By GANN MATSUDA
At the 42nd annual Manzanar Pilgrimage on April 30, Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, one of the seminal figures in the Japanese American community’s fight for redress, was announced as the 2011 recipient of the Sue Kunitomi Embrey Legacy Award.
The award is named after the late chair of the Manzanar Committee who was one of the founders of the annual Manzanar Pilgrimage and was the driving force behind the creation of the Manzanar National Historic Site.
But Herzig-Yoshinaga, now 87, was unable to attend the event, which is held at the Manzanar National Historic Site, approximately 230 miles northeast of Los Angeles.
Despite a mishap not long after the pilgrimage that resulted in a broken collarbone, Herzig-Yoshinaga looked as strong as ever when the Los Angeles-based Manzanar Committee, sponsors of the annual pilgrimage since 1969, honored her during an informal gathering on July 17 at the Merit Park Recreation Room in Gardena.
Herzig-Yoshinaga’s family and friends joined the Manzanar Committee in lauding her efforts on behalf of her community, and in presenting her with the award.
“[Manzanar Committee member and legal counsel] Rose Ochi, and my uncle, Jack [Kunitomi], came up with the idea of the Sue Kunitomi Embrey Legacy Award,” said Manzanar Committee Co-Chair Bruce Embrey. “Rose said that my mother would be remembered for her tenacity, her passion, and her purpose. This is what we see this award as. We give it to people who are extremely passionate, who are tenacious, and who have purpose. Aiko can clearly fit that bill, and beyond.”
“This award honors those in our community who have given us a sense of purpose, and helped us with our passion, and have kept us going,” added Embrey. “We hope to be as tenacious as they have been, and that we will continue to fight for, and continue to push the broader society to understand what actually happened to the Nikkei community on the West Coast. That’s why we give this award.”
Herzig-Yoshinaga was more than gracious in accepting the award.
“I want to thank everybody, the Manzanar Committee in particular, for all the work that went into putting this very informal, but very friendly gathering [together],” said Herzig- Yoshinaga. “And I appreciate everybody, even though ‘Carmageddon’ didn’t happen, I appreciate you making the effort to come, my family members and all my close friends. It’s so nice to have you here, to participate and to share in this honor.”
“Say It Like It Was”
“I just feel bigger than life,” she added. “My head should be busting with all the nice things that have been said about me. But I want everybody to know that what I did, I did because of … other people [who]had already laid out the path for me — Michi Weglyn, William Hohri, Dr. [Arthur] Hansen, Dr. [Donald] Hata. All of these people had already done a lot of work, and I just built upon it. So I have to acknowledge and I need to acknowledge and thank them for all the work they did, like Nadine Hata, who fought for the words ‘concentration camp’ for Manzanar.”
Herzig-Yoshinaga is also at the heart of the current push for the use of accurate, non-euphemistic terminology to describe the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans. Her paper “Words Can Lie or Clarify: Terminology of the World War II Incarceration of Japanese Americans” details the euphemisms that have long been used to describe the experience.
“Let’s say it like it was,” she told the crowd of approximately 50. “When you’re not allowed to leave the camp, or enter the camp [without permission], 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.”
Herzig-Yoshinaga credited the Manzanar Committee as the first of the camp organizations to call for the use of the appropriate language, as far back as 1972.
“I want to congratulate the Manzanar Committee for being the first camp committee to push for preservation of the 10 different camps as historic sites, and to use the appropriate words, [such as]‘concentration camp,’ though many people object to that, and we’ve been hearing a lot more about it recently,” Herzig-Yoshinaga said.
Asian Americans for Action
Herzig-Yoshinaga got her start as an activist in New York, having moved there after camp.
“After I moved to New York, it wasn’t easy bringing up three kids in New York City, believe me,” she recalled. “But I hooked up with a group called Asian Americans for Action (AAA). [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.’ ”
Little did her fellow AAA members know, but they had awakened a giant.
“They awoke in me a curiosity,” said Herzig-Yoshinaga. “I learned a great deal from them. Then I met Michi Weglyn, who wrote ‘Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America’s Concentration Camps.’ She was the first Nisei to write about her own experiences as a victim.”
“Historically, she did a wonderful job to look up details about how it happened, and a lot of who was responsible for making those decisions,” added Herzig-Yoshinaga. “That was instrumental in inspiring me to look into it.”
After living in New York for 30 years, Herzig-Yoshinaga moved to Washington, D.C., where she became a researcher for the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, which was created by Congress to study the incarceration and make recommendations on remedies.
“The more I learned in the National Archives, the angrier I got,” she recalled. “As I saw these primary documents, and what they thought of us as ‘little brown men,’ or people whose brains are formed in such a way as to predispose us to do evil things — that was [President Franklin D.] Roosevelt’s idea of what Japanese people were like. This is one little tidbit I learned in my research, that he believed in this so much, that he actually hired a famous anthropologist to confirm what he said.
“Of course, the anthropologist played politics. ‘Oh, you’re right, Mr. Roosevelt. It’s all written up in professional journals.’ ”
Even before she and her late husband Jack Herzig uncovered the “smoking gun” evidence that the U.S. government had suppressed, altered and destroyed evidence that detailed the racist, unconstitutional arguments used to justify the incarceration, Herzig-Yoshinaga’s role as a researcher for the commission had already helped lay crucial groundwork for the redress struggle to move forward.
“I’m glad that the commission issued its report that helped Manzanar to get the preservation site started, and to set forth the approval for using the term ‘concentration camp’ to designate those camps that we lived in as such,” she noted. “I had a lot of friends in the National Archives who helped me dig out information that I was able to present to the commission, which laid the basis for the report it presented to Congress. That helped the Congress to pass the redress [legislation].”
Herzig-Yoshinaga, who was incarcerated first at Manzanar, in Block 12, Building 13, Apartment 2, and was transferred to the camps at Jerome and, later, Rohwer, both in Arkansas, also credited others for their work during the redress struggle.
“I’m so happy that everybody has been really supportive,” she said. “During the redress movement, the Manzanar Committee did a lot of work, and there were a lot of different groups, like NCRR, the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations, and NCJAR [National Council for Japanese American Redress].” (NCRR now stands for Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress.)
“Everybody did their bit to help push for redress, and I think the commission’s findings that the government did indeed perpetuate and initiate the wrongful act against an innocent minority group was the reason we got redress, and an apology by the president,” she added.
Herzig-Yoshinaga also expressed hope for the future.
“Let’s hope that [through]the educational work being done by, thank goodness, all these young people who are picking up the cudgel and leading the fight now, the American public is going to learn more and more about this, and, perhaps, face the truth that even though redress happened, a lot of people don’t know that our government did such a grievous wrong against a minority group,” she stressed.
Recognizing her immediate relatives and extended family who were in attendance, she said, “I’m very proud of the role my son-in-law, Warren Furutani [state assemblyman and Manzanar Committee co-founder], played to get some of this work started way back, over 40 years ago, and I’m glad to be part of this wonderful family that I have here.”
Gann Matsuda is a member of the Manzanar Committee. This article originally appeared on the committee’s blog, http://blog.manzanarcommittee.org.