Yuri Kochiyama: An Icon of Solidarity Work

June 10, 2021

Black and white photo of older Asian woman with eyeglasse, hair tucked in a dark knit hat, sweater speaking into a microphone she holds. To her left, an older Asian woman with short hair and sweater looks at her.

Yuri Kochiyama speaks at the 1997 NY Day of Remembrance event. She wears a replica prisoner ID tag for Jerome concentration camp. To her right is Tomo Spiegel, another camp survivor, who worked on behalf of the rights of Indigenous Ainu people. Photo by Corky Lee, a national AAPI leader.

This column from the Inclusion Diversity and Equity Advisory Council (IDEA Council) at The WNET Group highlights trailblazing icons in inclusion, diversity, and equity.

Guest Column by Michael Ishii

“Yuri said it was not fearlessness, bravery or courage — of which she had an abundance –- that drove her to participate relentlessly for so many causes and in demonstrations, but that she was strengthened in doing what she was engaged in because she knew in her heart it was the right thing to do.”
Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga

Even though we have just finished celebrating Asian Pacific Heritage Month, I offer a remembrance of Yuri Kochiyama, an AAPI icon who understood that the solidarity work of ending inequity and racism is ongoing.

Yuri Kochiyama (May 19, 1921 – June 1, 2014) was a human rights and anti-racism activist who built bridges between communities at a time when there were few AAPI organizers like her. She became involved in civil rights upon her move to Harlem in 1960 and her organizing work continued in New York City through the late 90’s, when she moved to Oakland to be closer to her children. Her influential work continued on the West Coast for many years before she passed in 2014.

A founding member of NYC’s Asian Americans for Action, Yuri was also aligned with CORE, The Harlem Parents Committee, and the Harlem Freedom School. She became deeply involved with Black organizers in Harlem, attended the OAAU Liberation School, and would go on to support the Black Panthers. She was a friend of Malcom X and a member of the Black nationalist movement. Yuri understood that to be in solidarity meant to show up for people. And she did. She was ever-present on the street in protests and in collective struggle. She was arrested with CORE at the Downstate Medical demonstrations in Brooklyn and at the Statue of Liberty with Puerto Rican activists fighting for freedom from U.S. colonization. She fought to end the U.S. embargo of Cuba. She built alliances with Indigenous leaders, organized with young people, challenged Islamophobia, and spoke out in support of Korean comfort women, and of Japanese nuclear bomb survivors.

Perhaps most important to her was the work to free U.S. political prisoners incarcerated in this country’s prison industrial complex. In addition to supporting other communities, Yuri also stood up for her own, fighting for Japanese American redress and reparations by co-founding Concerned Japanese Americans and the New York Day of Remembrance Committee.

Yuri was a student of change, always committed to educating herself and freeing her mind from the effects of colonization. Her home was a revolutionary salon for radical minds of the Black and Third World Power movements. Her personal network extended globally and she championed freedom fighters and fellow activists worldwide. Toward the end of her life, she travelled across the globe speaking to young people and encouraging them to join the anti-racism, anti-imperialism movement.

Within her small physical frame and behind a kind, unassuming demeanor was a volcanic spirit that inspired countless people to stand up, speak out, and organize. She was a tireless builder of coalition. She was deeply trusted and respected in the Black and AAPI communities.

She was able to hold seemingly opposing views of integration and support of Black nationalist principles because her work was based in treating every person with respect and her sincerity was without question. Yuri knew how to gather and engage people. She listened with care, built relationships, and invited the individual to make principled choices and join her.

She was an important model of AAPI solidarity with the Black community. It is an example we need to remember in this moment, as AAPI communities nationwide are targeted with escalating violence and we grapple within our own communities to respond to both targeting by white racism and our own anti-Black racism. The media has created a false impression that most of the anti-AAPI attacks are carried out by Black people, stoking mistrust between our communities. If Yuri were here, however, she would also remind us that we will solve these problems only by understanding them at their ultimate root: the culture of white supremacy and greed that fosters division between people of color for its own benefit.

She once penned an homage to Malcolm X:

“…The North Star is the one star that does not change position or lose its bright intensity. It is the star that set the course for mariners; that gave direction, from time immemorial, to slaves escaping bondage; and communicated men’s hope by allusion…Triumphantly illuminating today’s stark atmosphere, giving light and direction, invincible and inextinguishable, Malcom is that North Star shining.”

Many would say the same is true of her.

Photo of community-made mural From Harlem with Love: A Mural Project for Yuri & Malcolm (detail) by Quench Your Eyes/Flikr, 2017.

Suggested Further Reading on Solidarity Work

Passing It On – A Memoir, Yuri Kochiyama, 2004, UCLA Asian American Studies Center
• Heartbeat of Struggle: The Revolutionary Life of Yuri Kochiyama by Diane C. Fujino, 2005, University of Minnesota Press
• Living For Change: An Autobiography, Grace Lee Boggs, 2016, University of Minnesota Press
• Everybody Was Kungfu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity, Vijay Prashad, 2002, Beacon Press
• The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century, Grace Lee Boggs, Scott Kurashige with Forward by Danny Glover and Afterword by Immanuel Wallerstein, 2012, University of California Press
• Samurai Amongst Panthers: Richard Aoki on Race, Resistance and a Paradoxical Life, Diane C. Fujino, 2012, University of Minnesota Press
• The Autobiography of Malcom X: As Told by Alex Haley, Malcolm X, Alex Haley, Attallah Shabazz, 1964, Ballantine Press
• Afro Asia: Revolutionary Political and Cultural Connections between African, Edited by Ho and Mullen, 2008, Duke University Press
• Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Jr., 2016, University of California Press
• The Young Lords: A Radical History, Johanna Fernández, 2020, University of North Carolina Press
The Legacy Project: Kiyoshi Kuromiya
Black and Asian-American Women Feminist Solidarities: A Reading List 
Beyond Gandhi and King: The Secret History of South Asian and African American Solidarity

Michael Ishii is a co-chair of the New York Day of Remembrance Committee and an organizer and co-founder of Tsuru for Solidarity. He is also an East Asian medicine practitioner with a focus on healing multigenerational trauma. On May 19, 2022, he is a panelist in The WNET Group virtual event THE ONLY OPTION IS ACTION: A Conversation with Activists About Mental Health.

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