Mary Yuriko (“Yuri”) Nakahara was born on May 19, 1921, in San Pedro, California. Her parents were Issei (first-generation) Japanese immigrants. Yuri had a twin brother, Pete, and an older brother, Arthur.
Yuri grew up like many children of immigrants, with two cultures. At home, she spoke Japanese and ate Japanese food. Outside the home, she spoke English, joined the Girl Scouts, and volunteered at the Red Cross. Yuri attended Compton Junior College, where she majored in journalism and minored in art. After graduating, in 1941, she enrolled in a training program for child education.
On December 7, 1941, Yuri’s life changed forever when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. In response to the attack, President Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order that required Japanese Americans from the West Coast to relocate to incarceration camps, supposedly because they were a threat to national security. The FBI was suspicious of Yuri’s father, Seiichi, and arrested him. Seiichi Nakahara’s ill health deteriorated in FBI custody, and he died on January 21, 1942.
Yuri and her remaining family members were relocated to a camp in Arkansas. Despite the treatment she received from the American government, Yuri wanted to support the U.S. soldiers fighting in the war. She started a group called the Crusaders who wrote thousands of letters to Japanese American soldiers abroad. Her twin brother, Pete, enlisted in the U.S. Army.
At the incarceration camp in Arkansas, Yuri met another young Nisei (American-born of Japanese immigrants), Bill Kuchiyama. He was from New York City and trained with his Japanese American combat team in the army, visiting the camp to see friends. For Yuri, it was love at first sight. The army ordered Bill to fight in Europe in April 1944. After Bill was discharged from the army, Yuri moved to New York City to be with him. They married on February 9, 1946, and had six children together.
The family moved to an apartment in Harlem in 1960. Surrounded by Black families, Yuri joined the civil rights movement. She organized community meetings in her home, where she invited speakers like Freedom Riders to share their experiences. Yuri involved her children in the activist movement, taking them to protests all over the city.
Yuri continued to stand up for Japanese Americans as well. She attended demonstrations in Central Park to commemorate the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and protest nuclear weapons. But she also recognized the horrors committed by Japanese troops in Nanjing, China.
In 1964, Malcolm X visited the Kochiyama home in Harlem, attending a reception for antinuclear activists. He changed her views on activism, connecting the struggles of Black Americans to the effects of white imperialism all over the world, particularly in Asia and Africa. Yuri attended Malcolm X’s Liberation School and joined his Organization of Afro-American Unity. The next year, she attended his speech at the Audubon Ballroom when Malcolm X was assassinated. She immediately ran on stage and held his head in her hands as he died.
Tragedy continued to follow Yuri over the following years. Billy, her oldest son, suffered major injuries in a car accident on the Brooklyn Bridge, in 1966. While he survived, his leg had to be amputated, and he struggled with his mental health for years. Billy died from suicide on October 15, 1975.
Yuri continued to put her energy into activism. The anti-imperialist views Malcolm X had instilled in Yuri inspired her support for the Puerto Rican independence movement. When Puerto Rican nationalists occupied the Statue of Liberty in 1977, Yuri joined them.
Yuri and her husband Bill had also joined Asian Americans for Action, an organization that promoted rights for Asian Americans. The cornerstone of her work for Asian Americans was rooted in her own experience during World War II. She wanted the U.S. government to recognize the unjust treatment of Japanese Americans during the war with a formal apology and reparations. Yuri and Bill pushed for government hearings on Japanese incarceration. Congress created the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians in 1980.
Eleven hearings were held in 1981 in cities across the country. When Bill testified in New York, Yuri led other activists in a march outside the hearings. They carried signs with political art, which had been explicitly banned by the commission. Yuri herself later testified in Washington,