Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, an activist and researcher who would go on to uncover key documents that proved the U.S. government had racist motives for incarcerating Japanese Americans during World War II, has died in Torrance. She was 93.
She died Wednesday following a brief illness, her son, David Abe, told the Los Angeles Times.
In 1941, she was a 17-year-old who loved the beach and was looking forward to the prom when the principal at Los Angeles High School gave her the shocking news. She’d always remember what the man said in explaining why, just two months from graduation, she and other Japanese American students would not receive their diplomas.
“Because your people bombed Pearl Harbor,” she quoted the principal as saying after the attack in 1941. “He put the responsibility for Pearl Harbor on our shoulders.”
She soon found herself in an internment camp.
Her subsequent discovery of the records, described by experts as a “bombshell” finding, played a major role in a landmark law that provided reparation payments to internees and a formal apology by President Reagan in 1988. Her work also served as critical evidence in throwing out the convictions of three men who defied confinement orders and curfew laws targeting Japanese Americans.
Born in 1924 in Sacramento to Japanese immigrants, Herzig-Yoshinaga was raised in Los Angeles and later became a researcher for the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Citizens, a group created by Congress in 1980 to study the relocation orders of World War II.
She’d become a master at navigating the National Archives in Washington, D.C., after spending much of her personal time there in her 50s, galvanized by the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s and driven by a sense of injustice over her incarceration decades earlier.
One day in 1982, she found a red, bound volume containing a draft report by Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt that detailed an official rationale for sending Japanese Americans to internment camps.
The government had long claimed that the internment of 120,000 people of Japanese descent on the West Coast was done out of military necessity because there was little time to determine their individual loyalties.
But DeWitt’s draft report said the reason for the relocations was “not that there was insufficient time,” but that Japanese cultural traits made it “impossible to separate the sheep from the goats” and distinguish who could be trusted.
The document Herzig-Yoshinaga found was a record that the government hoped no one would ever discover, said Peter Irons, a retired professor of political science at UC San Diego who was working alongside Herzig-Yoshinaga at the time. All such copies were believed to have been burned. The discovery contributed to the commission’s finding that interment was driven by “race prejudice, war hysteria and the failure of political leadership.”
The research led to the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which provided each surviving internee $20,000 and an official apology.