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One weekend, the all-Japanese-American 442nd regimental combat team visited. (It would go on to become one of the most decorated battalions in US history.) It was Yuri's job to register each soldier and find him a bed. After discovering that most of the men hailed from Hawaii, she asked each for his name, rank, and home island. When one particularly dashing young man reached the front of the line, he answered, "Manhattan Island."
Impressed by his smart mouth and good looks, Yuri fell hard for Bill Kochiyama. "He was very good-looking and he had a different kind of personality because he was brought up in New York and he never knew the kind of racism West-Coast Asians did," Yuri said. "He was so confident and outgoing. I was crazy in love."
Bill told Yuri he had sixty sisters and sixty brothers. It turned out that he was raised in an orphanage. His father worked as a servant for a family on Park Avenue and would visit once a week. He once told Bill that his mother had passed away and to never mention her. Bill never did.
When the 442nd left for Europe, Yuri wrote Bill every day, three times a day, for twenty-two months. Returning from the front lines, he would find stacks of letters waiting for him. Burdened by the weight of Yuri's love letters, Bill buried many of them in the trenches. Embarrassed to receive so much mail when some had none, Bill asked Yuri to write to other men. She organized a cadre of pen pals so that no one in Bill's team would go without mail. After the war, Yuri and Bill reunited in New York. They married on a February afternoon, having met in person just three times.
Sixty years later, Yuri still busies herself with organizing. To visit Yuri is a feat of simultaneous ease and difficulty. Ease, because Yuri will meet with almost anyone; "no" is not in her vocabulary. And difficulty because everyone wants to meet her. The best way to get time with her is to offer to drive her to the dizzying array of demonstrations, speech engagements, and lunches that dominate her schedule. If she is attending a march, she¹ll pack her wheelchair. Otherwise, she doesn¹t use it.
She goes to physical therapy three times a week on the first floor of the senior home where she lives. She attends Saturday morning meetings for People's Resistance Against US Terrorism. She receives a bimonthly visit from a woman named Chinosole who gives her a one-on-one black studies class. And every month she visits the women's federal penitentiary in Dublin to see Marilyn Buck, an "anti-imperialist activist" convicted of conspiracy to bomb the US Capitol. Her presence also is requested at banquets, conferences, and schools, so she often stays up till two in the morning, researching and writing speeches. Plus she also can't turn down a good documentary or poetry reading.
"We don't know where she is half the time," said daughter-in-law Pam Wu, who is married to Yuri's son Eddie and runs the Asian American Theater Company in San Francisco. "We're always wondering 'Where's Yuri?' "
When Yuri meets new people, she always asks for their names and then peppers them with questions. She knows everyone has a story and she wants to hear it. "Gee!" she'll say. A great deal of the sentences that leave her mouth start with "Gee" and end with an exclamation point. Yuri possesses both the energy and social life of a twenty-year-old.
It should come as no surprise, then, that she is often surrounded by young people. Young people make up most of the membership of the David Wong Support Committee, a group Yuri founded over a decade ago to aid a Chinese immigrant who she believes was falsely convicted in the murder of an inmate at the prison where Wong was serving time for armed robbery. Before Yuri took up his cause, Wong, who was smuggled into the country as a teen, had no one working on his behalf.
It is unjust imprisonment -- whether of Movement revolutionaries, Iranians during the Iran-Contra affair, or Middle Eastern immigrants today -- that riles up Yuri most. She follows the cases of hundreds of Americans she considers political prisoners, writing regularly to many of them, sending out her own newsletter. "For Christmas, all she wants is stamps," said granddaughter Akemi Kochiyama-Sardinha. "She gets mad if you get her anything else."
Asked to name a few of the people she writes to, Yuri can't stop, hoping to get all their names in the paper: Mutulu Shakur, Yu Kikumura, George Baba Eng, Bashir Hameed, Abdul Majid, Oscar Lopez Rivera. She tirelessly supports causes célèbres such as Mumia Abu-Jamal, but also unknown souls such as David Wong.
How could she forget those leaders and comrades in the Movement who were railroaded and framed, she asks. She never mentions her father -- the source of her fire. "That's too personal," Wu explained. "It takes away from the issue."
The issues -- there are so many of them. Her Movement credentials reveal her as unusual even among activists. While many pay lip service to the notion of diversity, few, if any, have worked for so many causes and embraced so many distinct ethnic groups. "I don't think there are too many people you can really say were involved simultaneously in cross-cultures in a real day-to-day basis," said family friend Nyisha Shakur, who used to make prison visits with Yuri on the East Coast. "I don't think I know of any others."
Even as an elderly woman, Yuri remains a hell-raising activist, said Alex Nguyen, an Oakland city employee who knocked on the Kochiyamas' door ten years ago as a college student, and then became a friend. Once, he recalled, he and Yuri attended a court hearing and the judge ordered the room cleared. The audience was corralled down the stairs, but Yuri turned around and tried to fight her way back up. "I couldn't believe it," he said. "Here she is this seventy-five-year-old going against everyone. I was afraid she would get hurt. I nearly had to pick her up."
"Yuri -- and I say this lovingly -- she has a very stubborn streak," said Wayne Lum, a New York friend and member of the David Wong group.
Lum recounted how recently in New York, one group refused to take part in an event when it learned that another group it disliked was one of the sponsors.
Seven Days - March 22, 5:57 PM
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