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Yuri Kochiyama

by = Friday, Oct. 17, 2003 at 3:37 PM

On War, Imperialism, Osama bin Laden, And Black-Asian Politics

Yuri Kochiyama...
yuri.gif, image/png, 175x238

Interviewed by Tamara Kil Ja Kim Nopper for The Objector: A Magazine of Conscience and Resistance, an official publication of the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors (CCCO)

A long time freedom fighter, Yuri Kochiyama is an eighty-two year-old Japanese woman who is well known in activist circles for her commitment to anti-imperialism and participation in Puerto Rican liberation and Black liberation movements. Kochiyama is a survivor of the US federal government’s WWII incarceration of Japanese US citizens. Under Executive Order 9066, “enemy aliens” were rounded up and put in camps for extended periods of time; with the exception of some German crewmen seized from ships, Japanese in the Americas, including those residing in Peru, were the only ones targeted and locked up.

After WWII, Kochiyama and her late husband Bill, also an internment survivor, moved to NYC and then specifically to Harlem, where Bill had grown up. There, Kochiyama became politicized by the likes of Malcolm X, Amiri Baraka, Harold Cruse, and other Black activists and intellectuals. And so began her journey into anti-imperialist work and racial politics. As this interview shows, while she no longer lives in Harlem, Kochiyama’s critique of US imperialism has not diminished over time. Here we talk about WWII internment, Yuri’s life in Harlem, the relationship between war, imperialism, white supremacy, and prisons, Osama bin Laden, and Black-Asian politics.

WWII Internment

Objector: During WWII, you and your husband were interned for being Japanese. How did this influence your views of imperialism and war?

The first question was posed wrong as I was not married yet, and so I can’t answer for my husband. But during World War II, my family of only my mother and one brother and I were sent to an inland internment camp in Arkansas. Every person of Japanese ancestry (that’s 120,000 people) was dispatched to ten camps.

My father was arrested on the morning of the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7 and sent to the Terminal Island Federal Prison. He had just come home from the hospital the day before on December 6, and was very weak. He died six weeks later. He was in the fishing business. All fishermen were suspect as the US government thought fishermen would best know the Pacific waters, and might side with the Japanese enemy. My twin brother left the University of Berkeley a few days after the war was declared as most universities throughout California didn’t seem to want Japanese Americans on their campus.

He volunteered into the US army as did many Japanese Americans. But I was surprised my brother was accepted, as my father was taken to prison and being interrogated daily. My twin brother was sent to an army training camp in Wyoming. My older brother also tried to volunteer but was not accepted because of health reasons.

Objector: What connections do you see between the World War II era and today?

There are many similarities, but today, there is only one super-power, the United States. To make or bring on wars, wars begin with greed for land or resources, lies and demonizing the target, and controlling one’s own homeland with harsh measures or restrictions. Today, there’s no concentration camp or internment camps like the Japanese experienced, but the Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians are the new targets. They are losing jobs, homes, and even their lives. They are being detained and deported. Many may become stateless.

Life in Harlem

Objector: When you and Bill returned to where Bill grew up in Harlem, how did that move shape your political consciousness?

My husband, Bill Kochiyama, a New Yorker, returned from World War II in January, 1946. We first lived in Amsterdam Houses, a low-income housing project in mid-town New York City. After twelve years there, we moved to Manhattanville Houses in Harlem. Luckily, we lived across the street from the Harlem Freedom School which was run by HPC (Harlem Parents Committee). We heard some of the best speakers of that time: James Baldwin, writer; Fannie Lou Hamer, civil rights leader from Mississippi; Joe Patterson, grass roots activist; and Peter Bailey, a Malcolm X follower.

Our six children also enrolled in the children’s classes. Our whole family began learning about Black history. But aside from the Freedom School, I began attending Malcolm X’s meetings at Audubon Hall, and Amiri Baraka’s Black Arts School in mid-Harlem. My teacher there was Harold Cruse, author of The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual.

Objector: What were Black people's stands on war and imperialism?

Black people in Harlem began organizing against the Vietnam War before the general anti-war movement. In 1963, two years before Malcolm died, he spoke about American military advisors already in Vietnam, and he warned that America will soon be sending troops, and when that time came, we must begin to build a strong anti-war movement. He said “the war in Vietnam will be the war of all Third World’s people--the war to suppress self- determination, liberation, and Communism. He died before the anti-war movement began to flourish. Harlem-ites used to carry banners of the Muhammad Ali quote: "No Viet Congs ever called me nigger."

War, Imperialism, White Supremacy, and Prisons

Objector: What did you think of imperialism and war?

If you meant back then when the war [WWII] began, I was a twenty year old, knew nothing, a small-town gal living comfortably, and totally apolitical. But if you mean now, today at age eighty-two, after living fifty-four years in New York, forty of them in Black Harlem, meeting awesome leaders and speakers like Malcolm X, John Henrik Clark, Mae Mallory, Robert Williams, James Baldwin, Fannie Lou Hamer, Elombe Brath, Kwame Ture and etc., etc., people. I became quite a different kind of person. I began learning about American history, history of unending wars, inhumanities, truths-never-told, and profound ideas about ideologies, political theories, inequalities, racism, and human shortcomings that have caused holocausts throughout the world.

As for imperialism, which is a policy of extending power and control, and usually by military force and hegemony, the government of the United States is the best example. Imperialism, terrorism and war go hand in hand. But it begins with capitalism, private ownership and profit-making.

Objector: Do you see a relationship between imperialism and racism? Between imperialism and white supremacy?

We learned about imperialism through the history of the colonization of Africa, Asia, South America, Australia, annexation of Hawaii, and the take-over of both the Caribbean Islands, and much of the Pacific. In all these instances of incursions and usurpations of other people’s territories, it was the epitome of white superiority.

Yes, there is certainly a relationship between imperialism and racism, and imperialism and white superiority. It was white superiority and racism that gave western people the impetus to rule over or control people of color as if people of color were inferior.

Objector: Currently, the US has one of the largest imprisoned populations in the world, most of the population being Black. Do you see a connection between war and imperialism and prisons?

Yes, I think there is a connection between imperialism, war and prison. Imprisoning such an alarming number of Blacks, both men and women, is part of a tactic to depopulate Black people in the US. Controlling the birth-rate of Blacks by imprisoning both Black men and women for such long periods during their most fruitful years is plain genocide. In Africa, reducing the number of Africans is done by allowing the spread of HIV-AIDS, a perverse and grotesque way of eliminating millions of Africa’s future.

Objector: What are things people can do to fight war and imperialism, especially if they are people of color in the US, the belly of the beast, so to speak?

The growth of the Black and Brown prison population will continue to expand, as the people of color population grows. “Repression will breed resistance.” US' greatest fear of revolution and greatest desire of empire will one day come to a climax. Progressives of whatever color will join hands and fight the mutual enemy. We must remember Malcolm’s quote: “I believe there will ultimately be a clash between the oppressed and those who do the oppressing. I believe there will be a clash between those who want freedom, justice and equality for everyone, and those who want to continue the system of exploitation. I believe there will be that kind of a clash, but I don't think it will be based on the color of the skin.”

Objector: Do you see a relationship between the US' response to self-determination movements and the growth in the prison population?

The response of US' government relationship to self-determination movements is revealed in the number of political prisoners incarcerated, like Mumia Abu Jamal, Jamil Al-Amin and Sundiata Acoli; Black and other radical political organizations that have been crushed, like the Black Panther Party and Revolutionary Action Movement; the number of leaders assassinated, like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King in the US; Patrice Lumumba and Steve Biko in Africa; and neutralizing of Marcus Garvey; the exiling of Assata Shakur; the sanctions placed on nations like Cuba, Libya, Iraq, North Korea, who disagrees with US policies, etc; and the demonizing of anyone who held anti-American feelings like Osama bin Laden, or criticized America like Paul Robeson.

Osama bin Laden

Objector: I am curious, you talk about Osama bin Laden in the same phrase as Paul Robeson and in the larger context of talking about the US trying to thwart self-determination movements. Yet bin Laden is quite different from the folks you mentioned; he is a pretty rich guy whose rise to power was in many ways made possible by the US government, which can't really be said about the rest of the folks you mention. Why do you include bin Laden in this group of people? Also, do you think freedom fighters should support bin Laden? Finally, how would you respond to the argument put forth by some freedom fighters that bin Laden's agenda is more reactionary and does not really speak to the needs of the masses of people who exist under US dominance?

I’m glad that you are curious why I consider Osama bin Laden as one of the people that I admire. To me, he is in the category of Malcolm X, Che Guevara, Patrice Lumumba, Fidel Castro, all leaders that I admire. They had much in common. Besides being strong leaders who brought consciousness to their people, they all had severe dislike for the US government and those who held power in the US. I think all of them felt the US government and its spokesmen were all arrogant, racist, hypocritical, self-righteous, and power hungry.

bin Laden may have come from a very wealthy family, but by the time he was twenty, he came to loathe the eliteness and class conduct of his family. But it was not a sudden break. Growth for anybody is not a sudden thing. We all develop gradually. After all, he was thrust by birth into a wealthy family. He tried to become a part of his family. However, he found too many differences between most of his family and himself. He did go through the usual experiences of being from a wealthy family; attending well-groomed colleges, meeting people in the circle of the “haves;” but what put him in another path was that he took the learning of Islam very seriously…

You asked, "Should freedom fighters support him?” Freedom fighters all over the world, and not just in the Muslim world, don’t just support him; they revere him; they join him in battle. He is no ordinary leader or an ordinary Muslim. He may have once been surrounded with luxuries, but he adapted to the realities of a hunted “terrorist leader,” living in caves and doing without modern commodities…He went through heaven and hell with his men…

You stated that some freedom fighters responded that bin Laden’s agenda is more reactionary and does not speak to the needs of the masses of people who exist under US dominance. bin Laden has been primarily fighting US dominance even when he received money from the US when he was fighting in Afghanistan. He was fighting for Islam and all people who believe in Islam, against westerners, especially the US--even when he was fighting against the Russians…I do not care what the US government or Americans feel--I think it’s shameful what this government has done from the beginning of its racist, loathsome history.

And today, when I think what the US military is doing, brazenly bombing country after country, to take oil resources, bringing about coups, assassinating leaders of other countries, and pitting neighbor nations against each other, and demonizing anyone who disagrees with US policy, and detaining and deporting countless immigrants from all over the world, I thank Islam for bin Laden. America’s greed, aggressiveness, and self-righteous arrogance must be stopped. War and weaponry must be abolished.

Editor's Note: For an alternative analysis of reactionary insurrectionist politics, see Imprisoned Intellectuals: America's Political Prisoners Write on Life, Liberation, and Rebellion, edited by Joy James. In the preface, James comments: "Unlike progressive radicals and revolutionaries (politically, 'radical' is not synonymous with 'extremist'), reactionaries are restorers--rather than transform the current order, they seek to reimpose or reinvigorate old orders of supremacy...One need not argue that the 'enemy of my enemy is my friend.' It is reasonable to refuse friendship to a 'protective' imperialist state expanding police and war powers, a fearful society with slight regard for civilian losses or 'collateral damage' that are not 'white' or 'American.' Likewise, it is more than reasonable to condemn an insurrectionary terrorist (alter ego to a state terrorist) who targets civilians in asymmetrical warfare."

Black-Asian Politics

Objector: You are well known for your anti-imperialist work with Black and Puerto Rican communities. Why do you think it is important for Asian people to support these movements?

Everyone must support movements that fight for freedom, justice and self-determination; and we must protest racism, inequality and all the negatives that divide society.

We must be conscious and knowledgeable of what happened to the indigenous people (misnomered American Indians) who were all but annihilated by the European settlers; and also how Africans were brought here through the Transatlantic Slave Trade with millions having died before reaching these shores.

Asians also experienced racism, discrimination and segregation, but not the most abominable aspects of racism and degradation like the indigenous and Africans. Some Asians, being naive or ignorant were even swayed into becoming culturally westernized and looking down on those darker than themselves.

I hope that kind of thing is not happening today. Asian Americans did not join the modern civil rights movement ‘til the end of the 60’s, but they were active in the anti-Vietnam War movement, the struggle for Ethnic Studies, protested Apartheid in South Africa, supported the American Indian Movement, the Black Panthers, the Puerto Rican Independence Movement, and the Chicano Movement. Many Asians were also involved in anti-gentrification drives, fought against rising college tuition, and supported well known political prisoners like Mumia Abu Jamal.

Asians must learn that it was the Blacks that first struggled against racism; and fought for basic needs, like food, housing, medical care, education, and jobs. The spear-heading of the Black struggle laid the groundwork for all the other movements, including the women's movement and the fight against homophobia.

We must also be aware that people of color were not allowed in the early American movements or various struggle for a better standard of living. Even major unions did not allow people of color. On the strength and unrelenting spirit of the Black and Latino activists, Asians began forming their own Asian formations like Asian Americans for Action, I Wor Kuen, Katipunan Democratic P, and anti-war brigades were named after Vietnamese heroes.

I think there should be both integrated political organizations, as well as specific ethnic groups that need the privacy to organize by themselves. There will always be opportunities to create united fronts on various issues. Our most immediate task is to stop US imperialism.


Copyright 2003 Tamara Kil Ja Kim Nopper

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From a poet

by Akimi Saturday, Dec. 01, 2007 at 8:26 AM

Most youth I talk to regard New York, Harlem, Brooklyn as what they see in the videos or on TV...
I spent a summer there in theater school. And from there travelled to Cuba. My journey has shaped me as a woman and learning about Yuri Kochiyama was essential, especially as a fourth-generation Japanese-Canadian. I wish somehow, I could reach her, just to exclaim how great the feeling was to know there existed an JA WOMAN who also fought and took interest in all ethnic diversities, not just her own - as I do. As I said I wrote a poem of my time in NYC and what it TRULY meant to me. Which sadly, can be often forgotten with all the propaganda we are fed in the media to convince us of what is 'valued'.

Con affeccion,
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