By DIANE TANAKA
The lives of Japanese Americans would forever be changed following Dec. 7, 1941, the date that President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “will live in infamy.” For many Nisei that fateful day left an indelible memory of lives disrupted, changed forever. For two women who grew up in Southern California, this major event in U.S. history undoubtedly altered the course their lives would take.
“I guess that’s a day that none of us will forget,” said Yuri Kochiyama, who at the time was 20 years old and living a “perfect” life in San Pedro, attending church regularly and completely unaware of the political climate of the times. She taught a Sunday school class of 13-year-olds on the morning she heard about Pearl Harbor being attacked by Japan. “I felt something different. And I felt, too, that my own Sunday school class looked at me differently. All the time before, I think they just saw me as a Sunday school teacher, nothing about my background being Japanese. But that morning, they did look at me.” She added, “We never felt this way before.”
For Kochiyama, it also struck home because her father Seiichi Nakahara was taken by the FBI that very afternoon. The previous day he had returned from a stay at the hospital after having surgery, he was still recovering but that didn’t matter. He was taken to Terminal Island Federal Prison, transferred to San Pedro Hospital, then six weeks later because of his deteriorating health, returned home in January 1942. He passed away 12 hours later.
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A month later, with the passage of Executive Order 9066, she and her family went to the Santa Anita Assembly Center then were sent to the Jerome, Arkansas War Relocation Authority (WRA) camp. Ever a teacher, she organized a youth group, the Crusaders, who wrote letters to the Nisei soldiers. She started the group in Santa Anita, and when families were relocated to the WRA camps, the Crusaders continued their writing campaign to the GIs from those camps.
The community organizing Kochiyama did in camp was the start of what would become her life’s mission. She worked in Mississippi before the camps closed, first experiencing the prejudice of the deep south at that time. But it was while living in New York’s Harlem neighborhood that she discovered how her own experience and the discrimination of Japanese Americans during WWII were similar to the struggle of others, namely the African American and Puerto Rican communities. She first joined the Harlem Parents Committee, and then became involved with many other “movements” for the oppressed. To her, however, there was really only one “Movement,” which was to fight to rid the injustices in the United States.
As she learned more about the mistreatment of others, especially through the teachings of Malcolm X who was probably the most influential person in Kochiyama’s activist life, she reflected on her own experience, “Well, there’s a difference in what Asians went through, what Blacks went through. But that racism is something that it seemed like all people of color [went through].” Kochiyama added, “And I felt that I must learn more about American history in its reality.”
Kochiyama added, “I hope they [people]will see that racism has not been wiped out, and neither have all the things that racism does. But I think that a lot of good things have been happening through the years.” Today, at 90 years old, Kochiyama lives with her family in Oakland and on occasion still participates in public events to speak out against prejudice and the inequalities of our nation.
Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga was a high school senior on Dec. 7, 1941. She witnessed friends and neighbors of her Los Angeles community distance themselves. “We knew that there was a connection between what happened and us, simply because we were Japanese, but we had no idea the extent of the damage that would be done to us as a community.”
That damage included being denied the opportunity to graduate with her Los Angeles High School class. Yoshinaga explained that a classmate told her, “we’re not going to get our diplomas, ‘cause our people bombed Pearl Harbor.’” For a period she was angry with Japan for putting her in this situation, she thought “I didn’t choose to be born Japanese, but here I am now because of what you did, Japan. Look what’s happening to us.” She added, “Of course, now that I know more about the causes and effects of Pearl Harbor, I fault this country more.” (Yoshinaga received her diploma in 1989.)
Herzig-Yoshinaga would spend the war years first in the Manzanar WRA camp with her then husband and baby daughter, who was born in the camp. She and her baby transferred to Jerome after she got word that her father was very ill. After arriving, Yoshinaga’s father died 10 days later, on Christmas Eve 1943.
After the war she first settled on the West Coast before rejoining her family in New York. Happenstance led her to join the group, Asian Americans for Action, or “Triple A” as they were known in New York in the late 1960s. It was a group founded by two women, according to Yoshinaga. “They were senior citizens, which was rather unusual because so many Nisei, and especially women who were already senior citizens, didn’t tend to involve themselves in social issues that was really running throughout the country during that period.”
This is where Herzig-Yoshinaga and Kochiyama would cross paths. “One of the leaders, of course, was Mary Yuri Kochiyama, and she, of course, had so many connections,” said Yoshinaga. “They were very, very influential in my life, turned my head around, made me start to think about minorities, about injustice, about inequality and it was an eye-opening experience for me to find out more about — and to think about the camp experience and what it meant to me personally, what it meant to our families, what it meant to our community.”
Her activism would drive her curiosity, and after moving to Washington, D.C., this curiosity lead her to the National Archives to do research, first on her family and the camps, then on finding documentation that would have an effect on the Japanese American community as a whole.
In 1980 Herzig-Yoshinaga’s research unearthed a copy of a document by General DeWitt, who was greatly responsible for the exclusion of Japanese Americans during WWII, the Final Report: Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast, 1942. “This is one of the first versions. And this is the one that they could not locate,” said Herzig-Yoshinaga referring to the original report the government redacted because of racist and inflammatory language.
This document helped to vacate the convictions of those who challenged the constitutionality of the incarceration of Japanese Americans in the 1940s: Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi and Min Yasui. She also did research for the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians that ultimately led to the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which offered an official government apology; redress payments of $20,000 to each survivor; and a public education fund to help ensure what happened to Japanese Americans during World War II would not happen again.
In her opinion, Herzig-Yoshinaga concluded, “Yes, we got an apology, a letter of apology from Bush and Clinton, and $20,000 per survivor. But Congress, even the new members of Congress [today]don’t know anything about it. We didn’t make a dent; we didn’t affect how this country was looking at Arab Americans after 9/11. So I’m thinking what do we have to do to make Americans aware? The only thing I see, the plus in our experience, is that now some of the stories of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, our exclusion, incarceration, will be in the history books. Maybe that’s a start.”
Interviews for this article were provided by Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project.