Reflections on Yuri Kochiyama

A tribute video to Yuri Kochiyama made by Tad Nakamura set to the Blue Scholars' song.

Yuri Kochiyama tribute video made by Tadashi Nakamura for Yuri Kochiyama memorials in the Oakland, Los Angeles and New York.

“Yuri remembered everyone’s name. She was like that. That’s Yuri. She never forgot your name, and once she learned it, she would ask for you,” remembered Rose, one of Yuri Kochiyama’s lifelong friends at the Yuri Kochiyama: Passion for Justice screening at CAAMFest San Jose. The room was full. Seats were packed with Yuri’s family, friends, inspired activists, and students—all coming together to remember her legacy and enduring spirit.

As I sat in the back corner, I thought about how the documentary was such a brief snapshot into the incredible lifetime of Yuri. The film was completed in 1994. Even twenty years after its completion, she was actively organizing and rallying. Watching the documentary, Yuri’s tireless resistance and advocacy seemed almost mythical. Almost mythical, but at the same time—very real. From the years in her childhood within Japanese internment camps through her fierce involvement with liberation movements later in her life, Yuri Kochiyama worked tirelessly as an advocate and voice for human rights, inspiring generations and impacting multiple communities.

However, it was clear that Yuri’s memory stretched beyond just the accomplishments of her political activism. As community members reflected on her presence in their lives, they spoke with me about the skillful way she would knit connections together. Speaking with young people, writing letters, and forming friendships were all ways that Yuri built her life around her political ideals. Folks spoke on Yuri’s dedication to communicating between individuals—even if it was as seemingly simple as remembering their names. Another friend shared within the group discussion, “She was just an amazing woman. Just an amazing woman. So grounded, and so approachable, that you felt like you could just go up and talk to her. And she remembered you. She would ask you your name, write it down, and remember you. The next time she saw you, she would remember you.” 

Yuri’s political visions have inspired many young people over the years. Her keystone role within the Black Power and Asian American civil rights struggles was pivotal in understanding solidarity from a significant ideological and cultural lens. The well-known track by The Blue Scholars “Yuri Kochiyama” was part of the student activist musical landscape, played at conferences and protests. As Geo would lyricize on the hook, When I grow up I want to be like Yuri Kochiyama/And if she ever hear this it’s an honor/’Cause when I grow up I wanna be just like Yuri Kochiyama, my mind would drift to the iconic images of Yuri, screen-printed on T-shirts and posters. After the film screening and talking with a few of her friends, it was important to reflect on her intimate influence as well, as a mother, community member, and dear friend.

Thank you, Yuri. Thank you.

-Hardeep Jandu

Main image (on homepage): Friends of Yuri Kochiyama attend the CAAMFest San Jose screening of Yuri Kochiyama: Passion for Justice by Rea Tajiri (1994). Photo by Diana Li.