This Women’s History Month, it is important to commemorate those that have been integral to changing the landscape of leadership in their own ways. With the rise of anti-Asian actions and rhetoric because of Covid-19,
uplifting Asian women–stereotyped as “exotic” and “docile”–and recognizing powerful, outspoken, and even controversial leaders in the Asian community is urgent. Our understanding of the history of the United States is simply limited to white men portrayed as saviors, when the past contained events and other people that are overlooked and unspoken in our regular history textbooks. Representation is important, especially when thinking about leaders and prominent people that look and represent our community.
Yuri Kochiyama (1921-2014) was a prominent American civil rights leader that became interested in the fight for equality after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor during World War II on December 7, 1941, and the subsequent detainment of Japanese-Americans, including herself and her family. According to an interview with Kochiyama in 2009, the turning point in which her worldview and her perspective on the United States government changed was when she became a waitress at a popular restaurant in New York. When she was working a shift with only Black people, she mentioned that while she was working in Mississippi, at a United Service Organization where everyone was allowed to receive service, no Black soldiers ever came. After telling her coworkers the address, they said that the place was at a main street, and thus, no Black people were allowed. After hearing that, Kochiyama said, “…it made me think more [about] what America was about, the segregation” and wanted to learn more about the tribulations of Black people in the United States.
In the 1960s, during the peak of the Civil Rights Movement, Kochiyama and her husband, Bill, a Japanese soldier who fought for the United States, moved to Harlem, New York and joined the Harlem Parents Committee and the Congress of Racial Equality. She also met the famous civil rights leader, Malcolm X, during a protest for jobs for Black and Puerto Rican communities. While Malcolm X advocated for Black separatism (the separation of white and Black Americans), Kochiyama was interested in integration, but when she mentioned that she disagreed with his views, he welcomed her for discussion. Kochiyama began learning more about Black history and Asian American history thanks to Malcolm, and Malcolm himself demonstrated his solidarity with the hibakusha, or atomic bomb survivors by visiting and talking with them when the Kochiyamas held a gathering. On February 21, 1965, the day that Malcolm X was assassinated, Kochiyama “put his head on [her] lap,” which was famously captured by Life magazine.
After Malcolm died, Kochiyama continued to learn more about Black history and struggle and joined Black Liberation movements. She also participated in Asian American movements and worked with other Asian American ethnic groups. Despite their different beliefs, they were fighting for the same goals; their efforts centered around the opposition of the United States involvement in the Vietnam War. Kochiyama also fought for rights for political prisoners and demanded reparations from the United States government for the Japanese that were detained. The Civil Liberties Act was signed in 1988 by then-President Ronald Reagan, which gave $20,000 to every Japanese-American survivor of the internment camps.
Although some of her remarks were controversial, from stating that Osama Bin Laden, founder of al-Qaeda, was a person that she admired, as well as demonstrating her support for the Communist Party of Peru, or “Shining Path,” it is obvious that her overall efforts towards activism and civil rights were not ignored; in 2005, her and many other women were nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize under the 1000 PeaceWomen initiative. Two years after her death, a Google Doodle was released in 2016 to commemorate Kochiyama’s birthday. Kochiyama did not limit herself to the issues that plagued the Asian American-Pacific Islander community, but focused on other social justice obstacles, and always allowed herself to learn. In the midst of anti-Asian racism, Kochiyama is an Asian American woman that needs to be remembered. Are there any women in history or in your life that have made an impact by working with other communities? Maybe we’ll write about them next! Let us learn and listen from other communities and people, perhaps we will be the next leaders.