May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Appropriately, the month is marked by the anniversary of the birth of Yuri Kochiyama, on May 19, 1921. I’m guessing neither the month, nor the anniversary, nor even Yuri Kochiyama is known to many of you.
For the uninitiated, Kochiyama’s life story is documented beautifully in an inspiring political biography by Diane C. Fujino entitled, Heartbeat of Struggle: The Revolutionary Life of Yuri Kochiyama.
Reading Kochiyama’s biography is an act of remembering that’s good for the soul. It reminds us that during WWII, without trial and without evidence of wrong-doing, people of Japanese ancestry living on the U.S. mainland were imprisoned, almost to a person. President Franklin Roosevelt justified this act by claiming that internment would protect those of Japanese ancestry from a hostile public. Yet, the the guns of the guards in the towers surrounding the camps pointed inward.
Kochiyama’s father was taken into custody by the FBI shortly after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He was denied medical care while in custody and returned home too ill to speak. He died the next day. Shortly after his death, Kochiyama and her family were taken out of a life of relative privilege and sent to a relocation center where they lived for months in a horse stall before being imprisoned in a concentration camp in Jerome, Arkansas for three years. The experience transformed a patriotic, middle class Presbyterian Sunday school teacher and self-described “banana” (yellow on the outside, white on the inside) into a human rights revolutionary.
Kochiyama’s life in social change is inspiring, both for its longevity and for her willingness to take on the most controversial causes. She is, perhaps, most famous for her association with Malcolm X, and for the photos of her holding Malcolm X in her arms as he lay dying after being gunned down in the Audubon Ballroom on February 12, 1965. But there was much, much more to Kochiyama’s activism than her sojourn with the Organization for Afro-American Unity. She fought for Puerto Rican independence, provided support for social and political prisoners, and was instrumental in the fight for reparations for Japanese American internees.
But the importance of Kochiyama’s story doesn’t end with her personal history. For while she is no doubt a remarkable person, she was not alone among Asian Americans of her generation in her commitment to social justice. Throughout her story we are reminded of others who struggled alongside her, of the the Asian American movement of the 1960s that was inspired, in part, by Japanese American internment, exclusionary and blatantly racist immigration laws, the Vietnam War, and racist exploitation of Asian immigrant workers. That movement gave birth to the phrase “Asian American” as a statement of inter-ethnic solidarity, and it stood against unjust wars and with the movements for African American civil rights, workers rights, and immigrant rights, and for multiculturalism, open enrollment in colleges and universities, and diversification of university curricula. That movement gave us Asian American studies, and Asian American studies has allowed us to create a record of our history, in our own words.
Much has changed since the heyday of activists like Yuri Kochiyama. In the late 1960s, immigration laws were reformed. Subsequent waves of Asian immigration have transformed the Asian American community. The majority of Asians in the U.S. arrived or are descendents of those who arrived post-1968, and are not rooted in the history that was lived by the generation that made leaders like Yuri Kochiyama.
But remembering Kochiyama’s generation and the path they blazed is important to us. This history matters to us because it reminds us who “we” once were, and how this shaped the way Asian Americans are positioned within the racial hierarchy in the U.S. today.
Our roots are many, but they converge around how we are understood as a “race” in the U.S. today. That’s why, I believe, even those of us whose stories as Americans begin after 1968 owe something to Asian American history as lived by those like Yuri Kochiyama.
A wise Japanese American woman once told me when I was very young and feeling hopeless about finding a place for myself in a world that felt hostile to me, “Remembering the past is necessary to creating a better future. Never forget these days.”
I have ever since remembered my childhood in stories I tell to anyone who will listen, however reluctantly. And I read memoirs and biographies and history books to remember the stories I didn’t live. Heartbeat of Struggle is one among many and one of my favorites. Like I said, it’s good for the soul.