Trisha Y. Nakamura
Hawai‘i Herald Columnist

In photos of Malcolm X taken after he was murdered, a young woman is cradling his head. She is wearing cat-eye glasses and has a scarf on her head. She appears calm and still. She is Japanese. It is easy to not see her or not pay much attention. One’s natural focus is on a man dying, shot to the ground in an unexpected attack. But she is there. Her name is Yuri Kochiyama.

It was only after learning about Yuri did I search for her in the photo. And, she was there. Even now, I cannot unsee her there, holding up Malcolm. In the grainy black-and-white image of her stuck in my mind, she embodies a silent steadiness and somber strength. 

Yuri Kochiyama at a anti-war demonstration in New York City’s Central Park around 1968. (Photo courtesy of the Kochiyama family)

Yuri was incarcerated with members of her family in Jerome, Arkansas. There, her consciousness and awareness about racism grew. She connected the treatment of Black people in the American South, and her experiences as a Japanese American, deemed an enemy by the United States Government. She also learned about the importance of community organizing. After being released from “camp,” Yuri and her husband raised their family in Harlem, participating in various movements, which is how she met Malcolm X. 

When I think of Yuri, I think of the word gaman, (patience, tolerance, endurance) and how many folks in the Japanese American community use this word with pride, perhaps believing there is a strength that comes from enduring. But what if the suffering that endures does not end, especially if something can stop it?  

For me, gaman makes sense when viewed in relation to the context of purpose. For example, when we look at the phrase “kodomo no tame ni” (for the sake of the children), gaman is powerful when one transforms what they have endured so that another does not have to suffer. Its power is realized only when we have endured for something greater.

Yuri gained strength from her own hardships; to stand up for others. She endured imprisonment as a result of Executive Order 9066, never having been charged or convicted of any crime, because of who she was and what she looked like. She took these experiences and committed herself to fight for others so that others and the next generation might not suffer. 

A still shot of Yuri Kochiyama, answering questions from an interview held by Densho Encyclopedia. (Screenshot courtesy of Densho Encyclopedia)
A still shot of Yuri Kochiyama, answering questions from an interview held by Densho Encyclopedia. (Screenshot courtesy of Densho Encyclopedia)

Champions like Yuri are important. Standing up for other people in big and also small ways, like Yuri did, can ease the challenges folks in our LGBTQ+ communities face, especially our keiki. I offer her as a person to think about and her actions and purpose to reflect on. And I share my story to help provide context as I explore what steps we can take to be of support.

I came out as gay at a time when the fight for same-sex marriage was still new. Knockout battles were being waged over whether same-sex couples could marry, whether gay men or lesbians could raise children, and whether gay, lesbian and transgender folks were “normal.” Kids were being kicked out of their homes and abandoned by their families because they were gay. LGBTQ+ folks, including Matthew Shepherd, were being tortured and murdered. Coming out was hard. It meant having a conversation I never had with people, including my mom. It meant that I could be rejected and lose the love of my family. 

Being gay was not part of the plan. It was also not something I chose. I attended church throughout high school. I had memories of lesbian and gay classmates being persecuted and teased purely based on rumor and stereotypes. Being gay felt like the scariest and worst thing that could ever happen. Rejection and abandonment was the thing I feared the most. 

Around this time, the Hawai‘i State Legislature had passed a law allowing for a constitutional amendment to be put on the ballot allowing the Legislature (largely unsupportive of same-sex marriage) to define marriage. The 1998 general election ballot asked, “Shall the Constitution of the state of Hawai‘i be amended to specify that the Legislature shall have the power to reserve marriage to opposite-sex couples.” The battle over this constitutional amendment question was an outright political war. Ads on this issue ran in the newspaper, on the radio and over the television. People phone-banked, sign-waved and walked door-to-door. A vote in favor of this question practically meant that same-sex couples would be denied the right to marry. The vote was 69% in favor and 29% against. 

After the election, I recall walking around Ala Moana Shopping Center near Center Stage. I looked at the people on the escalator and thought that seven of every 10 people probably did not like me or perhaps hated me because I was gay. 

What gave me hope was the unwavering support from my mom, my family, my friends and my communities. The support was not always bold. Sometimes it looked like going to a family dinner as if nothing had changed. Other times, it looked like an invitation to a dinner with friends at Like Like Drive Inn or a movie. 

The Japanese American Citizens League logo.
The Japanese American Citizens League logo.

And sometimes the support was bold. The Japanese American Citizens League-Honolulu Chapter was one of the first non-LGBT groups to support same-sex marriage. Seeing this group publicly support same-sex marriage when they did not have a stake in the matter meant that my own community had a place for me and would not reject me. Even when this group did not need to take a position, they did so because they believed in civil and human rights. 

Being inclusive is so important. One simple thing you can do now is to be mindful of your choices in language. These choices don’t need to be highlighted or announced, just made respectfully and intentionally. Start the conversation using language that opens the door to welcome others. At the next family party, rather than asking your nephew or niece if they have a boyfriend or girlfriend, perhaps the question could be “Are you dating anyone? What is their name?” Regardless of who they are dating, the question opens the door for them to answer. To assume whom they are dating shuts the door — even unintentionally.

As we grow stronger from the challenges we’ve endured, we all gain the ability to celebrate the humanity and dignity in someone else. 

Trisha Nakamura is the Interim Dean of Student Services at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa William S. Richardson School of Law, where she has served as the Director of Career Services. She is a volunteer board member of the Japanese American Citizens League-Honolulu Chapter, an organization advocating for civil and human rights. Prior to her work at the Law School, she worked as a Deputy Public Defender, defending the rights of those accused. As a Yonsei local Okinawan woman who was born and raised in Hawai‘i, she is committed to equity and social justice. Her respect for this place and people, and her appreciation of diversity, inform her desire to contribute to our community.


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