Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, the Japanese American activist whose research resulted in the financial and symbolic reparations to Japanese incarceration camp survivors, died in Torrance, California at the age of 93.
Herzig-Yoshinaga is notable for uncovering evidence that proved that the U.S. government’s decision to force Japanese Americans behind barbed wire during World War II was driven by racist intent rather than the protection of national security.
“Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga was the quintessential example that one person can change the course of history,” Mitch Maki, president of the nonprofit Go For Broke National Education Center, states. “As a self-trained researcher and archivist, she had the keen ability to identify key documents and draw the connections between them” — reports the Huffington Post.
Growing up in California, she recalled the hostility she faced by authorities after former President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order in 1942 forcing Japanese Americans into camps. According to the New York Times, she vividly remembers the time when her high school principal assembled the 15 Japanese students in her graduating class to tell them that “You don’t deserve to get your high school diplomas because your people bombed Pearl Harbor”.
At the age of 17, Herzig-Yoshinaga, alongside 120,000 other Japanese Americans, were evicted from their homes and forced to relocate to the prisons. After residing in the Manzanar prison camp in California, she was eventually relocated to those in Arkansas: Jerome and subsequently, Rohwer.
Herzig-Yoshinaga recollects the squalid living conditions. Receiving the bare minimum, she spent her war days in cramped quarters, sleeping on metal beds where her mattress was a bag stuffed with hay.
According to the Huffington Post, Herzig-Yoshinaga described, in an NPR interview, having “No chest of drawers, no nothing, no curtains on the windows. It was the barest of the bare.”
As much as Herzig-Yoshinaga wanted to forget her war years, her political involvement with various anti-war organizations inspired her to delve back into her past. Moving to Washington D.C. with her third-husband John Herzig in 1978, she dedicated her days scouring the National Archives to research the executive order.
It wasn’t until the 1980s when she finally made a breakthrough. Sitting on an archivist’s table was a red bound volume that held the original draft, supposedly the last copy in existence, of a 1943 government report — according to the Washington Post.
The report debunked the Pentagon’s claim that imprisonment was a “military necessity”. The report, written by Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt, states that incarceration wasn’t because the separation of the “good” Japanese Americans from the “bad” ones was time-costly, but because “an exact separation of the ‘sheep from the goats’ was unfeasible” — reports the Washington Post. In other words, the document indicates a perceived deficiency in the Japanese race.
Her findings were instrumental to Congress’s decision to pass the 1988 Civil Liberties Act. This federal law granted $20,000 in reparations to every survivor from the camps and an official apology from former President Ronald Reagan — according to the NY Times.
Herzig-Yoshinaga, with her research partner and lawyer Peter H. Irons, also discovered a certificate stating that all copies of the report were burned. This document, alongside a 467-page report — written by lawyer Angus C. Macbeth– that consisted of Herzig-Yoshinaga’s research, was later on utilized to repeal the conviction of Fred Korematsu, a Japanese American who was arrested in 1942 for refusing to live in a camp. Gordon Hirabayashi and Minoru Yasui, additional challengers to wartime policies, also had their convictions overturned.
Despite Herzig-Yoshinaga’s significant discoveries that made achieving social justice for the Japanese American community a reality, she remained humble in her accomplishments.
“She never sought public recognition,” Lorraine Bannai, a law professor who worked on the Korematsu case states. “She would say, “It’s all these young people who did all of this work, and I’m privileged to be a part of it” — reports the LA Times.
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