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Two months before Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga was scheduled to graduate from high school in 1942, her principal assembled the school’s 15 Japanese American seniors for a meeting.

“You all don’t deserve to get your high school diplomas because your people bombed Pearl Harbor,” Mrs. Herzig Yoshinaga recalled her principal saying.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt had just signed Executive Order 9066. Nearly 120,000 people of Japanese descent, including American citizens and Japanese nationals, were being forced into internment camps.

On her graduation day, Mrs. Herzig Yoshinaga — the American-born daughter of Japanese immigrants — did not celebrate her achievements as an honors student graduating from high school. Instead, she spent the day at Manzanar War Relocation Center, a dust-blown “prison camp,” as she later called it, in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

While at Manzanar, she gave birth to a daughter and spent hours washing sand and dust from her newborn’s diapers.

The fifth of six children, Aiko Louise Yoshinaga was born in Sacramento on Aug. 5, 1924, and she grew up in Los Angeles. But when internment began, Mrs. Herzig Yoshinaga’s parents and siblings were sent to the stables at Santa Anita racetrack in Arcadia, Calif., and then to camps in Arkansas. To avoid being separated from her boyfriend, Jacob Miyazaki, Mrs. Herzig Yoshinaga eloped. The couple was bused 250 miles to Manzanar, near Independence, Calif.

Mrs. Herzig Yoshinaga saw her father only once more — on his deathbed — while he was ailing at a separate camp in Arkansas.

Exposing misconduct in the government

For decades, Mrs. Herzig Yoshinaga, who died at 93 on July 18 at a hospital in Torrance, Calif., tried to forget the war years. But when she was in her 50s, the anti-Vietnam War movement gave her a new political sensibility.

She moved to the Washington area in 1978, and she began visiting the National Archives, searching for information on internment.

She was soon spending six days a week in the archives, scouring thousands of poorly indexed documents and enlisting her husband to help make copies. They copied so many documents they filled a bathtub in their home, enough documents that their master bedroom was lined with file cabinets and converted into an office.

And then, in the early 1980s, Mrs. Herzig Yoshinaga, a former secretary and stenographer, picked up a red bound volume sitting on the corner of an archivist’s desk. As she later told the Los Angeles Times, the book contained the original draft of a 1943 government report on internment, apparently the last such copy in existence. “I began thumbing through the report, and then, when I came upon an important section, I nearly hit the ceiling.”

Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, right, is pictured outside the the U.S. Supreme Court on April 20, 1987. (AFP)
Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, right, is pictured outside the the U.S. Supreme Court on April 20, 1987. (AFP)

Mrs. Herzig Yoshinaga had uncovered evidence suggesting America’s World War II internment policy had racist motives and was not a result of “military necessity,” as Pentagon officials claimed.

By 1980, when a congressional commission was established to study the motivations and effects of Executive Order 9066, Mrs. Herzig Yoshinaga had gathered about 8,000 documents. The Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians hired her as a researcher.

Three years later, in a 467-page report written by lawyer Angus C. Macbeth, the commission concluded that internment was prompted by “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.”

While officials in the Roosevelt administration insisted internment was essential to the war effort, the commission reported that “not a single documented act of espionage, sabotage or fifth column activity was committed by an American citizen of Japanese ancestry or by a resident Japanese alien on the West Coast.”

The report singled out Mrs. Herzig Yoshinaga for praise, declaring that she “in large part found and organized and remembered the vast array of primary documents from which the report was written.”

Reparations

Mrs. Herzig Yoshinaga’s findings helped persuade Congress to pass the 1988 Civil Liberties Act, which granted $20,000 in reparations to each survivor of the camps and a formal apology from President Ronald Reagan.

They also proved instrumental in a 1983 legal effort to overturn the criminal conviction of Fred Korematsu — a welder who had defied orders to report to an internment center, and who unsuccessfully challenged Roosevelt’s executive order before the Supreme Court.

Similar convictions for two other Japanese Americans, Gordon Hirabayashi and Minoru Yasui, were subsequently cleared with the help of Mrs. Herzig Yoshinaga’s “pivotal” research, said Dale Minami, a San Francisco-based lawyer who led the legal team in all three cases.

“What she did was expose misconduct in the government in this dark light — the alteration of an originally racist justification to a more benign one, to make it more palatable to the Supreme Court,” Minami said in a phone interview.

After reparations began being paid out in 1990, Mrs. Herzig Yoshinaga helped former inmates gain redress.

She later edited a collection of testimony from imprisoned Japanese Americans, “Speaking Out for Personal Justice” (2011), and was featured in a 2016 documentary, “Rebel With a Cause.”

Among her other projects was a dictionary of internment terms, published in 2009, which called for words like “internment camp” to be replaced with “gulag” or “concentration camp,” in an effort to accurately describe what happened during the war.

“For 40-plus years I’ve used the word ‘evacuation,’ because I was brainwashed to,” she told The Washington Post in 1988. “I’m trying very hard to use words like ‘banishment,’ ‘exile,’ ‘forced removal.’ In the camps, they called us ‘resident colonists.’ ”

“We must learn,” she added, “to tell it as it happened.”

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