---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Mon, 18 Mar 2002 11:19:09 -0800
From: radtimes <email@example.com>
Subject: The Last Revolutionary [Yuri Kochiyama]
The Last Revolutionary
Yuri Kochiyama possesses one of the boldest voices raised against the war
on terrorism. As a former internment-camp prisoner and peer of Malcolm X,
she brings history and vitality to what little remains of "The Movement."
Yuri's internment at a camp in Jerome, Arkansas began her radicalization.
Yuri is one of the Movement's most emphatic voices, even at age 80.
Yuri cradled Malcolm X as he lay dying, as depicted in the pages of Life in
Yuri and Bill moved to Harlem in 1960. Their children, including the
eldest, Billy, became activists too.
Yuri still believes in the Movement.
BY MELISSA HUNG
March 13, 2002
Of all the afflictions that plague Yuri Kochiyama in her old age, only one
bothers her enough to warrant a mention. "I can remember something from
fifty years ago," she said, "but not what I did yesterday."
In typical Yuri fashion, this is not so much a complaint as an observation.
She said this while searching for a stack of leaflets, anxiously sifting
through the copious sheaves of paper, newspaper articles, and letters that
crowd her tiny studio apartment. Piles of paper have settled permanently
everywhere: on bookshelves and a desk, a pair of stools, and the floor,
even the twin-sized bed.
Yuri doesn't remove them when she sleeps; she just curls up next to them.
The leaflets advertise a "speak out" taking place at the West Oakland
library, and sponsored in part by the People's Resistance Against US
Terrorism, a group that Yuri belongs to. Up for discussion are racial
profiling, the curtailing of civil liberties, and the impact of the war
upon those already in jail.
Finally, the flyers surface in an unlabeled file folder among a stack of
labeled file folders.
The speak out is in five days, so Yuri must mail the leaflets today, she
noted. With a cloud of white hair shaking about her face, Yuri asks a
visitor to stuff and seal envelopes as she meticulously logs each piece of
mail in a notebook, noting the date and what was mailed to whom and where.
Because she can no longer rely on her memory, she writes everything down.
("What day is it?" she asks, several times a day.) There is a planner, a
bound notebook for logging mail, a spiral notebook for guests to sign, and
another one for jotting down the little details of daily life. In a tribute
to the notion that to be color-blind is to be naive, her address book is
color-coded by race:
green ink for black people, black ink for white people, blue ink for brown
people, brown ink for yellow people, and red ink for red people.
In the back of one notebook are stubs from money orders sent in ten- and
twenty-dollar denominations. These denote gifts to people she considers
political prisoners, anti-imperialists, anticapitalists, former Black
Panthers people who are dear friends, people from the movement.
When Yuri talks about the movement, she says the word with a capital "M."
The civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, the Asian-American
movement, all these fall under Yuri's definition of Movement. And in
Movement circles, Yuri is something of a celebrity.
In a 1965 Life magazine photograph taken moments after the assassination of
Malcolm X, Yuri is the woman in thick black glasses cradling his head in
her hands as his bullet-riddled body lies splayed on the floor. As a
longtime resident of Harlem, Yuri, a petite Japanese-American woman and
mother of six, fought for black nationalism. In 1977 she was one of thirty
people who stormed the Statue of Liberty and held it for nine hours to
bring attention to the struggle for Puerto Rican independence. In the
1980s, she and her husband, whom she met at a World War II internment camp,
obbied for reparations to Japanese Americans who were imprisoned by the
government during that war.
Today, as a resident of Oakland, this constant critic of the United States
government is as vocal as ever, pointing out the similarities between her
internment and the detainment and harassment of thousands of Middle
Easterners since September 11. In one recent week she had five speaking
To mainstream America, the Movement may be dead, little more than textbook
photographs of protesters marching arm in arm. But to Yuri Kochiyama, the
Movement is alive and well and living in the Bay Area. And one of its most
emphatic voices comes not from an idealistic Berkeley student, but from an
eighty-year-old who gets around with a walker.
The Federal building in downtown San Francisco sits higher than street
level. To get to its plaza, one must ascend a ramp surrounded by a wall of
concrete that gradually disappears. On this ramp a few weeks ago, Yuri
slowly made her way, pushing her walker, which sported no less than four
"Free Mumia" stickers.
"Where's the march?" Yuri asked when she reached the top.
"Yuri, this is a press conference," a woman said.
"What?" she said with disappointment. "No march?"
"What is the point of marching?" a skeptic asked. "It doesn't actually
"I think it's very important," Yuri enthused. "If they did not have all
those years of marching and demonstrations, they never would have gotten
the Civil Rights Act of 1964. ... I like it because it's a people's thing.
It's not an individual thing. It's all the things that people do together
that gives you strength." That not only applies to marching, but serves as
Yuri's most basic credo.
Among Movement people, rumor is that this plaza was designed with
constricted points of access precisely to discourage people from
gathering. But on this Wednesday afternoon, some forty people mill about
in front of the building to show solidarity with Arabs, Muslims, and south
Asian immigrants, and to protest the government's detention of some 1,200
people since the towers fell, often on minor immigration infractions. The
protesters wore blue triangles, each bearing the name of a detainee. Yuri
tied a large triangle-shaped placard on the front of her walker. "Haddy
Omar Jr.," it read.
Two protesters held a display featuring enlarged photocopies. On the first
panel was a picture of Mohammad Rafiq Butt, who died in a New Jersey jail,
never charged with a crime. Another photo showed two people on the ground,
guns pointed to their heads. The caption said they had been removed from a
bus after the driver reported them as "suspicious" passengers who spoke
little English. The next two panels displayed pictures of Japanese-American
internment camps and Jews lining up in Nazi Germany. Across the display,
two questions: "What will you do now? What would you have done then?"
In front of the photos, representatives of the National Lawyers Guild,
Grassroots Organizers for the Muslim and Arab Community, the ACLU, the
Asian Law Caucus, and other groups took turns speaking. Then it was Yuri's
turn. She pulled out the seat in her walker and sat through her speech as
someone held the microphone to her mouth.
As in all her speeches, Yuri offered historical facts and statistics, but
little about herself or the four years she spent in an internment camp. For
all her public appearances, Yuri has never found it easy to talk about
She was struck, she said in her talk, by the similarities between today and
sixty years ago, when Japanese Americans were forced from their homes and
suddenly treated like national enemies. Men were arrested, their families
given no explanation. Asian Americans were publicly harassed, spat upon,
beaten, even killed. The same thing is happening now, she said. One third
of the latest violent incidents were logged in the Bay Area. She urged the
crowd not just to express sympathy, but to act swiftly.
"An injury or injustice to one is an injury and injustice to all," she said
When she finished, Yuri scooted back into the crowd. Reporters and
photographers approached her continuously, asking her to spell her name.
She answered patiently, as if she had been doing this her whole life.
Of course, she hadn't. As teenagers, Yuri and her two brothers lived a
red-white-and-blue, oh-so-apple-pie existence. Yuri taught Sunday school,
volunteered for the YWCA and Girl Scouts, attended every football game in a
town where high-school sports mattered above all else, and even joined the
Women's Ambulance and Defense Corps of America, which preceded the Women's
Religious and baseball-obsessed, Yuri grew up as Mary Yuriko Nakahara in
San Pedro, a port town just south of Los Angeles. Her father had come to
America by himself, later returning to Japan to find a wife. He found her
teaching at the school where his father was principal. In San Pedro, Seichi
Nakahara owned a fish market. He often did business with Japanese
steamships and sometimes brought ship officers home for dinner.
Most of the residents of Terminal Island, located just across the bay, were
Japanese immigrants, but in the town where the Nakaharas lived the
population was mostly white, working-class Italian and Yugoslavian
immigrants. "We Japanese kids never felt embarrassed that our parents
couldn't speak perfect English, because no one's parents spoke perfect
English," Yuri said.
But all that changed on December 7, 1941.
Yuri had just returned home from Sunday school when a knock came at the door.
Three FBI agents wanted to see her father. He was sleeping, having
returned just the day before from the hospital where he underwent an ulcer
operation. Within minutes, though, the agents rushed him into his bathrobe
and slippers and whisked him away. The Japanese were bombing Pearl Harbor.
The next day, agents returned and rifled through everything in the house.
For days the family didn't know where their father was. Finally, a lawyer
located him in a federal prison across the bay on Terminal Island. Yuri's
mother pleaded with authorities to take him to the hospital and send him
back to jail when he was better. Meanwhile, Yuri's twin brother Peter, then
a student at UC Berkeley, hitchhiked home, since no one would sell him a
train ticket. By December 10, both her brothers tried to sign up for
military service. Peter was accepted even though his father was accused of
When Seichi Nakahara was finally returned to a hospital, his bed was the
only one in the ward bearing the sign "Prisoner of War." The children were
allowed to visit only once. Peter came in his uniform, and his father
quivered when he saw him. Unable to recognize his son, he thought that
someone had come to interrogate him. A week later, on the evening of the
20th, the hospital sent Seichi home in an ambulance. Overjoyed at first,
the Nakaharas soon realized he was dying.
"Because he couldn't talk, we didn't know if he could hear," Yuri said. "We
waved our fingers in front of his eyes, but he didn't move."
By next morning he was dead at age sixty. The FBI called to warn that
anyone attending the funeral would be under surveillance. Friends defied
the five-mile travel ban placed on Japanese Americans to show up at his
service. FBI agents stood at the doors.
On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive
Order No. 9066, authorizing the military to remove people of Japanese
ancestry from their homes to prison camps. Yuri considers her family lucky
because they had more than a month to prepare, while some only had
forty-eight hours. After being forced to live for six months in a horse
stall at the Santa Anita racetrack, Yuri, her mother, and oldest brother
were tagged, numbered, and loaded onto cattle trains. No one knew where
they were going. The Nakaharas ended up in a concentration camp in Jerome,
They lived in barracks, twelve to a block. The camps ran
self-sufficiently. Everyone had a job. First-generation Issei women
ordered cloth from the Sears-Roebuck catalogue to make curtains for the
toilet stalls. Yuri continued to teach Sunday school. Many of the
second-generation Nisei GIs were stationed in the south and would visit by
the busloads on the weekends. The young women formed their own USO in the
camp for them.
One weekend, the all-Japanese-American 442nd regimental combat team
visited. (It would go on to become one of the most decorated battalions in
US history.) It was Yuri's job to register each soldier and find him a
bed. After discovering that most of the men hailed from Hawaii, she asked
each for his name, rank, and home island. When one particularly dashing
young man reached the front of the line, he answered, "Manhattan Island."
Impressed by his smart mouth and good looks, Yuri fell hard for Bill
Kochiyama. "He was very good-looking and he had a different kind of
personality because he was brought up in New York and he never knew the
kind of racism West-Coast Asians did," Yuri said. "He was so confident and
outgoing. I was crazy in love."
Bill told Yuri he had sixty sisters and sixty brothers. It turned out that
he was raised in an orphanage. His father worked as a servant for a family
on Park Avenue and would visit once a week. He once told Bill that his
mother had passed away and to never mention her. Bill never did.
When the 442nd left for Europe, Yuri wrote Bill every day, three times a
day, for twenty-two months. Returning from the front lines, he would find
stacks of letters waiting for him. Burdened by the weight of Yuri's love
letters, Bill buried many of them in the trenches. Embarrassed to receive
so much mail when some had none, Bill asked Yuri to write to other men. She
organized a cadre of pen pals so that no one in Bill's team would go
without mail. After the war, Yuri and Bill reunited in New York. They
married on a February afternoon, having met in person just three times.
Sixty years later, Yuri still busies herself with organizing. To visit Yuri
is a feat of simultaneous ease and difficulty. Ease, because Yuri will meet
with almost anyone; "no" is not in her vocabulary. And difficulty because
everyone wants to meet her. The best way to get time with her is to offer
to drive her to the dizzying array of demonstrations, speech engagements,
and lunches that dominate her schedule. If she is attending a march, she¹ll
pack her wheelchair. Otherwise, she doesn¹t use it.
She goes to physical therapy three times a week on the first floor of the
senior home where she lives. She attends Saturday morning meetings for
People's Resistance Against US Terrorism. She receives a bimonthly visit
from a woman named Chinosole who gives her a one-on-one black studies
class. And every month she visits the women's federal penitentiary in
Dublin to see Marilyn Buck, an "anti-imperialist activist" convicted of
conspiracy to bomb the US Capitol. Her presence also is requested at
banquets, conferences, and schools, so she often stays up till two in the
morning, researching and writing speeches. Plus she also can't turn down a
good documentary or poetry reading.
"We don't know where she is half the time," said daughter-in-law Pam Wu,
who is married to Yuri's son Eddie and runs the Asian American Theater
Company in San Francisco. "We're always wondering 'Where's Yuri?' "
When Yuri meets new people, she always asks for their names and then
peppers them with questions. She knows everyone has a story and she wants
to hear it. "Gee!" she'll say. A great deal of the sentences that leave her
mouth start with "Gee" and end with an exclamation point.
Yuri possesses both the energy and social life of a twenty-year-old.
It should come as no surprise, then, that she is often surrounded by young
people. Young people make up most of the membership of the David Wong
Support Committee, a group Yuri founded over a decade ago to aid a Chinese
immigrant who she believes was falsely convicted in the murder of an inmate
at the prison where Wong was serving time for armed robbery. Before Yuri
took up his cause, Wong, who was smuggled into the country as a teen, had
no one working on his behalf.
It is unjust imprisonment, whether of Movement revolutionaries, Iranians
during the Iran-Contra affair, or Middle Eastern immigrants today, that
riles up Yuri most. She follows the cases of hundreds of Americans she
considers political prisoners, writing regularly to many of them, sending
out her own newsletter. "For Christmas, all she wants is stamps," said
granddaughter Akemi Kochiyama-Sardinha. "She gets mad if you get her
Asked to name a few of the people she writes to, Yuri can't stop, hoping to
get all their names in the paper: Mutulu Shakur, Yu Kikumura, George Baba
Eng, Bashir Hameed, Abdul Majid, Oscar Lopez Rivera. She tirelessly
supports causes célèbres such as Mumia Abu-Jamal, but also unknown souls
such as David Wong.
How could she forget those leaders and comrades in the Movement who were
railroaded and framed, she asks. She never mentions her father, the source
of her fire. "That's too personal," Wu explained. "It takes away from the
The issues, there are so many of them. Her Movement credentials reveal her
as unusual even among activists. While many pay lip service to the notion
of diversity, few, if any, have worked for so many causes and embraced so
many distinct ethnic groups. "I don't think there are too many people you
can really say were involved simultaneously in cross-cultures in a real
day-to-day basis," said family friend Nyisha Shakur, who used to make
prison visits with Yuri on the East Coast. "I don't think I know of any
Even as an elderly woman, Yuri remains a hell-raising activist, said Alex
Nguyen, an Oakland city employee who knocked on the Kochiyamas' door ten
years ago as a college student, and then became a friend. Once, he
recalled, he and Yuri attended a court hearing and the judge ordered the
room cleared. The audience was corralled down the stairs, but Yuri turned
around and tried to fight her way back up. "I couldn't believe it," he
said. "Here she is this seventy-five-year-old going against everyone. I
was afraid she would get hurt. I nearly had to pick her up."
"Yuriand I say this lovingly, she has a very stubborn streak," said Wayne
Lum, a New York friend and member of the David Wong group.
Lum recounted how recently in New York, one group refused to take part in
an event when it learned that another group it disliked was one of the
"If Yuri was here, she would have brought all these groups together; I'm
sure of it," he said. "Yuri's like a center of communication. That's the
key to Yuri. She brings all these things together. She's a uniter."
Yuri loved New York from the moment she arrived, and she fit right in. She
followed the events of the civil rights movement closely in the newspaper
and wanted to join, to begin her transformation from Bible-reading
soldier¹s wife to radical activist and supporter of armed revolution. But
first she wanted six kids. Billy, Audee, Aichi, Eddie, Jimmy, and Tommy
came into the world.
For twelve years after the war, the Kochiyamas lived in a New York housing
project that stretched from 62nd to 65th Street. Then in 1960, when Tommy
was just a year old, the family moved to the newly built Manhattanville
Housing Projects in Harlem. They carted their belongings on the subway
during a blizzard, going back and forth between the 66th and 125th Street
"So then I told my husband, 'I hope you don't mind, I want to get involved
in the Movement. Don't worry, I'll take the kids with me.' "
And so the Kochiyamas joined the Harlem Parents' Committee. When one too
many kids were hit by cars in the street, the committee leaders organized a
sit-in. Along with other parents, Yuri put her kids in an intersection to
demand more street lights. The city added some. Also, the committee got the
sanitation department to pick up garbage more frequently and the
Metropolitan Transit Authority to slow down, and quiet down, its subway
trains as they approached stations in Harlem.
The Kochiyamas encouraged the arts as well as activism in their children,
and the four oldest became active themselves. One year Audee, fifteen, then
Billy, eighteen, went down to Mississippi by themselves to participate in
the Freedom Rides. Growing up, Eddie didn't think it was so strange that
his mother took him to demonstrations. "It was just something we had to do," he
said. Eddie didn't realize how different his parents were until one day, in
junior high school, he helped organize an antiwar rally at school, and was
suspended. "I was scared to tell my parents, but there was no way around
it, so I just told them. Then my mom busted out and said, 'Son, I'm so
proud of you.' "
Every weekend, the Kochiyamas held an open house at their home. What
started as a gathering for artists and musicians over the years became
increasingly political. "If you were a musician, poet, whatever talent you
might have, it'd be a big mistake to tell her that," said granddaughter
Akemi, who recently bought a house in Harlem. "She would make you perform.
... She would put you on the spot. In fact, when my grandfather told her
that he's from New York and he could do the lindy hop, she was teaching
Sunday school. ... So I think for their first date, she invited him to come
to Sunday school. ... And he came and sat down and she said, ^A'Class, this
is Bill Kochiyama. And he's going to teach you how to do the lindy hop.'
And he was like, ^A'What?!' So she made him teach the lindy hop to the whole
class. And I think he was madly in love with her after that."
Many a civil rights or revolutionary leader passed through apartment
3B. "Whatever was happening in the outside world felt like it was
happening in our house," daughter Audee Kochiyama-Holman said. The children
grew used to people crashing on the couches or even living with them for
months at a time. For holidays, the Kochiyamas invited so many friends that
people ate standing in the hallway or in the bedrooms.
As a middle-aged Asian woman, Yuri earned her respect slowly in black
groups. She eventually dropped her first name in favor of her middle one.
"In the '60s everyone was changing their names," she said. "I was in a
couple of black groups and my daughter said, 'Mom, you can't go in there as
The year 1963 marked a busy one for the family. The Harlem Parents'
Committee boycotted the public schools, starting the Harlem Freedom School
to teach black history. Yuri, Bill, and their three oldest children
attended. That summer, Yuri and the kids also joined hundreds of
demonstrators who showed up daily at the Downstate Medical Center in
Brooklyn to demand jobs for blacks and Puerto Ricans. As trucks full of
construction materials approached the site, protesters linked arms and
refused to budge, eventually carried off by police. There, Yuri and Billy
were arrested for the first time.
But it wasn't until October 1963, when Yuri and the other six hundred
arrested protesters were arraigned, that she met Malcolm X, the Nation of
Islam's No. 2 man, inside a Brooklyn courthouse. He was surrounded by a
circle of young blacks. Yuri didn't know if she should approach him because
she wasn't black, but she kept inching closer and closer.
When she reached the outside of the cluster, Malcolm looked up and saw her.
"He must have thought what the heck is this Asian woman doing here?" she
Yuri shouted, "Can I shake your hand?"
"What for?" he asked.
"For what you're doing for your people."
"What am I doing for my people?"
"You're giving direction."
Malcolm smiled and reached through the crowd. Yuri grabbed his hand and
said, "I admire what you're doing, but I disagree with some of your thoughts."
"And what don't you agree with?"
"Your harsh stand on integration."
Telling the story today, Yuri added: "I said some very stupid things back
Malcolm said he couldn't lay out the pros and cons of integration in two
minutes and invited her to his office, but Yuri never met him there. Soon
after their meeting, Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam,
silenced Malcolm for saying that the chickens had come home to roost in
reference to John F. Kennedy's assassination. To keep a low profile,
Malcolm stopped coming to his office on 125th Street.
Breaking with Muhammad in 1964, Malcolm started his own group, the
Organization for Afro-American Unity. Yuri joined. That year, she invited
him to her apartment to meet some hibakusha, atom-bomb victims who were
traveling on the Hiroshima-Nagasaki World Peace Mission. They wanted to
meet Malcolm X more than anyone else in America. She doubted that he would
come, but as the program began, a knock came at the door. There stood
Malcolm, with one of his bodyguards.
Yuri remembers his words from that evening well. He told the hibakusha he
could see their scars, and that Harlem bore scars too, the result of
racism. He talked of the European colonization of Asia, a miserable history
it shared with black nations. "And I remember he said the struggle of the
people of Vietnam is the struggle of the Third World, a struggle against
imperialism," Yuri recalled in her room the other day, still impressed.
Malcolm opened Yuri's eyes to the depth of American racism, her daughter
Audee said. "At a certain point, she believed not just in civil rights, but
felt it was a lot deeper than civil rights and that we had to look at US
policy in this country and across the world," Audee said. His refusal to
sell out, as well as his willingness to change, earned her respect. "He
symbolized an uncompromised challenge to policy and the social structure,"
explained Greg Morozumi, a Kochiyama family friend who helps run the
Eastside Arts Alliance in Oakland. "He was going for self-determination of
black people and refused to sell out at any point."
When Malcolm traveled to Africa, he sent the Kochiyamas eleven postcards
from nine different countries. "Still trying to travel and broaden my
scope, since I've learned what a mess can be made by narrow-minded people,"
he wrote in one. "Bro. Malcolm X."
Several months after he returned from abroad, Yuri and Billy were listening
to Malcolm speak at the Audubon Ballroom when three gunmen started shooting
at the stage. Smoke bombs diffused; people ran screaming, crashing into
chairs. "A young brother ran to the stage," Yuri remembered, "And I
followed. I just put his head in my lap, hoping he was alive. But he didn't
utter a word."
When Yuri still lived in New York,
she would make a pilgrimage to Malcolm's grave site every May 19, his
birthday. It was the least she could do for a man who had so changed her
life. She always failed to mention that it was her birthday too.
When one has hung out with Malcolm X, there is bound to be a thick folder
with one's name on it in a government filing cabinet somewhere. Some years
ago, Yuri filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the FBI and CIA.
The government withheld hundreds of pages. Of the hundreds of
pages it handed over, half of the text was blacked out. Still, the
Kochiyamas had a good laugh. The files claimed that Yuri had run guns, and
that one of the civil rights groups she and Bill belonged to, Asian
Americans for Action, had been a terrorist threat.
She wasn't surprised. That the FBI came for her father while Pearl Harbor
was still being bombed proved to her that they were already keeping tabs on
him. And although the US Postal Service may have released a Malcolm X stamp
a few years ago, during his lifetime the man was vilified by American
leaders and the media.
"The US government has demonized all such people like Malcolm," Yuri said.
Somewhat later, she added: "White people like Bush, they want to do away
with everyone but themselves."
It follows then that Yuri does not believe Osama bin Laden is really the
evil of all evils he is portrayed as, a sentiment she leaves out of public
speeches, but willingly discusses privately. "I'd ask people, 'Why do you
think Osama bin Laden has some grudge against the US?' " she said in one
It speaks to Yuri's character that she appears to have no enemies within
the Movement, at least none with a face and a name. Once, Yuri received a
death threat over the telephone, her friend Lum recalled. From whom, Lum
won't say. "You think about it," he said. "Who do we fight against? Who do
we protest against?" Lum noted that while he and Yuri's other friends
worried for her and contemplated how to protect her, "she didn't bat an
The call came soon after Bill passed away in 1993. In her husband, she lost
a dearly devoted, utterly romantic, gently protective partner, a man who
would quietly listen in on Yuri's meetings in the living room while he
cooked and cleaned in the kitchen. "You know how that saying goes, 'Behind
every strong man is a strong woman?' " Alex Nguyen said. "This is just the
Bill could not have been pleased with his wife's numerous arrests. The two
youngest children, Jimmy and Tommy, moved to Los Angeles when they reached
their teens, a little resentful that Mom was so busy, Audee said. Yuri even
converted to Islam for a few years, wanting to experience the change she
saw in so many around herbut tried to hide it from the family.
"In my family, we joke that he married this crazy, radical woman who made
him live in the projects in Harlem when he could have married a normal
Japanese girl and had a quiet life," Akemi said. "He would have never had
this life if it weren't for her. And it was the most amazing life."
But it was a life with its share of tragedies. They lost two of their
children, first Billy in 1975, then Aichi in 1989. Both were hit by
taxicabs. Five months after Aichi passed away, her husband died of sickle
In 1997, Yuri had a stroke, which weakened her legs significantly. She had
trouble walking, and had to grab furniture to drag her body along, little
though it may be. She also grew depressed. Although she never thought she
would move back to California, her children had all found their way here,
and in 1999 they moved her to the Bay Area.
"I was in a bad way," Yuri said. "It was just agonizing to me. My daughter
was thinking I might do something crazy and had the lady next door check on
me. They found me on the floor and took me to the psychiatric hospital."
She stayed in three different hospitals in a row. At one, they zipped her
into bed every night. As awful an experience as it was, she was glad to
have it. "Any experience is a learning experience and you understand what
people go through," Yuri said now, busily back to her old self. "It really
made me much more sensitive and understanding."
Meanwhile, her family and friends made repeated trips to New York to box up
forty years of photographs, love letters, file cabinets, and political
posters. UCLA archived some of her files. But most of her belongings sit
in a storage unit, including her teddy bear collection, which numbers in
"That place was like a historical site," Eddie said. "It was a real bitch
to move."Yuri's sense of history brings her all sorts of visitors and
callers, seeking her memories and thoughts. This year on February 21, the
anniversary of Malcolm X's death, Yuri got up by 7 a.m. so that WBAI, a New
York radio station, could interview her about what happened that day 37
years ago. It is a story, though painful to recall, she has told a hundred
In the afternoon, someone stopped by to teach her how to send an e-mail
attachment. (When it was suggested to her that she could e-mail information
much faster than if she used a real envelope, Yuri cried in disbelief, "But
you can't send a leaflet in an e-mail!") At five, Alex came by to take her
to the Sebastiao Salgado photo exhibit at UC Berkeley which documented the
migration of refugees. Yuri pushed her walker close to the wall to peer at
the captions beneath the black and white photos of glassy-eyed children,
hardened faces, and corpses. Impressed, she said that every teacher should
bring their students to the exhibit.
A few days later, Alex sat with Yuri's family at the Kabuki Theater in San
Francisco's Japantown to hear her give the keynote address at the Day of
Remembrance, commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of Executive Order No.
9066. Yuri stood wobbly on a step, grasping the podium. She said the Day of
Remembrance was especially important this year in the wake of September 11,
calling once again for solidarity with Muslims and Arabs.
Yuri didn't always mention the negative side of her camp experience. Audee
recalled that when she was young, she didn't fully understand these camps
her parents spoke of. "It seemed like she had good memories. It was the
first time she was with so many Japanese Americans and in some ways it
didn't seem like such a bad experience." When she got older, though, her
parents talked more openly about their incarceration. Yuri noted that many
Japanese Americans were ashamed to talk about those times. "I don't have to
be ashamed," she concluded. "Gee, America should be ashamed!" The couple
joined a movement for redress.
Bill Kochiyama testified at a Washington, DC commission formed to
investigate the internments, and in 1988 President Ronald Reagan signed an
act that provided an apology and $20,000 to each surviving internee. Nearly
half of the internees had already died by then, and the act did not address
the American imprisonment of Latin Americans of Japanese ancestry who had
been removed not only from their homes, but their countries.
When a Day of Remembrance organizer presented Yuri with an honorarium, she
grew flustered. "Oh no," she said. "I want it to go to the David Wong
Support Committee." After the program, Alex said he wanted to take Yuri to
a movie. But Herb Holman, Audee's husband, said Yuri needed to rest. The
day before, Yuri had marched all day to protest the war, spoken at a school
dinner, then stayed up all night preparing her Day of Remembrance speech.
Yuri said she'd take a break, yet she filled her planner with events. She
has seen other stroke victims grow silent, and sometimes she finds it hard
to move her jaws. "I think soon I will have difficulty talking," she said.
"I won't be able to talk so I might as well do it while I can." She already
can't remember some words and she has forgotten dates and events she once
As Yuri's memory wanes, so does the Movement's reach. Movement stalwarts
would say that not since the Vietnam War has the need for opposition been
so great. But dissent has reached its lowest ebb in generations as George
W. Bush's approval ratings soar. Although Yuri represents the feisty
courage of opposition in all its principled glory, she simultaneously
symbolizes its declining impact. The protesters may be out there, but
they're marching in circles.
While Yuri says that Bay Area activism rivals that of New York, she also
admits the Movement isn't what it was back in the '60s and '70s, when she
was a fixture on the New York scene with her cat-eye glasses and her
kerchief, pushing her children and grandchildren to protests in a stroller.
She was an early partisan in the ethnic-studies movement; a supporter of
the Young Lords, who wanted Puerto Rican independence; and a card-carrying
member of the Republic of New Africa, whose goal was to purchase five
southern states and secede from the Union. On ethnic studies, the Movement
won. On the latter two, and countless other causes, it did not.
To be a Movement person is to live a life of losses, yet still retain hope.
And Yuri never lets go of hope. She may forget things now, but she learns
them again. When, in rare moments, she has time to herself, she takes
Malcolm's edict to "know history" at heart, and devours history books. Her
eyes dart behind big glasses as she sits in her tiny room, its shelves
stuffed with files, its walls plastered with family photos and Movement
leaflets, its light burning long into the night.
This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Tue Mar 19 2002 - 18:30:07 EST