The Last Revolutionary 

Yuri Kochiyama possesses one of the boldest voices raised against the war on terrorism. As a former internment-camp prisoner and peer of Malcolm X, she brings history and vitality to what little remains of "The Movement."

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Two protesters held a display featuring enlarged photocopies. On the first panel was a picture of Mohammad Rafiq Butt, who died in a New Jersey jail, never charged with a crime. Another photo showed two people on the ground, guns pointed to their heads. The caption said they had been removed from a bus after the driver reported them as "suspicious" passengers who spoke little English. The next two panels displayed pictures of Japanese-American internment camps and Jews lining up in Nazi Germany. Across the display, two questions: "What will you do now? What would you have done then?"

In front of the photos, representatives of the National Lawyers Guild, Grassroots Organizers for the Muslim and Arab Community, the ACLU, the Asian Law Caucus, and other groups took turns speaking. Then it was Yuri's turn. She pulled out the seat in her walker and sat through her speech as someone held the microphone to her mouth.

As in all her speeches, Yuri offered historical facts and statistics, but little about herself or the four years she spent in an internment camp. For all her public appearances, Yuri has never found it easy to talk about herself.

She was struck, she said in her talk, by the similarities between today and sixty years ago, when Japanese Americans were forced from their homes and suddenly treated like national enemies. Men were arrested, their families given no explanation. Asian Americans were publicly harassed, spat upon, beaten, even killed. The same thing is happening now, she said. One third of the latest violent incidents were logged in the Bay Area. She urged the crowd not just to express sympathy, but to act swiftly.

"An injury or injustice to one is an injury and injustice to all," she said to applause.

When she finished, Yuri scooted back into the crowd. Reporters and photographers approached her continuously, asking her to spell her name. She answered patiently, as if she had been doing this her whole life.

Of course, she hadn't. As teenagers, Yuri and her two brothers lived a red-white-and-blue, oh-so-apple-pie existence. Yuri taught Sunday school, volunteered for the YWCA and Girl Scouts, attended every football game in a town where high-school sports mattered above all else, and even joined the Women's Ambulance and Defense Corps of America, which preceded the Women's Army Corps.

Religious and baseball-obsessed, Yuri grew up as Mary Yuriko Nakahara in San Pedro, a port town just south of Los Angeles. Her father had come to America by himself, later returning to Japan to find a wife. He found her teaching at the school where his father was principal. In San Pedro, Seichi Nakahara owned a fish market. He often did business with Japanese steamships and sometimes brought ship officers home for dinner.

Most of the residents of Terminal Island, located just across the bay, were Japanese immigrants, but in the town where the Nakaharas lived the population was mostly white, working-class Italian and Yugoslavian immigrants. "We Japanese kids never felt embarrassed that our parents couldn't speak perfect English, because no one's parents spoke perfect English," Yuri said.

But all that changed on December 7, 1941. Yuri had just returned home from Sunday school when a knock came at the door. Three FBI agents wanted to see her father. He was sleeping, having returned just the day before from the hospital where he underwent an ulcer operation. Within minutes, though, the agents rushed him into his bathrobe and slippers and whisked him away. The Japanese were bombing Pearl Harbor.

The next day, agents returned and rifled through everything in the house. For days the family didn't know where their father was. Finally, a lawyer located him in a federal prison across the bay on Terminal Island. Yuri's mother pleaded with authorities to take him to the hospital and send him back to jail when he was better. Meanwhile, Yuri's twin brother Peter, then a student at UC Berkeley, hitchhiked home, since no one would sell him a train ticket. By December 10, both her brothers tried to sign up for military service. Peter was accepted even though his father was accused of spying.

When Seichi Nakahara was finally returned to a hospital, his bed was the only one in the ward bearing the sign "Prisoner of War." The children were allowed to visit only once. Peter came in his uniform, and his father quivered when he saw him. Unable to recognize his son, he thought that someone had come to interrogate him. A week later, on the evening of the 20th, the hospital sent Seichi home in an ambulance. Overjoyed at first, the Nakaharas soon realized he was dying.

"Because he couldn't talk, we didn't know if he could hear," Yuri said. "We waved our fingers in front of his eyes, but he didn't move."

By next morning he was dead at age sixty. The FBI called to warn that anyone attending the funeral would be under surveillance. Friends defied the five-mile travel ban placed on Japanese Americans to show up at his service. FBI agents stood at the doors.

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order No. 9066, authorizing the military to remove people of Japanese ancestry from their homes to prison camps. Yuri considers her family lucky because they had more than a month to prepare, while some only had forty-eight hours. After being forced to live for six months in a horse stall at the Santa Anita racetrack, Yuri, her mother, and oldest brother were tagged, numbered, and loaded onto cattle trains. No one knew where they were going. The Nakaharas ended up in a concentration camp in Jerome, Arkansas.

They lived in barracks, twelve to a block. The camps ran self-sufficiently. Everyone had a job. First-generation Issei women ordered cloth from the Sears-Roebuck catalogue to make curtains for the toilet stalls. Yuri continued to teach Sunday school. Many of the second-generation Nisei GIs were stationed in the south and would visit by the busloads on the weekends. The young women formed their own USO in the camp for them.

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