Yuri Kochiyama, a political and social activist who triggered reparations being paid to Japanese-Americans who were interned during World War II, died in Berkeley, California on Sunday at the age of 93.
Kochiyama’s most famous moment came when she held the head of her friend Malcolm X just after he was riddled with bullets from an assassin’s gun and lay dying.
Kochiyama had been interned with her family during World War II. Diane Fujino, her biographer, wrote that Kochiyama was “one of the most prominent Asian American activists to emerge from the 1960s… She operated on two levels simultaneously. She cared very much for the person in front of her, and she also worked to fight against the structural racism and imperialism in society.”
Kochiyama had six children; she took them with her to protests. She protested the Vietnam war, as well as helping to occupy the Statue of Liberty to champion Puerto Rican independence. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 by a group called “1,000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize.”
Kochiyama wrote myriad letters to activists in jail; she was good friends with long-time Communist Angela Davis, who received the Lenin “Peace Prize” from East Germany in 1979 and once gave weapons to Black Panthers who used them to kill a Marin County judge. Kochiyama and Davis were the stars of the 2010 documentary, Mountains That Take Wing: Angela Davis & Yuri Kochiyama–A Conversation on Life, Struggle, & Liberation. The University of Massachusetts, Amherst named its student cultural center after her.
Kochiyama’s father died soon after being held in an internment camp, triggering Kochiyama’s activism. After marrying Bill Kochiyama, who served with the all-Japanese 442nd regimental combat team, she raised her children, one of whom committed suicide and another who died in a car accident.
In the 1980s, the Kochiyamas demanded reparations for the Japanese-American internees of WWII by using the Civil Liberties Act; the government eventually paid them $1.6 billion.