“I must say that when I was young I was totally apolitical.”
A Different Kind of Life
Yuri Kochiyama certainly has lived no ordinary life, but the first 20 years of her youth were much different, and not what most people would expect from such a fiery activist. Born Mary Yuriko Nakahara on May 19, 1921 in San Pedro, California, Yuri describes her childhood life as “comfortable, [a] middle class life virtually free of the rampant racism that plagued many parts of the United States.” Her parents were Japanese immigrants and like many Japanese, came to the United States for better economic opportunities. Yuri attended San Pedro High School, and she participated in many activities, such as sports and writing for her local newspaper. She became involved with her community as well, volunteering for the Girl Scouts and the YWCA. Her dutiful feelings toward community service would stick with her throughout her lifetime and evolve into strong political activism to help oppressed and deprived minorities.
However, despite her active work as a teen, Yuri admits that up until about her senior year of college (1942), she was often unaware of political affairs both on a local and national level. She was so apolitical that she did not even know of the Jewish persecutions and massacres that began prior to the start of WWII. “I was not political and I wasn’t socially aware… I was very small townish, you know, provincial and also quite religious—going to Sunday school and teaching Sunday school in fact” Yuri explains. Yuri thought America was 'perfect'; she had no real awareness of issues such as racism or oppression. Yet, things would change for Yuri, as a painful experience would open her eyes to a new perspective of life in America, and finally spark that political activism in Yuri for which she is so honored.