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Yuri Kochiyama, Activist And Former World War II Internee, Dies At 93

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Yuri Kochiyama, Activist And Former World War II Internee, Dies At 93

Yuri Kochiyama, Activist And Former World War II Internee, Dies At 93

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A prominent Japanese-American activist has died in Berkeley, California, at age 93. Yuri Kochiyama died on Sunday. She led a life of relentless political activism. Among her allies was the black nationalist, Malcolm X. NPR's Han Si Lo Wang has this remembrance.

HAN SI LO WANG, BYLINE: The U.S. government rounded up more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II, they were forced to live behind barbed wire. Among them was San Pedro, California, native Yuri Kochiyama, who spoke with NPR in 2004.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

YURI KOCHIYAMA: Well, the government calls them interment centers, I guess. We called them concentration camps. But it changed the life of every person of Japanese ancestry.

WANG: Yuri Kochiyama met her late husband, Bill, at the Jerome Relocation Center in Arkansas. He fought in Europe with the all Japanese 442nd Regimental Combat Team. After the war ended, the couple moved to New York City, where together, they started a new life and Yuri found a new calling.

AUDEE KOCHIYAMA-HOLMAN: Our house felt like it was the movement 24/7.

WANG: Yuri's eldest daughter, Audee Kochiyama-Holman.

KOCHIYAMA-HOLMAN: There was always meetings going on, there were people coming in from out of town.

WANG: Audee remembers newspaper articles about the civil rights movement taped to the walls of their Harlem apartment. On their kitchen table, political leaflets often shared space with dinner plates.

In 1963, Yuri Kochiyama met Malcolm X. The 42-year-old mother of six was radicalized by her brief friendship with the black nationalist leader. Just 16 months after their first handshake, tragedy struck.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KOCHIYAMA: It began with two guys rising up from their seat, and one saying get your hands out of my pocket.

WANG: Minutes after gunfire interrupted Malcolm X's last speech in 1965, Yuri Kochiyama rushed towards his bullet-riddled body amidst a bloody scene she described in a 2008 interview with "Democracy Now."

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

KOCHIYAMA: Malcolm had fallen straight back and he was on his back lying on the floor. And so I just picked up his head and just put it on my lap. I said, please, Malcolm, please, Malcolm, stay alive.

TIM TOYAMA: Malcolm X's movement was probably the last thing you would imagine a Japanese-American person, especially a woman, to be involved with.

WANG: Kochiyama's second cousin, Tim Toyama, wrote a play about her relationship with Malcolm X. The FBI considered her a ring leader any black nationalists and a, quote, "Red Chinese agent."

In the 1980s, she and her husband lobbied for reparations for Japanese-American internees and demanded a formal government apology through the Civil Liberties Act. President Ronald Reagan signed it into law in 1988.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: No payment can make up for those lost years. So what is most important in this bill has less to do with property than with honor. For here, we admit a wrong.

REPORTER: A wrong that Yuri Kochiyama helped make right. Han Si Lo Wang, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YURI KOCHIYAMA")

BLUE SCHOLARS: (Singing) And if she ever heard this it's an honor 'cause when I grow up I wanna be just like Yuri Kochiyama. I'm gonna, serve the people proper, when I grow up I wanna be just like Yuri Kochiyama.

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