Iconic Activist Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga Who Called Out the U.S. Government’s Racism in WWII Dies at 93

Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, the Japanese-American political activist who persuaded Congress to approve reparations for her fellow inmates of World War II internment camps, has died at age 93.

According to Manzanar Committee co-chair Bruce Embrey, Herzig-Yoshinaga died on July 18 at her home in Torrance, California, the Associated Press reported.

Herzig-Yoshinaga’s discovery of a 1942 document in the National Archives debunked the wartime administration’s claims of “military necessity” and proved that the thousands of Japanese-Americans were incarcerated in camps due to racism.

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The government had previously maintained that Japanese-Americans were sent to the camps because there was no time to determine who might be spies.

However, according to the document “Final Report on Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast” drafted by Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt that Herzig-Yoshinaga uncovered in 1982, the U.S. government considered it “impossible to separate the sheep from the goats” when looking for spies among Japanese-Americans.

“Her discovery of that original published justification, which was then later altered 180 degrees, revealed that the motivation for incarceration was not really a military necessity but outright racism,” said San Francisco lawyer Dale Minami, who used the document as evidence in overturning the convictions of Gordon Hirabayashi, Fred Korematsu, and Minoru Yasui.

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The document also led to the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which granted an official apology and $20,000 to each camp survivor or their heirs.

Minami noted that authorities thought every copy of the document had been destroyed until Herzig-Yoshinaga found it after being hired as the lead researcher for the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians.   

Born in Sacramento, California in 1924, Herzig-Yoshinaga was the fifth of six children. Her family moved to Los Angeles when she was nine years old.

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Herzig-Yoshinaga was a high school senior in Los Angeles when Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941. Months later, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 authorizing the removal of any or all people from military areas “as deemed necessary or desirable.”

The military would then define the entire West Coast as a military area. Since it is home to the majority of Americans of Japanese ancestry or citizenship, over 110,000 Japanese Americans were relocated to remote internment camps built by the U.S. military shortly after.

Many of these Japanese Americans endured extremely difficult living conditions and poor treatment by their military guards for the next two and a half years.

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Herzig-Yoshinaga was one of them, as she was sent to camp and forced to leave school before graduation.

Her first child was born in Manzanar, one of 10 American concentration camps where over 110,000 Japanese Americans were interned. She was later transferred to Jerome and Rohwer, eventually divorcing her then-husband.

When the war ended, she left camp and settled in New York where she remarried and had two more children before divorcing again.

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In the 1960s, while living as a single mother, Herzig-Yoshinaga thought about what caused the government to lock her up.

“I hooked up with a group called Asian Americans for Action,” she was quoted as saying when she was honored with a legacy award at an event by a Manzanar Committee in 2011. “They turned my head around. They got me to think, ‘Yeah, I never thought about all the reasons why the government did this to us.”

Minami noted that Herzig-Yoshinaga was just a regular person who was driven to a personal crusade after she began wondering, “Why was I plucked out of high school before my senior year and not allowed to graduate?”

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“She was just a lovely woman, very kind and generous,” he added. “You could even call her sweet and cute. But that belied a real commitment to social justice. Not just for Japanese-Americans but for all marginalized groups.”

A memorial in her honor is set at the Japanese-American National Museum in Los Angeles on September 2.

Featured Image via YouTube / Densho

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