and promoted image of the nation.

Unlike the mainstream national cinema genre, Filmfarsi, the Iranian New Wave did not feature song-and-dance sequences, but “was noted for qualities such as scripts based on contemporary novels, intellectual themes and dialogues, subdued visual backlash against the monarchy, [and] unhappy endings,” (Farahmand 271). Cow / Gaav (1969) by Daryoush Mehrjui belonged to the first Iranian New Wave of cinema.

Cow / Gaav (1969)

Taking place in a rural village in Iran, the Cow / Gaav, follows a village man’s descent into insanity following the death of his beloved cow, and the interplay of the surrounding villagers frantic attempts to solace him.

Mehrjui’s film was initially banned by the Iranian government. Reasons for the censorship of the Cow / Gaav most likely reside in the negative portrayals of the village peoples and its promotion of an undesirable image of Iranian people.

Regardless of these reasons, the actual allegorical meanings intended by Mehrjui were a critique of the politics surrounding the oil industry. Despite the efforts of the Iranian government, the film was circulated; having been smuggled in secret to the Venice Film Festival, it was awarded the top prize.

What may also be drawn from this particular case of Cow / Gaav, is a problematic system of awarding critical political films within a specific theme of third world strife. This brings into question if such third world features are at times created in an effort to appeal these European audiences at international film festivals.

Recognition for Art Cinema resides in the international film festival circuit that is centrally based around the core nations. Parallel to the World Systems Theory, there is the idea that the pinnacle of creative thought or most “advanced” artwork distinctly originates from Europe.

In addition to Iranian New Wave filmmakers, a desire to reach a Western audience from the periphery or Global South is shared by renown Indian director, Satyajit Ray. Similar to mainstream cinema in Iran, song-and-dance musical or Bollywood was the popular national cinema beginning in the 1950’s, following the independence of India in 1947. Also similar to Iran’s cinema, Satyajit Ray’s films, such as Pather Panchali (1955) were state-funded.

Pather Panchali (1955)

Ray’s Pather Panchali, a realist film that can be likened to the Italian Neo-Realism film movement, focuses on the life and struggles faced by a poor Indian family in a Bengal village.

Pather Panchali was not initially received as a popular film by Indian audiences.  The unpopularity of Art Cinema is not uncommon by national audiences and may be ascribed to mainstream national audience desires for more theatrical and fanciful features as a personal vehicle for escapist entertainment.

Ray’s film was, however, highly acclaimed by Western audiences, having been first featured in New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Upon screening Pather Panchali, many Western audience members reacted in negative, and even ethnocentric manners, “an American lady, for instance, who was so upset by the spectacle of Indians eating with their fingers..had to leave the theatre as soon as the second dinner episode commenced” (Ray 81).

Claiming that he does not make his films for any other audience, Ray states, “All my films are made with my own Bengali audience in view” (86). Ray’s films are sincerely created to display authentic Indian life and culture; the ethnocentric opinions that arise from Western audiences are merely a result of the systematic separation of such societies and cultures.

Each individual nation has an independent authority to create films and spur a cinematic culture. However, it is up to each individual filmmaker’s own authority and desires to express ideas that may mindfully appeal to certain audiences, whether that may be the individual’s own government or international audiences at film festivals.

Many successful filmmakers from the Global South have been educated in the Western world; they have gained a knowledge for certain themes and Western techniques that might, in effect, appeal to Western audiences. If it is the case that many of these critical political films from the “third world,” such as Mehrjui’s Cow / Gaav or Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, are made for the Western appeal of third world grief, then the circulation of Art Cinema falls no differently than the operation of the systems theory.

While the Global South gains recognition at prestigious film festivals, this further reflects on if third world miseries are a commodity that serves the intellectual appetites for entertainment in the first world, especially since many of these Art Cinema films are not initially well-attended in their home countries.

These nations of the Global South move toward the core through producing their intellectual service to the privileged West. Apart from this theoretical consideration, the central analyzed issue rather revolves around the fact that there is the construction of what is considered to be the crème de la crème, and that this high class specifically originates from the core.

As a consequence, there lacks any footing for cinema from the periphery to be considered as interchangeable in terms of being the “best.” The palpable issue is the problematic existence of the construction of this “core” and “periphery” (or Global South) sectors in the world and its manifestation within the circulation of cinema.

Farahmand, Azadeh. “Disentangling The International Festival Circuit: Genre And Iranian Cinema.” Art Cinema Histories. 263-281. Print.

Ray, Satyajit. “Under Western Eyes.” Sight & Sound. 50th Anniversary issue (Autumn 1982): 68-91. Print.

(Featured image: Satyajit Ray)