[INTERVIEW] Yuri Kochiyama on War, Imperialism, Osama & Black/Asian Politics
- Yuri Kochiyama:
On War, Imperialism, Osama bin Laden,
And Black-Asian Politics
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
Copyright 2003 Tamara Kil Ja Kim Nopper