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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It follows then that Yuri does not believe Osama bin Laden is really the evil of all evils he is portrayed as, a sentiment she leaves out of public speeches, but willingly discusses privately. "I'd ask people, 'Why do you think Osama bin Laden has some grudge against the US?' " she said in one such discussion.

It speaks to Yuri's character that she appears to have no enemies within the Movement, at least none with a face and a name. Once, Yuri received a death threat over the telephone, her friend Lum recalled. From whom, Lum won't say. "You think about it," he said. "Who do we fight against? Who do we protest against?" Lum noted that while he and Yuri's other friends worried for her and contemplated how to protect her, "she didn't bat an eyelash."

The call came soon after Bill passed away in 1993. In her husband, she lost a dearly devoted, utterly romantic, gently protective partner, a man who would quietly listen in on Yuri's meetings in the living room while he cooked and cleaned in the kitchen. "You know how that saying goes, 'Behind every strong man is a strong woman?' " Alex Nguyen said. "This is just the opposite."

Bill could not have been pleased with his wife's numerous arrests. The two youngest children, Jimmy and Tommy, moved to Los Angeles when they reached their teens, a little resentful that Mom was so busy, Audee said. Yuri even converted to Islam for a few years, wanting to experience the change she saw in so many around her -- but tried to hide it from the family.

"In my family, we joke that he married this crazy, radical woman who made him live in the projects in Harlem when he could have married a normal Japanese girl and had a quiet life," Akemi said. "He would have never had this life if it weren't for her. And it was the most amazing life."

But it was a life with its share of tragedies. They lost two of their children, first Billy in 1975, then Aichi in 1989. Both were hit by taxicabs. Five months after Aichi passed away, her husband died of sickle cell anemia.

In 1997, Yuri had a stroke, which weakened her legs significantly. She had trouble walking, and had to grab furniture to drag her body along, little though it may be. She also grew depressed. Although she never thought she would move back to California, her children had all found their way here, and in 1999 they moved her to the Bay Area.

"I was in a bad way," Yuri said. "It was just agonizing to me. My daughter was thinking I might do something crazy and had the lady next door check on me. They found me on the floor and took me to the psychiatric hospital." She stayed in three different hospitals in a row. At one, they zipped her into bed every night. As awful an experience as it was, she was glad to have it. "Any experience is a learning experience and you understand what people go through," Yuri said now, busily back to her old self. "It really made me much more sensitive and understanding."

Meanwhile, her family and friends made repeated trips to New York to box up forty years of photographs, love letters, file cabinets, and political posters. UCLA archived some of her files. But most of her belongings sit in a storage unit, including her teddy bear collection, which numbers in the hundreds.

"That place was like a historical site," Eddie said. "It was a real bitch to move."Yuri's sense of history brings her all sorts of visitors and callers, seeking her memories and thoughts. This year on February 21, the anniversary of Malcolm X's death, Yuri got up by 7 a.m. so that WBAI, a New York radio station, could interview her about what happened that day 37 years ago. It is a story, though painful to recall, she has told a hundred times.

In the afternoon, someone stopped by to teach her how to send an e-mail attachment. (When it was suggested to her that she could e-mail information much faster than if she used a real envelope, Yuri cried in disbelief, "But you can't send a leaflet in an e-mail!") At five, Alex came by to take her to the Sebastião Salgado photo exhibit at UC Berkeley which documented the migration of refugees. Yuri pushed her walker close to the wall to peer at the captions beneath the black and white photos of glassy-eyed children, hardened faces, and corpses. Impressed, she said that every teacher should bring their students to the exhibit.

A few days later, Alex sat with Yuri's family at the Kabuki Theater in San Francisco's Japantown to hear her give the keynote address at the Day of Remembrance, commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of Executive Order No. 9066. Yuri stood wobbly on a step, grasping the podium. She said the Day of Remembrance was especially important this year in the wake of September 11, calling once again for solidarity with Muslims and Arabs.

Yuri didn't always mention the negative side of her camp experience. Audee recalled that when she was young, she didn't fully understand these camps her parents spoke of. "It seemed like she had good memories. It was the first time she was with so many Japanese Americans and in some ways it didn't seem like such a bad experience." When she got older, though, her parents talked more openly about their incarceration. Yuri noted that many Japanese Americans were ashamed to talk about those times. "I don't have to be ashamed," she concluded. "Gee, America should be ashamed!" The couple joined a movement for redress.

Bill Kochiyama testified at a Washington, DC commission formed to investigate the internments, and in 1988 President Ronald Reagan signed an act that provided an apology and $20,000 to each surviving internee. Nearly half of the internees had already died by then, and the act did not address the American imprisonment of Latin Americans of Japanese ancestry who had been removed not only from their homes, but their countries.

When a Day of Remembrance organizer presented Yuri with an honorarium, she grew flustered. "Oh no," she said. "I want it to go to the David Wong Support Committee." After the program, Alex said he wanted to take Yuri to a movie. But Herb Holman, Audee's husband, said Yuri needed to rest. The day before, Yuri had marched all day to protest the war, spoken at a school dinner, then stayed up all night preparing her Day of Remembrance speech.

Yuri said she'd take a break, yet she filled her planner with events. She has seen other stroke victims grow silent, and sometimes she finds it hard to move her jaws. "I think soon I will have difficulty talking," she said. "I won't be able to talk so I might as well do it while I can." She already can't remember some words and she has forgotten dates and events she once learned.

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