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Yuri Kochiyama: a nisei ahead of her time

Japanese-American activist Yuri Kochiyama, who used her time in a US internment camp to inspire the 1988 Civil Liberties Act, was honored on what would have been her 95th birthday. 

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    Google celebrates Yuri Kochiyama, an Asian American activist who dedicated her life to the fight for human rights and against racism and injustice, on Thursday, what would have been her 95th birthday.
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Late activist Yuri Kochiyama is honored with a Google Doodle Thursday on what would have been her 95th  birthday.

Born on May 19, 1921, Ms. Kochiyama was relocated to an internment camp with other Japanese-Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Kochiyama’s time at the internment camp inspired a life of activism, fighting for various causes including reparations for Japanese-American internees, equal rights for African-Americans, and Puerto Rican independence. 

“Kochiyama left a legacy of advocacy: for peace, U.S. political prisoners, nuclear disarmament, and reparations for Japanese-Americans interned during the war,” said Google in a statement Thursday. “She was known for her tireless intensity and compassion, and remained committed to speaking out, consciousness-raising, and taking action until her death in 2014.” 

Kochiyama had a typical childhood in San Pedro, Calif., but her life changed after the start of World War II. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) took Kochiyama’s father Seiichi Nakahara, a Japanese immigrant and fishing merchant by trade, into custody on Dec. 7, 1941, shortly after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Despite being ill at the time of arrest, Mr. Nakahara was interrogated by the FBI for almost two months before being released on Jan. 20, 1942. Kochiyama’s father died the next day. 

Many of the more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans held in internment camps during that time endured their imprisonment in relative silence.

“We came out of these camps with a sense of shame and guilt, of having been considered betrayers of our country,” John Tateishi, a US citizen who was interned as a young child, told NPR in 2013. “There were no complaints, no big rallies or demands for justice because it was not the Japanese way.” 

However, this was not the case for Kochiyama.

Throughout her life, Kochiyama fought for government reparations, as well as a national apology, for the treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Kochiyama and other Japanese-American activists – including Kochiyama’s husband Bill – eventually led to President Ronald Reagan signing the Civil Liberties Act in 1988.  

Under the act, 100,000 Americans who were held in camps during World War II were offered a formal apology and $20,000 in compensation. 

Twitter users have praised Google’s recognition of the lesser-known, yet influential, activist. 

Thursday is also the birthday of African-American activist Malcolm X. 

Kochiyama and Malclom X first met at a protest in 1963, and their friendship endured until Malcolm’s death almost two years later. 

“Malcom X’s movement was probably the last thing you would imagine a Japanese-American person, especially a woman, to be involved with,” Tim Toyama, a playwright who wrote a one-act play on the activists’ friendship, told NPR.

Kochiyama was in the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem when Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965. She famously appeared in a set of photos in Life magazine, holding Malcolm’s head as he lay on the ground with fatal gunshot wounds.  

"She was not your typical Japanese-American person, especially a nisei," or a second-generation Japanese-American, added Mr. Toyama. "She was definitely ahead of her time, and we caught up with her."

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