Yuri Kochiyama: a Hero amongst Heroes

July 5, 2014 at 1:14 pm

By Terry Watada.

Rev up your search engine and type in “Yuri Kochiyama”.  You’re bound to learn about the Nisei Japanese American woman who fought for the rights of the dispossessed, the freedom of political prisoners and redress for interned Japanese Americans.  You’ll see the Life Magazine photograph of Yuri cradling Malcolm X as he lay dying on the stage of the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem in 1965.  And you’ll be impressed by the fact that she was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 through the “1,000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize 2005” project.  That was the legend.

In 1983, I met Yuri at Oberlin College when Asian American Student Coordinators Tommy Woon and Becky Lee invited me to open a student conference on Asian American Art and Artists.  I played my music and then listened to a dynamic Nisei woman speak about activism.  She reminded everyone that seeking social justice does not begin and end with Civil Rights and the Redress Movement.  There were so many other causes that needed attention.  I could see her passion and her commitment.  She was simply inspiring.

Afterwards, she told me how much she liked my music.  Her humility struck me as genuine.  I was flattered of course, but I knew she was the true star.

She arranged for me to perform a concert for New York Chinatown’s Basement Workshop.  On the bill with me were “Charlie” Chin and Chris Iijima, two musical heroes of mine.  I stayed at Yuri’s apartment in Harlem – 126th Street and 7th Avenue.  I met her husband Bill, a formidable personality in his own right.  I could see the love between them and the love both had for their six children whom they somehow successfully raised in that small apartment.  In the living room, a collection of photographs adorned the walls: the one of Malcolm X, who once visited the apartment, dominated, but the photo of Bill as a young man caught my eye.  He really had movie-star looks.

Throughout the apartment, posters, flyers and photographs covered the walls.  There were also piles of magazine articles, speeches and other paraphernalia on the floor and furniture.  So many causes and issues: Asian American, Hispanic American, Native American and African American.  Yuri had the strength to contribute to all of them.  I visited New York many more times to perform for fundraisers, for redress protests and for community festivals.  I also went just to hang out with the Kochiyamas.

Yuri was always busy.  I accompanied her to a student rally and protest on the campus of Columbia University.  I watched her talk to Black Community Leaders about the friction between the African American community and the Korean American grocery store owners (arguably rooted in the 1992 LA Riots).  She didn’t want to see such violence in the streets of Harlem.

Perhaps the strangest incident came one night while I slept in the apartment.  It was about two in the morning when a knock came to the steel enforced front door.  I thought it unwise for Yuri to answer it but who was I?  On the other side was a haggard Black woman, obviously exhausted, obviously desperate.  It turned out she had somehow escaped the Tombs, New York City’s prison, earlier in the evening.  Yuri instantly took her in, fed her (hotdogs I think – so Nisei) and gave her a place to sleep.  Though I was afraid the FBI would break through the door and arrest all of us at any moment, Yuri told me the felon was a political prisoner of the US government.  Not that it put me at ease but I reasoned it a good cause.  I stayed up the rest of the night talking to Yuri and Bill.  I learned of their WWII experience, of their friendship with Malcolm X, Coretta Scott King, Angela Davis and many Asian American leaders, and the suicide of their oldest son, Billie, perhaps the inspiration for her activism.  I also found that this was not the first time Yuri took in prisoners of the state.

In the morning, Yuri gave her guest money and some clothes and sent her on her way.  She was committed to her way of life and I respected that.

Throughout the years, I shared her joy at the redress settlement, the grief brought about with her daughter’s death in a freak traffic accident and the subsequent death of her son-in-law on the operating table, and her deep gratitude to all her friends and family for the financial and spiritual help they gave her when Bill was ailing.

Hundreds maybe thousands of people came through that Harlem apartment, many of them staying overnight or longer.  One such weekend night, I found myself sleeping on the floor of one of the bedrooms.  Bill had hung his WWII uniform on a closet door.  The moonlight caught it just right and made the medals, insignias and battle ribbons glow brightly.  I realized how privileged I was to be in the presence of such heroes.

On June 1st, 2014, Yuri Kochiyama passed away at the age of 93.  Though I grieve her passing, she remains an inspiration.  Now that she has gone to join the likes of Dr. Irene Uchida, Dr. Midge Ayukawa, and her husband Bill, she is the hero of heroes to me.  Rest assured Yuri, the fight will continue in your honour and in your name.