By MARTHA NAKAGAWA, RAFU CONTRIBUTOR
TORRANCE — How did a woman with barely a high school education and no training in research work play such a pivotal role during the national movement for Japanese American redress?
Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, the guest speaker at JACL’s Greater Los Angeles Singles chapter meeting held at Faith United Methodist Church in Torrance, talked about how she got started and shared tips on how to get World War II camp records from the National Archives & Records Administration (NARA).
Herzig-Yoshinaga was supposed to graduate from Los Angeles High school in 1942, but after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the high school principal gathered the 15 Nisei in the graduating class and told them, “You all don’t deserve to get your high school diplomas because your people bombed Pearl Harbor.”
“We were devastated,” recalled Herzig-Yoshinaga. “We had moved into the camps by graduation but we didn’t get our diploma.”
Her family ended up at the Manzanar War Relocation Authority concentration camp, where she started a family and did not attend the camp high school.
Herzig-Yoshinaga’s family was then transferred to the Jerome and Rohwer WRA camps in Arkansas, where her older sister frequently came to visit.
“My older sister was living in New York before the war, so she didn’t have to go into camp,” said Herzig-Yoshinaga. “She was an Issei, born in Kumamoto. Her husband was an Issei too. So my sister, Ei Yoshinaga Suzuki, alien enemy sister, used to come visit us American sisters and brothers in Jerome and Rohwer.
“I used to think something is wrong here, but I was never intelligent or curious enough at that time to find out what the heck was going on. Here was my alien enemy sister in New York, who was free to come and go as she pleases, and then here we were, American citizens as camp prisoners of our own government.”
After getting out of camp, Herzig-Yoshinaga eventually enrolled in night school and received a high school degree at the age of 25, but it wasn’t until 1989 that she received a high school diploma from Los Angeles High School. This was thanks to the efforts of then-Los Angeles Unified School District Board member Warren Furutani, who arranged to have a special ceremony for the Nisei from Los Angeles High’s graduating class of 1942.
More recently, Furutani, now a state assemblymember, introduced a bill permitting California universities to hand out honorary degrees to all the Japanese Americans whose education had been interrupted due to the camps. Incidentally, Furutani is married to one of Herzig-Yoshinaga’s daughters, Lisa.
During the 1960s, Herzig-Yoshinaga was living in New York and credited Asian Americans for Action (AAA) for getting her politically active. The organization was started by two Nisei women — Shizuko Matsuda and Kazu Iijima — and members included other Nisei such as Yuri Kochiyama (Mary Nakahara).
“My involvement in this group is the catalyst that got me interested in issues outside of my own family,” said Herzig-Yoshinaga. “…I learned oppressed people here, in the United States, numbered quite a lot and that we were just one of those many minorities. When I started realizing this, I tried not to turn against this government so I thought the best thing to do was to learn about this country and to try to make things better for everybody.”
The organization participated in a number of activities and protests.
“My participation in New York had mostly to do with the Vietnam War,” said Herzig-Yoshinaga. “We were walking the streets, carrying placards and yelling and being yelled at. People would tell us, ‘Go back to where you came from, Chink.’ If you were Asian, you were usually the ‘ching chong Chinaman.’ Sometimes, words like ‘Jap’ were thrown at us. It wasn’t easy for me to start doing something like this at the age of 55 or so.”
Herzig-Yoshinaga also felt the disapproving sting from other Japanese Americans. “Many Nisei wanted to keep a low profile,” she said. “They were afraid that something terrible could happen again to Japanese Americans, so they didn’t appreciate those of us who were marching in the streets, doing what we were doing and calling attention to ‘Japs’ participating in demonstrations.”
In 1976, Herzig-Yoshinaga also became friends with Michi Nishiura Weglyn, who had just published the book “Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America’s Concentration Camps.”
“Michi worked so hard and wrote this wonderful book that I call the bible, as far as our history of being incarcerated is concerned,” said Herzig-Yoshinaga.
Around this time, Herzig-Yoshinaga started to wonder about the information the government had collected on her family during the war, so she started visiting NARA.
As a result, what started out as a family history curiosity led Herzig-Yoshinaga deeper into the archives, and she became the pivotal figure in providing primary documents in the lawsuit filed by the National Council for Japanese American Redress and discovered the critical report that helped vacate the wartime convictions of Min Yasui, Gordon Hirabayashi and Fred Korematsu.
Of the crucial report uncovered for the coram nobis cases, Herzig-Yoshinaga shared that she had come across files saying that 10 copies had been printed of Gen. John DeWitt’s original “Final Report: Japanese American Evacuation From the West Coast.”
When these 10 copies were sent to Washington, D.C., the War Department was upset that DeWitt’s report confirmed that the eviction of Japanese Americans from the West Coast was based on racial bigotry, and ordered the report to be revised.
As a result, the 10 copies were to be returned and destroyed, but only nine copies had been accounted for. Herzig-Yoshinaga came to this conclusion by meticulously following the paper trail of telephone conversation transcriptions, memos, letters and cablegrams.
“They were having fits about where’s the 10th copy,” she recalled. “I came across another memo by a warrant officer, who signed off, saying something like, ‘I have witnessed the destruction by burning the drafts, memos and cables having to do with the original DeWitt report.’
“But there was always the question of that 10th copy. And I thought too bad they couldn’t find it. But it so happened that I came across that 10th copy. I think they didn’t realize that when the Army turned over all the papers to the National Archives, by that time, many years had gone by and the people who were involved didn’t know about the lost 10th copy, so that got stuck into the group that went into the archives.”
During the question-and-answer session, Herzig-Yoshinaga was asked if she had come across any information about Japanese American informants in camp. She shared about a close to 200-page FBI report that listed Japanese American names with assigned FBI numbers.
“Unfortunately, many of those who worked with the FBI thought they were doing the right thing to ferret out discontent and disruptive people,” said Herzig-Yoshinaga. “But a lot of times, it was a very personal indictment by one Japanese American against another and that wasn’t fair. Sometimes the FBI didn’t investigate whether or not what the ‘inu’ or collaborators said were true, so the victims have suffered for many years.”
Herzig-Yoshinaga encouraged the JACL to openly discuss this issue of informants as a way to move forward and attract new members.
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Herzig-Yoshinaga also touched upon the need to stop using euphemisms to describe the camp experience.
“We in the WRA camps weren’t, quote, interned,” said Herzig-Yoshinaga. “Internment applies only to persons who were put into Justice Department camps because this government has a rule that it does not intern American citizens, only alien enemies, so when we say, ‘I was in the Manzanar internment camp,’ that’s wrong. Manzanar was never an internment camp. Manzanar was euphemistically called a ‘relocation center.’ We call it now the Manzanar concentration camp.
“We were not just evacuated, we were forcibly removed. We were evicted, uprooted, but not evacuated because officials evacuate you to make things more comfortable for you or for your safety. But we didn’t benefit by going into those camps for four years, and we were deprived of our own liberty so the word ‘evacuation’ is really a no-no as far as I’m concerned.
“But it’s hard not to use the word ‘internment’ because we’ve been using it for so many years. We fell prey to these euphemistic terms that the government wanted us to use and wanted other countries and everybody else in American society to think that they were doing all these things for our benefit, so those were the closest words they could use that didn’t make things sound so harsh and unconstitutional.”
While Herzig-Yoshinaga lauded the bravery of the Nisei soldiers, she also praised the bravery of those who protested the camps.
“Those who fought the constitutionality of our being placed in camps were considered pariahs even in our community for years and years because some of our very super-patriotic Japanese Americans thought you should not talk against authority because it would make it worse for the Japanese American community,” she said. “So it made us chickens, and we weren’t free to say what we would like to say and stand our ground on constitutional principles. Most of us were too scared, too afraid to make waves, and those who did were stigmatized for so many years.”
Herzig-Yoshinaga commended JACL GLAS chapter member Joyce Okazaki, who has been part of the movement within JACL to have the organization stop using euphemisms to describe the World War II camp experience. Although a resolution was passed at JACL’s national convention in Chicago last year and then again at the Los Angeles national convention this year, the implementation of the resolution has been stalled.
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Herzig-Yoshinaga also answered the most frequently asked question — how does one go about getting camp records?
She provided attendees with a helpful tip sheet on how to contact NARA. She noted that it was better to write to them, rather than calling.
“I was told that the staff at NARA is so understaffed that they cannot respond to every telephone call,” said Herzig-Yoshinaga. “But they promise to give some kind of reply within 10 days of receiving a letter or fax. The reply might just say something like ‘We received your request.’”
Some of her tips included:
• Include as much information in the request letter as possible such as birth date, birthplace, prewar address or city, name of Army assembly center, name of WRA concentration camp, family number, block/barrack/apartment number;
• If seeking records of family members, you will have to get written approval from that family member. If the family member has passed away, you will have to provide proof that the person has passed away.
• If the individual was imprisoned in an Army or Department of Justice camp, try to provide the names of all the camps they were in.
When asked what someone may expect to find in the NARA WRA records, Herzig-Yoshinaga said the WRA kept health records, report cards and almost all correspondences.
Herzig-Yoshinaga cautioned that individual FBI files might not be readily available.
“There is a regulation with NARA that says the government requires every federal agency to turn over documents after 20 or 25 years, but there is a loop ole in the regulation,” she explained. “Many intelligence agencies like the FBI count on that loophole to not let people see those private papers, especially those that relate to intelligence or search warrants.”
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Herzig-Yoshinaga will also be speaking on Saturday, Dec. 10, from 1 p.m. at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, 244 S. San Pedro St. in Little Tokyo, to release a book that she and Marjorie Lee edited, “Speaking Out for Personal Justice,” which provides summaries of the testimonies given before the U.S. Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. The book is co-sponsored by UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center, Civil Liberties Public Education Fund and the late Eji Suyama.