Opening Night of "Bits of Paradise" at The Marsh Theater, San Francisco (Nov. 2008): Marlan Warren (L); Yuri Kochiyama (M); Ruth Ishizaki (R); Photo by Victoria Yang
I wrote the following memorial last year when activist and justice crusader Yuri Kochiyama "made her transition" from this mundane world to whatever glory no doubt awaited her in the next. I had posted it on my Open Salon blog, "Dancing in the Experience Lane," because that blog seemed to get the most attention of all my blogs. However, with the sad news that Open Salon has shut down its operation, I re-print it here. For more info on the documentary-in-progress that I've been working on since Dec. '08, please visit http://www.yurikochiyamafilm.net.
"To never break one link of friendship, regardless of the time or distance that separates me from that friend, even if that friendship is only a memory stored away in my heart and mind."--Yuri's Creed
Yesterday I did not listen to the radio or TV. It was a busy day full of Light and people carrying Light. I ended up at a Buddhist Temple in L.A.'s Chinatown which is dedicated to a Sea Goddess, and sat for hours with my friend whom I call "Tiger" who was spending time with a couple friends. One was a filmmaker who had not met Yuri Kochiyama personally but admires her, and we spent an hour or so talking about my Crusaders film project that I began shooting at the end of 2008, and that is now in need of funds for post-production. It was not until this morning, June 3, that I woke up at 4 a.m. and saw a message on my phone that Yuri (aka "Mary Nakahara") had died in her sleep yesterday afternoon. Around the time that I was walking into the temple to light incense and send prayers for loved ones.
I have never met anyone else as egoless as this woman.
Yuri had that rare gift--like that old saying "The charming woman is the one who finds ME charming," she would light up at the sight of you and say things like, "Oh how is the acting going? I thought you did such wonderful acting in that play!" As she did to one actor who was in "Bits of Paradise" (Jean Franco) when he saw her again during the shoot we did all day in her room at the San Pedro Hotel. When Jean told her that he was in "Milk," Yuri cried, "Oh they made a movie about Harvey Milk! I must go see it!" And when Jean showed her a clipping from a paper with a photo showing him in the crowd scene with Sean Penn, Yuri said, "Oh! That yellow just sets you off!"
I had the good fortune to meet Yuri when she was 87 years old; at a time when all that she had done and lived through had blended into the layered personality that was hers and hers alone.
She asked me to come the day before the shoot and help her organize her papers so they could be easily put aside in the tiny room, and not clutter up our visuals: "Bring red folders and green folders and yellow folders..." and she requested colored tabs and rubber bands.
Yuri was writing to 200 political prisoners at the time (the T-shirt she wore for our interview says "Free Mumia" on it). And when I arrived to help her, she quickly assigned me the role of "assistant" and I had the pleasure of observing her still-sharp mind in action as she went through the voluminous mail so we could file it.
"Oh I haven't read this one yet...It goes in that pile with the red folder...."
And when we started shooting the next day, I wasn't sure if the sound equipment we brought would be adequate. I muttered, "Maybe we'll get lucky." Right there on camera, Yuri says sharply, but not unkindly: "Oh it's not a matter of LUCK, is it?" or words to that effect.
Yuri was a woman who carved her own swath from Day One. It has always been my intention to cover the WOMAN rather than the political activist (which she most certainly was so that is of course infused in every frame). Since that day in 2001 when I happened to read the first of her letters in The Crusaders Scrapbook in the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo, I have wished I could grow up to be Yuri Kochiyama (to paraphrase the Blue Scholars terrific song title). In other words, I wanted to be able to roll with the punches the way she had, and not be depressed by oppression and loss. Yuri lost her father to FBI interrogation right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and soon found herself in the Santa Anita Assembly Center (aka "first concentration camp in Southern California where they held law-abiding Japanese American citizens because they were of Japanese heritage).
"Hello Boys" one of her cheerful missives intended for "any soldier in need of a letter" starts out, "Are we bothering you for the first time or the fortieth?" Cartoons, jokes ("I said, 'Bring in all the jokes you can find," she tells me during the interview when she's looking at a copy of one of her pamphlets.
When World War II ended, her "intended." Bill Kochiyama sent her a telegram warning her that he was alive but broke with no prospects. Not much to build a future on, so if she wanted out. I don't have the words in front of me right now, but she sent him a telegram back telling him that they would have love, adventure and each other.
Yuri Kochiyama and Jean Franco at her 88th birthday bash (San Francisco);
Photo by Marlan Warren
Yuri Kochiyama was born "Mary Nakahara." In the interview, I asked her what Mary would think of Yuri. She answered, "Two different people. Totally!"
A close look at Yuri's life reveals links upon links of friendship never broken. Just as she pledge in her Creed while she was barely out of her teens.
Rest in Peace, beautiful loving Warrior.
Yuri's Great-Granddaughter reads Yuri's Creed at her 88th birthday bash.
Photo by Marlan Warren.
Every morning this month, I wake up saying, "I have to raise the money for this film and get it finished." We are very very close to making a rough cut. It is International Women's Month!
Then today, I got a huge surprise. Sharon Wong of Asian American Pacific Advocates just donated through the film's fiscal sponsor: Fractured Atlas!
I am so deeply touched by this spontaneous vote of confidence and support. And I can hear Yuri's voice saying, "Well, what are you waiting for?" Carry on!
ABOUT THE PLAY AND THE FILM
Bits of Paradise is a play by Marlan Warren based on the writing found in the Cruaders Scrapbook at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles' Little Tokyo. It reflects the women's movement founded by Yuri (then "Mary Nakahara") called "The Crusaders" that enlisted the girls and women "interned" (imprisoned) in the U.S. concentration camps at the start of World War II who banded together to boost the Japanese American soldiers' morale with cheerful cards and letters.
Shooting for the film commenced a few days after the play's showcase closed in San Francisco in Dec. '08, originally directed by Chong Lee who also co-produced with Marlan Warren through '09.
Over the years, three other original Crusaders have been interviewed in addition to Yuri. Two were the ones who put the scrapbook together: Ruth Ishizaki and Rinko Enosaki. Pat Goto found me via a newsletter for San Diegan Japanese Americans, and she was thrilled to finally know what happened to "My Mary." As a pre-teen, Pat was in Mary Nakahara's Sunday School class when they began collecting money for penny postcards to write to the servicemen. In her 80s, Pat took a Creative Writing class and actually wrote a memoir of her "camp life" that included a chapter devoted to how much Mary meant to her. We were able to send a copy to Yuri, whose daughter would read it to her.