Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga

Interview with Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga
Interviewed by Cyndi Tando, Albert Quach, Casey Sakima, and Yuta Ebikawa
Legacy of Japanese American Activism Conference

Our group had the pleasure of interviewing Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, a Nisei who experienced life in concentration camps in Manzanar, California, and two other facilities in Arkansas-Jerome and Rohwer. Decades later she labored to assist in the movement for the redress and reparation movement for Japanese Americans, and made a great contribution with her research with archival documents.

As she welcomed us into her home on a Sunday afternoon in August, she shared with us her struggles, turning points, and memorable moments that she had experienced to date. Through the interview, not only did we learn of her historical past, but we also learned of valuable lessons that we could personally gain from her stories and experiences. We first asked her to share her personal background with us, which led her to one of the biggest turning points in her life-when Japanese Americans were incarcerated in concentration camps after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s issue of Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. This wartime action was considered a necessary step by the government, claiming that it was to assure national security. Officials described the mass exclusion in euphemistic language, using words such as evacuation or relocation of Japanese Americans.

Aiko, among many others, advocates for the term exclusion order instead of evacuation order, because evacuation “connotes an action, taken for the benefit of people who are affected. But the camps were not of any benefit to us”. She prefers the usage of terms such as exclusion, that people were “evicted, uprooted”, resulting in a “forced evacuation, forced removal”, in order to more accurately reflect the true conditions of the tragedy. Aiko reminded us how powerful words can be, because the specific words we use to describe an experience could really influence the impression a person receives. In other words, if the correct terminology is not used, one may fail to communicate the true story. For example, if people use the word evacuation, people who are not knowledgeable about the concentration camps may misinterpret that Japanese Americans were relocated to a better place for the Japanese Americans’ safety and benefit. People will never realize the harsh conditions and unfairness of how Japanese Americans were forcefully removed from their homes, if we continue to use the euphemistic terminology that the government preferred.

As Aiko continued to talk about the camps, she also taught us how internment is also an incorrect term to use to describe the ten concentration camps administered by the War Relocation Authority (WRA). This was an unknown fact to a couple of us, because we use the term internment camps so often to describe the experience and locations such as Manzanar and Tule Lake. She mentioned to us that she tries to correct those who say they were “interned” in the WRA camps because “if you were interned, you’re automatically an alien, because this country doesn’t intern its own American citizens.” Thus, as a U.S. born citizen, Aiko and her fellow Nisei Japanese Americans could not legally be internees.

However, she also stated the difficulty of changing people’s word choice to describe the experience: “ I just couldn’t get people to accept it because the word internment was less harsh”.

As she continued her story, she explained how instead of using the word internee, she directly told people: “you were a prisoner, you were an inmate.” When people hear this, many do not wish to identify themselves as prisoners because they do not believe that they committed any type of crime. Aiko replies to such statements with a laugh and remarks that their “crime” was that “You were born nihonjin – you were born Japanese”. Although it may seem ridiculous to us in the present day that it could be considered a crime to be born a certain ethnicity, it made us realize that that was the truth back then-being Japanese descent meant that they were automatically an enemy, and it was enough of a reason to remove people from their former lives and confine them in camps.

Aiko proceeded to explain the euphemisms the government used, and educated us of the observations she had made during her time in research. She explained to us how she found documentation in official archives from the WRAs stating that they do not want people to be calling the camps internment camps or concentration camps, because they considered it to be relocation centers instead. Because WRA enforced the usage of relocation centers, Aiko pointed out that it was and still is very difficult for people to stop using such terms “because we were conditioned to do that”. Although she seemed very insistent on using correct terminology to describe her experiences, she still remained honest and understanding, recognizing that it is difficult to avoid using the euphemisms that people have been accustomed to for a big portion of their lives. Although Aiko did seem to stand strongly for the usage of correct terminology, she was still accepting and respectful of people’s personal preferences. Instead of trying to forcefully change people’s language, she was merely trying to inform and educate others of what words can be considered incorrect, and what words could better depict what the Japanese American experience was like during World War II.

While Aiko explained the background behind euphemisms and her experience, it made us realize how important words and terms actually are. Although it may seem as though words/phrases may not make a big difference, they are actually the core to all stories and the method in which experiences, history, and narratives are passed down to future generations. It is thus critical for us to advocate for correct applicable terms now, so that our history will continue to be passed down in their genuine form. It means a lot for people like Aiko, who actually experienced the camps, to advocate for certain terms because they are the ones who can best portray the experience. We came to realize that in order to pass down her stories in their original form, it is important for us to use her specific terms so that people in future generations will also be able to listen and understand the story as how it was originally told.

When Aiko shared with us her past experiences in the concentration camps, her stories proved how Japanese Americans were not treated by the government with compassion or dignity.  They were not informed as to the location where they would be confined to or its climate-an information that would have helped them decide what type of clothing they were supposed to bring in their one piece of luggage. Aiko was seventeen when she was taken to Manzanar along with her then husband’s family, unaware of the kind of environment they were going to be living in. Tremendous dust storms came from time to time, they were given limited living resources with little allowance, and the medical care was inadequate. Moreover, the food they were fed was not nutritious at all. Aiko emphasized that feeding infants was especially difficult for mothers, especially with only the powdered milk they were supplied instead of the carnation can milks that were more nutritious for the infants.

Aiko also stressed how the Issei (first generation) parents went through countless hardships, being exposed to unexpected indignities with regards to privacy. The Isseis were especially not used to communal settings, such as bathrooms with no walls between each stall. In addition, the Isseis were the ones who were primarily most affected by having been uprooted from the security they had tried to build for themselves and their children. Still, despite the fact that they had to go through all these extreme living circumstances, we were told that Japanese Americans were still able to turn a prison-like environment into a huge, harmonious community where they were able to enjoy daily life. By crying together, laughing together, each one of them started to support each other, forming deep relationships and becoming unified as a community. We laughed as Aiko told us how the men eventually became really reliable handymen, even learning how to make ofuros (Japanese-style bath tubs) in such a living situation.

As Aiko continued her story, she reached to the topic of “the loyalty questionnaire”. Most would think that no American would need to “prove loyalty” to their country– and that it is in fact disingenuous to ask an American citizen to do so. However, Aiko described how the Nisei men eligible for conscription were drafted to serve in the U.S. Army, and questioned of their “loyalty” to the country at the same time. During this topic of discussion, Aiko elaborated on the Nisei men’s’ various responses to the infamous “loyal questions” #27 and #28. Question #27 asked them whether they would serve in the U.S. army wherever ordered, and question #28 asked them whether they would swear complete allegiance to U.S. and forego their allegiance to the Japanese Emperor. Some Nisei men chose Yes-Yes, just as the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) pushed for, and they formed the 442nd/100th battalion to fight for the U.S. Others chose No-No, Aiko stated. Some of them were Isseis who couldn’t give up their allegiance to the Japan because that was their only citizenship, while others were Niseis who said No-No. Amongst these No-Nos was a group of renunciants, who even renounced their U.S. citizenship because they believed that it was immoral for the U.S. government to ask such questions after all the racial discrimination and prisoner-like treatment they had received. The No-No extremists were all deemed “disloyal,” and they had to go through obstacles after obstacles, taken to camps with harsher living environment.

Unfortunately, the great controversy created by the loyalty questionnaire resulted in hostility between these two opposing factions in the Nikkei community that still exists to this day. However, regardless of whichever path these men decided to take, Aiko reminded us that everybody was simply fighting for what they believed in, and took whatever appropriate action they saw to be just. Nobody was more loyal or disloyal than the other-they simply made their own individual decisions, and we should all respect and look up to whatever decision these men decided to take.

A few years after Aiko left the camps, she moved to New York to begin a life in a new environment.  In New York, she became a part of a group called the Asian Americans for Action (AAA). This was a turning point in her life, as she began her role as a social activist along with its many progressive and inspirational Niseis. When we asked her what motivated her to keep coming out to AAA’s meetings, she answered, “It was really interesting [to learn] about things I never thought about before – why things are happening. Why is the Vietnam War going on? Why is the superiority of white race permeating? How the target of [all forms of] oppression in the country is towards the people of color, starting from [the African slaves].” Aiko eventually took actions not just as a Nisei activist, but also by joining AAA members in various demonstrations in support of social justices, fighting issues such as unjust labor practices, housing discrimination, and denial of educational opportunities.

We also asked her how each of us can have a big impact on the government, and she responded, “It takes time, lots of commitment – but it’s self-rewarding. It starts with you. I think what you do to bring justice build [up]… it shows in what you do.” She emphasized that being aware of politics and familiarizing oneself with the environment is really important. “This is why it’s good to have coalitions formed – like those that protect the Muslim communities after all the mistreatments from their society after 9/11. Like student-run organizations like the Nikkei Student Union and the Asian [Pacific] Coalition at your university, with a solid objective.” Aiko’s words encouraged all of us, stressing how everyone has the ability to speak up if the leaders are starting to take a wrong direction. Aiko cheerfully added in, “I am so happy to see a lot of people associating with other ethnic groups. I am so glad to see so many colors here.”

Aiko initially did become an activist when she decided to join Asian Americans for Action during her 50s, but it was not until she married Jack Herzig – a former U.S. Army lieutenant colonel paratrooper – that she began to discover her niche in activism – unearthing archives. Her initial inspiration came from a woman named Michi Nishiura Weglyn who would spend countless hours in the National Archives (NA) looking through boxes loaded with significant documents. Since Weglyn would go to the NA from New York for a week or two at a time, she had to utilize every minute of her time almost not eating in order to uncover evidence for her research. Fortunately for Aiko, after she married Jack, she moved to a city in Virginia located conveniently 20 to 25 minutes away from the NA. It was this opportunity that allowed her to realize how interesting the NA could be. Originally, her interest in the archives was to see if they had any records of her or her family, but as she invested more of her time in the NA, she found that “archival stuff [was] really fascinating.” One of the reasons why she found herself immersed in the archives was the fact that the real documents allow “you [to] get a different sense of the reality and takes you back in time.”

Her route to activism is interesting because it shows how anyone can become an activist. Initially, she was just a housewife who had an interest in learning more about her experience. However, it was only when she joined AAA that she realized how she fit in the bigger scheme of things. From there, whether it was coincidence or fate, or out of sheer curiosity, she went to the NA where she began to unearth various pieces of records that would later allow her to see how she could contribute to her community as an activist.

It is compelling to note how Aiko became an activist by first examining her personal experiences and documents, trying to understand why certain stages in her life occurred such as incarceration. From there, it was through her interest in discovering records of herself and her family in the NA that motivated her to begin picking up the various fragments of history and putting them together. It was only a matter of time until her accumulated mass of knowledge would allow her to unearth the hidden history behind the incarceration of the Japanese and Japanese Americans. Although she had no experience as a historian, she started to create her a narrative of her own, as she realized how “one thing [led] to another.”

In addition, it was with this unveiled history that she was able to help provide the evidence needed for the Korematsu v. United States case to be the success that it was. Although the coram nobis lawyers were the ones who designed the brief and argued for the case, we would like to highlight the importance of her and her husband’s contribution.  It was because of her familiarity with the archives – having invested so much time in the archives already – that she was able to realize that General John L. DeWitt’s original final report, which advocated for the incarceration of the Japanese and Japanese Americans, was altered due to its blatant racism. Even in General DeWitt’s final report, there were still many inaccurate facts. An example of this was how he stated Japanese Americans on the west coast were signaling Japanese submarines off the coast through radio transmissions to torpedo the shore. Looking at the hard facts, this never happened. In fact, there had only been one shell dropped in California but that was after Executive Order 9066 was issued. Aiko found memos from the War Department in Washington that demanded General DeWitt to revise his report. However, she also discovered another short memo that stated that the War Department had burned all of the documents that pertained to General DeWitt’s original report, including nine copies of a printed version. Fortunately, she was able to find the last and tenth copy on the desk of an archivist she knew at the NA, who ironically was not even aware that he possessed a copy of General DeWitt’s original report. We believe that to be able to compile that much sheer knowledge and put the pieces together is a great feat, and it shows how much knowledge she had acquired throughout the years.

Aiko then continued to share her wealth of knowledge though another story, this time starting at the South African Embassy in Washington D.C. She was there through a great friend of hers, to support a group called TransAfrica. Aiko’s husband, Jack Herzig, also supported her by joining a protest and volunteering to be arrested for the cause. Amy Carter, the daughter of President Jimmy Carter, was at the same protest while on spring break from Brown University, she asked to be arrested for the cause. Despite being told that she was too young, Amy Carter contacted her mother, and was granted permission to be arrested. The news of her action spread very quickly, and soon all the major TV stations and newspapers were racing to the scene. With such media attention, Aiko was able to discuss not only the subject of apartheid in South Africa but also her experience about the Japanese American concentration camps, which she equated to the South Africa apartheid system.

Throughout this story, there lie a few key lessons that Aiko has shown us through example. Aiko is an inspirational role model as an activist, in that her actions teach us the most. Through her involvement in the protest with TransAfrica, we can see her great love of justice and benevolence. Despite the fact that TransAfrica has no connection to the Japanese American community, Aiko’s drive for equity towards others guided her.  During this specific event, Aiko was protesting against the unfair apartheid government in South Africa, which legalized racial segregation and unfair treatment. Aiko found many similarities between the struggles of the South African and those of the Japanese Americans, which was the reason why she protested. She had no idea that she would meet Amy Carter or that she would be given a national spotlight for her own opinions on the denial of civil rights to Japanese Americans. Instead she simply gave her time for a cause that she may not personally benefit from, but was nonetheless important to her for the pursuit of equal justice.

More importantly however, we can see something very special about Aiko Herzig throughout the story: She is always working hard for something greater than herself. We believe that such an admirable trait is the one quality that all activists must have to succeed. Although the idea seems so rudimentary and simple, it’s vital to understand that to maintain that role, one must be consistently active.  An activist must fight for justice, and does so without wavering or hesitating. Fear cannot stop Aiko Herzig. Apathy cannot stop Aiko Herzig. Nothing stops Aiko Herzig from doing what she loves; fighting for justice. And it is this relentless energy and action that defines the most important part about being a social activist: to be active without pause for a personally meaningful goal.

When we hear the word “activist”, many of us envision a person holding up signs, protesting in the streets for a cause we believe in. Aiko did, in fact protest and even got herself arrested. However, that is not what defines her as an activist. We started to understand that her activism is not simply a set of actions, but more of the caring attitude that she has towards the Japanese American community, and also the bigger society in general. Aiko mentioned the term “compassion” during the interview, and said that all activists probably have that in common-everybody has compassion towards their community, which is what keeps them fighting for what they believe in. And during our interview with Aiko, all four of us interviewees were definitely able to feel her compassion through her past experiences, involvement, and current efforts to continue telling her stories. But at the same time, it wasn’t simply what she actually did that reflected her compassion-it was also her positive outlook and enthusiasm that she first expressed when she saw how our generation still wants to become engaged with our culture and history. Her excitement about our generation’s involvement communicated to us that she is still compassionate about the Japanese American community and history, hoping that there would be others to pass down stories to. As students who had the opportunity of directly conversing with Aiko Herzig, we hope to not only pass down her own personal story and appreciate what the past has provided us with today, but to also remain involved with what we are passionate about, so that we can also create our own legacy.

2 Comments on “Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga”

  1. […] Check out the interview narrative with Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga. […]

  2. masaji777 Says:

    It’s late to suggest this but it would be interesting to get a Canadian Nikkei perspective too. There are a lot of parallels between our Redress experience and yours. We should learn more for each other.

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