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 — lobbied 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 engagements.
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 accomplish anything.”
“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 herself.
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 to applause.
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 Army Corps.
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 spying.
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, Arkansas.
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 anything else.”
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 issue.”
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 others.”
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.”
“Yuri — and 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 sponsors.
“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 stations.
“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, ‘Class, this is Bill Kochiyama. And he’s going to teach you how to do the lindy hop.’ And he was like, ‘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 Mary.’ “
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 mused.
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 then.”
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 such discussion.
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 eyelash.”
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 opposite.”
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 her — but 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 cell anemia.
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 the hundreds.
“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 times.
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 Sebastião 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 learned.
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.