LOS ANGELES – Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, uncovered evidence that thousands of Japanese Americans imprisoned in the United States during the second world War were held, not for reasons of national security, but for the sake of racism, has died at the age of 93.
Bruce Embrey, co-chair of the Manzanar Committee, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that Herzig-Yoshinaga died July 18 at her home in the suburb of Los Angeles Torrance.
Its discovery in 1942 of a document indicating the real reason that approximately 120,000 Japanese-Americans were held in camps in the country led to formal apologies from President Ronald Reagan and others and the allocation of $20,000 for them locked up.
Before they came about the document, buried in the National Archives of the government had kept Japanese-Americans were sent to guarded camps during the war, because there was no time to determine who may be spies.
But the real reason, according to the document, drawn up by Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt, and discovered by Herzig-Yoshinaga in 1982, stated incarceration was because the government considered it “impossible to separate the sheep from the goats” when the search for spies among Japanese-Americans because of the cultural similarities of all.
“Her discovery of the original published justification, which was then later changed 180 degrees, it is shown that the motivation for the detention was not really a military necessity, but outright racism,” said San Francisco attorney Dale Minami, who used it as evidence in getting wartime convictions vacated for those who refused to report to relocation camps.
To Herzig-Yoshinaga found, Minami said, the government believed that every copy had been destroyed. He calls her a pre-eminent researcher who knew her way around the National Archives, perhaps better than anyone.
Born Aug. 5, 1924, in Sacramento Japanese immigrant parents, Aiko Yoshinaga moved with her family to Los Angeles as a child.
She was a 17-year-old senior at Los Angeles High School when Japan Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941, plunging the United States into the second world War. Shortly after they heard that she and 14 other Japanese-American students at her school would not graduate with their Class of 1942.
“You don’t deserve to get your high school diplomas because your people bombed Pearl Harbor,” she remembered her school principal to tell them.
Forty-seven years later, they would receive diplomas during a special ceremony held in Southern California, Santa Anita racetrack, where many Japanese-American families were housed in horse stables before being shipped off to the relocation camps.
Denied graduation, Herzig-Yoshinaga instead eloped with her fiancé, and the pair is supplied, soon after to Manzanar. Now a historical site, it was then a vast, barbed wire closed makeshift prison is situated on a dry, dusty, arid region of California’s high desert and surrounded by guards.
It was there, in a tarpaper-covered barracks shared by three families, where she gave birth to her first child.
After the war, she moved to New York, divorced, remarried, gave birth to two children, and separated again.
It was during his life as a single mother in the 1960s, she would recall years later, that she began to seriously wonder why her government had her locked up.
“I hooked up with a group of Asian Americans for Action,” she said during a Manzanar Committee event in 2011 to honor her with a legacy award. “They turned my head. They made me think, ‘Yes, I never thought about the reasons why the government did this to us.”
Her third husband, Jack Herzig, a lawyer who fought against the Japanese as an Army paratrooper in the second world War, helped in her search for the couple married in 1978 and moved to Washington, D. C.
“She was a just man who wondered,” Why was I plucked out of high school for my last year and not allowed to graduate?’ And that was driving her personal crusade,” Minami said Wednesday.
“She was a beautiful woman, very kind and generous,” he added. “You could even call her cute. But that belied a real commitment to social justice. Not only for Japanese-Americans, but for all marginalized groups.”
Herzig-Yoshinaga is survived by her son, David, Abe, and daughters Lisa Furutani and Gerrie Lani Miyazaki.
Her husband, Jack Herzig, died in 2005.
A memorial is scheduled Sept. 2 at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.