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Yuri Kochiyama speaks at an anti-war demonstration in New York City's Central Park around 1968. Courtesy of the Kochiyama family/UCLA Asian American Studies Center

Yuri Kochiyama speaks at an anti-war demonstration in New York City’s Central Park around 1968. Photo Courtesy of the Kochiyama family/UCLA Asian American Studies Center

LOS ANGELES – Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles mourns the passing of Yuri Kochiyama, a giant in the struggle for racial justice for all communities of color.

Born Mary Yuriko Nakahara in 1921, she and her first-generation Japanese immigrant family spent her first years in San Pedro, CA, a working class neighborhood of Los Angeles. With the outbreak of World War II, they were among the more than 100,000 Japanese Americans rounded up by the U.S. government and interned in camps, their liberty stripped and property stolen – the very worst historical example of Asian Americans being treated as perpetual foreigners. (Kochiyama’s family was relocated to a camp in Arkansas.)

This searing experience proved formative for Kochiyama, setting her on a path of lifelong activism on behalf of marginalized communities. A survivor of the arbitrary use of state power to sanction racist action against her community, she grasped the parallels to Jim Crow and the situation of African Americans in the most immediately personal and visceral ways.

This connection propelled Kochiyama and her husband Bill into their initial engagement with racial justice activism, with the modern U.S. Civil Rights Movement serving as context of their activities. This work led her to make the acquaintance of Malcolm X, with whom she shared a celebrated, if tragically brief, friendship. (Interest in Malcolm X’s first public address after his break with the Nation of Islam led her to the Audubon Ballroom in New York City on February 21, 1965, the occasion of his assassination. When the bullets flew, most everyone else in the place ducked for cover; but Kochiyama raced over to the fallen civil rights leader, cradling his dying figure in her arms.)

In the following decades, Kochiyama would turn her energies toward a range of pressing justice issues: the rights of political prisoners, Puerto Rican independence, nuclear disarmament, and reparations for Japanese American internees, to name just a few. Throughout, her work was fired by an unshakeable commitment to working in coalition with other communities of color and marginalized communities, making her an inspiration and model for generations of activists.

“We mourn the passing of Yuri Kochiyama, who inspired generations of racial justice activists and paved the way for contemporary racial and social justice groups like Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles,” said Stewart Kwoh, president and executive director of Advancing Justice – LA. “We honor her memory by continuing to fight for justice for all marginalized communities and standing up for everyone whose rights have been infringed upon, regardless of race or ethnicity.”

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