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Manzanar Committee Mourns the Loss of Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga

In May 2011, Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga was honored during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month at Los Angeles City Hall. She is pictured with Assemblymember Warren Furutani (her son-in-law), Council President Eric Garcetti and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

The Manzanar Committee extends its deepest sympathies to the family, friends, and colleagues of Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga, who passed away on July 18 in Gardena at the age of 93.

Herzig Yoshinaga, who was one of the 120,000 Japanese/Japanese Americans who were unjustly incarcerated in American concentration camps during World War II, is best known for her painstaking research in the National Archives, where she discovered the original edition of Western Defense Command Gen. John DeWitt’s “Final Report, Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast, 1942,” which clearly indicated that racism, not national security concerns or military necessity, was the primary motivating factor in the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans from the West Coast some 76 years ago.

Herzig Yoshinaga’s discovery of the original version of DeWitt’s Final Report was one of the watershed moments during the Japanese American redress movement of the late 1970s through the 1980s.

Indeed, with the edited version of the Final Report, which emphasized false national security concerns, having been presented to the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1944 cases of Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi and Minoru Yasui, each of whom challenged the forced removal orders, the court did not have the truth or the facts in front of them and, as a result, they upheld the convictions. After Herzig Yoshinaga’s discovery, the evidence presented to the court in 1944 was now completely undermined.

As a result of this discovery, along with research by legal scholar Peter Irons, in 1983, Korematsu, Hirabayashi and Yasui challenged their convictions in U.S. District Courts via the seldom-used writ of error coram nobis (used when the courts have made a grave error).

Korematsu and Hirabayashi’s cases were vacated, while Yasui’s case was rendered moot because of his death prior to his case being heard.

“To say that Aiko’s research uncovering the ‘smoking gun’ evidence that there was absolutely no military necessity for Executive Order 9066 and the forced removal was important to winning redress is wholly inadequate,” said Manzanar Committee Co-Chair Bruce Embrey. “Without her work, the enactment of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, or achieving victory in the Korematsu and Hirabayashi cases in 1984, would have been far more difficult or they would’ve taken very different forms.”

Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga at the 48th annual Manzanar Pilgrimage on April 28, 2017. (Photo by Gann Matsuda/Manzanar Committee)

Herzig Yoshinaga, who was incarcerated at Manzanar before transferring to the Rohwer and Jerome concentration camps in Arkansas, ended up after the war in New York, where she jumped head-first into community activism.

“After I moved to New York — it wasn’t easy bringing up three kids in New York City, believe me,” she recalled during a 2011 event in which the Manzanar Committee presented her with the Sue Kunitomi Embrey Legacy Award. “But I hooked up with a group called Asian Americans for Action. [They were] primarily Nisei who were my age, which was unusual to have such a progressive group of people my age, who were very much social activists.”

“They used to meet and discuss political issues, as well as issues facing ethnic minorities, particularly Third World people,” she added. “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.’ I just hadn’t given it enough thought. I was just like all the other Niseis who thought, ‘Forget it, that’s behind us.’”

In recent years, Herzig Yoshinaga, still the ardent community activist, was one of the leading proponents of the use of accurate, non-euphemistic terms to refer to the Japanese American incarceration experience. Her paper on the subject, “Words Can Lie or Clarify: Terminology of the World War II Incarceration Experience of Japanese Americans,” makes a powerful case against the use of the euphemisms that have long been used to describe the experience in a watered-down, sanitized fashion.

“Let’s say it like it was,” she said. “When you’re not allowed to leave the camp or enter the camp and you have to have permission to leave your own home, what else is it but a prison or concentration camp?”

“I consider it sort like an American-style apartheid,” she added. “We were not permitted to live in certain areas, and we were confined to a specific area, just like in South Africa until they were able to get rid of it.”

“We’ve looked to Aiko for both inspiration and leadership during the fight to end the use of euphemistic language,” Embrey noted. “Aiko’s precise critique of the United States government’s euphemisms in her paper pounded home how a rosy-colored view of the forced removal obscured the true nature of camp.”

Embrey also indicated that the Japanese American community has lost one of its heroes.

“With the passing of one of our community’s most respected, beloved and amazing activists, it is important we pause to appreciate Aiko’s contributions to the long struggle for redress and reparations,” he said. “Aiko was an activist, working with Asian Americans for Action in New York and later, in Washington, D.C., fighting apartheid in South Africa. She engaged in civil disobedience. Clearly, Aiko was always on the right side in the fight for social justice.

“Aiko is legendary, and not just in our own community. This morning’s news of her passing was totally devastating. On behalf of the Manzanar Committee, I want to express our condolences and best wishes to Aiko’s daughter Lisa Furutani, her husband, Warren, and their entire family, along with the rest of Aiko’s family and friends. Her loss will be deeply felt for a long, long time.”

Details regarding a memorial service are pending.

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