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Tuesday, September 27, 2022

September 27, 2022: Asian American Leaders: Yuri Kochiyama

[On September 28th, 2002 the great Patsy Mink passed away. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Mink and four other Asian American leaders, past and present!]

On a few of the many reasons why we should better remember the influential activist and leader.

I’ve written multiple times previously in this space about Yuri Kochiyama, and wanted to keep this first paragraph short so you can check those posts out if you would.

Welcome back! Since I wrote those posts I researched Kochiyama more deeply in order to include her in the Japanese Internment chapter of We the People, and would now argue that she and her activism and leadership can help us better remember at least two important sides to the internment era. For one thing, she exemplifies multiple complex realities of the internment camps: not just their unconstitutional and horrific imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of Americans (a majority of them American citizens like the California-born Kochiyama), but also the stories of Japanese American soldiers who volunteered to serve while interned with their families (a roster that includes both Kochiyama’s twin brother Peter and her future husband Bill) and the complementary activism that took place within the camps. Kochiyama, for example, built on her college English degree to edit a newspaper at her Jerome, Arkansas camp, and within that newspaper published letters from and testimonials about Japanese American soldiers for her “Nisei in Khaki” column. Every interned individual deserves a place in our collective memories, but Kochiyama in particular illustrates those multi-layered histories quite strikingly.

Her lifelong activism after the war, about which I did write more fully in those prior posts (and which was often undertaken in partnership Bill, particularly their shared advocacy for collective memory of and reparations for internment), likewise helps us better remember the lives and legacies of interned Japanese Americans. But Kochiyama’s activism extended far beyond Japanese American causes, and included extensive experience with the Civil Rights Movement (including a friendship with Malcolm X that culminated in her presence in a famous photograph [CW for graphic imagery] of the aftermath of his assassination) and her participation in the October 1977 takeover of the Statue of Liberty by Puerto Rican nationalists. Better remembering that lifelong activism thus helps us engage both with the interconnected nature of many 20th century social movements and with the complex but crucial concept of intersectionality, of how different identities and communities can pull together toward the common causes of equality and social justice. That’s a lesson we sorely still need.

Next leader tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other Asian American lives or stories you’d highlight?

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