An Homage for Yuri Kochiyama

By Traci Kato-Kiriyama

Over the weekend, I joined hundreds of community members in Little Tokyo for public memorial service honoring the life and legacy of activist Yuri Kochiyama, who died in June at the age 93. It was a beautiful, inspiring gathering of people from all walks of life, celebrating the amazing journey of a giant.

During the program, artist/performer/educator Traci Kato-Kiriyama shared her homage to Yuri Kochiyama. It's a lovely piece, and I'm re-sharing it here, with Traci's permission:

an homage for Yuri Kochiyama - read at the Los Angeles Memorial for Yuri on August 31, 2014

an homage for Yuri...


You were

the first stamp on the letter for the least likely to receive
the last one to forget a face
first finger at the light switch
the last one to leave


countless many hold their
"first time I met Yuri"
as if it happened yesterday

before meeting her
i didn't understand
the meaning
of Star Struck

until my bones shook and
the skin on my arms shrieked
the day she walked in
from a sweltering J-Town afternoon
to rest at Alison's desk

i was 20 years old
an intern for Karen at the museum
trying to swallow a gasp
the first time i saw her face

my excitement couldn't help itself
It shifted my eyes toward her hands, her little legs,
and fixated on her teeth

she did what i came to learn
she did for everybody

she broke out her notebook
she wrote down my name, my hometown and my school
she asked which camps my parents were in
she mentioned all the people i should meet
she forgot she had come inside to rest

she was a conversation in pendulum form
a swift switch with steadfast passion
from politics to grandchildren

she made me lose track of the clock
the temperature
and even the fact that i had been
trying to memorize her face

she let me see an awesomely regular lady

i watched her become ordinary
extraordinary way


You were
the rebel with a mission
the perpetrator of Talk The Talk, Walk The Walk
the surprise on the other side of the bull horn
the nation's most dangerous in disguise


when someone doesn't recognize
her name
i find myself telling them

of the Japanese American woman
in cat's eye glasses
pictured next to Malcolm X
in his final moments

i say she was an activist from Harlem to Redress
a mentor to the Asian American Movement
an advocate alongside political prisoners
i mention her
Nobel Peace Prize nomination
i quote the Blue Scholars:
"When I Grow Up, I Wanna Be Just Like Yuri Kochiyama"

but those are just my lead-ins

what people really get is
when i say she
was equal parts water and fire
speech so fluid
that the same love flowed in her words
to Free Mumia
it did to surface in gratitude for those
who gave to her beloved teddy bear collection

And on the day she died
i combed through every news channel
for a glimpse of her

Public radio and internet got it right

But the passing of a Revolution was not televised

i only felt sorry for the news stories
They missed out on but one cycle our
Extraordinary Yuri


You are
water hose to the crooked warden
flood light to the invisible prison
earthquake underneath the gatekeepers' feet


i imagine Yuri
sitting at a chair nearest the front door
leaning forward to tie her shoes
notebook and pen
in the fanny pack
already secured around her waist
checking off yesterday's list in her head
tabs spilling off the sides of today's schedule

i think of the times
she sat on panels and
we saw her eyebrows get twisted
at the question
by activists decades her junior
on the issue of burn-out

i heard her say in one way or another
that there is so much to do
there isn't time left
think of herself
getting tired

i imagine Yuri again
and see

excusing itself
revolution reflecting on
its future

i see
no wasted motion
a kind of Zen
without the stink of religion

i see
no rest for her weariness
no ego to prove


For a collection of her selected speeches
students at UCLA were keen
to include her handwritten notes
for a talk she gave on Malcolm X
to students in the 2nd and 3rd grade

In it, she shared an autograph
Malcolm wrote
to her daughter:

"Audee. Please help to
make this a better
world for all people."

Yuri goes on to say:

"This is probably the
message he would give
to you - if he were here
And he is here in

‘To live in hearts that
are left behind is not to

Remember that - should
you ever lose someone
dear to you...
We, who loved Malcolm,
keep him alive in our


tossed the cells of the ivory tower
open-ended questions
iron-clad ideals
and principle that didn't flinch

You are

happiness in the pursuit of freedom
justice at the hands of peace

the way the walk sprints
the way the talk chants in the streets

the way social justice dresses itself every morning
the way self-determination decides to breathe
the all ways affirmative action
visitation that refuses to leave
the metal cup clanging across the prison bars
harbinger to the fire alarm

theory in motion
articulation in practice
hammer to clock
blowtorch to burnout
bridge to the bridges

i quote from You in honor of You

You are the fire
who reminds us
make this a
better world
for all people

This is the message
we would give to you
if you were here today

And you are here in

"To live in hearts that
are left behind is not to

Remember that - now that we have lost a giant

We, who love you, honor you,
keep you alive in our hearts
in every single

Thanks, Traci. Rest in peace, Yuri.

For those of you in New York, there will be a memorial for Yuri Kochiyama in Harlem on September 27:


September 27, 2014 (Saturday)
5:00 - 7:30 pm

First Corinthian Baptist Church
1912 Adam C. Powell Boulevard
New York, NY 10026

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