Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga was born an American citizen in Sacramento. She grew up in Los Angeles. But none of these facts prevented the U.S. government from incarcerating her and her family — alongside more than 120,000 Japanese residents living on the West Coast, many of whom were also American citizens — for three years in War Relocation camps in California and Arkansas during World War II.
At the time, she said, she didn’t dwell on the reasons why this happened. But in the ensuing years, maddening incongruities stood out in her mind; why, for one, was her sister, who was born in Japan and a citizen of Japan, but living with her husband in New York, not incarcerated as well? In fact, her sister was allowed to visit family members at their camp in Arkansas and leave whenever she liked.
“The irony of that lived with me for a long time,” the 92-year-old Herzig-Yoshinaga recalled on a visit to UCLA, where she was honored Oct. 26 by the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, UCLA Library Special Collections, and Dr. Sanbo and Kazuko Sakaguchi Research Fund in Japanese American Studies.
“We grew up in a very bad racial atmosphere,” she said, “but Japanese-Americans were raised to respect authority, our teachers, our parents, our ministers, our government. … So I didn’t even question what happened to us — it just did.”
Her eventual questions about the government’s decision to incarcerate her and her family led her to begin doing painstaking research alongside her devoted late husband Jack Herzig. Thanks to her meticulous archival skills as an amateur sleuth, the couple’s efforts resulted in a robust collection of 33,000 vital documents, a paper trail that not only revealed what was behind the decision to imprison Japanese-Americans, but led to the 1988 Civil Liberties Act, an official apology by the government and reparations of $20,000 paid to each camp survivor. In fact, after the Civil Liberties Act was passed, Herzig-Yoshinaga was hired by the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct research for the Office of Redress Administration to help identify survivors.
The collection, which was initially housed at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., represents decades of diving through a mountain of notes, cables, memos, official government documents, letters, transcripts of testimonies and more. Herzig-Yoshinaga has since donated the papers to UCLA, where they are now officially part of UCLA Library Special Collections. It was particularly important to the Herzigs that the collection be donated to a school on the West Coast, because this painful chapter in American history happened to people who lived here.
“These papers offer invaluable lessons to anyone who is vitally concerned with issues of social justice and constitutionality in this country,” said Susan Parker, deputy university librarian and interim director of UCLA Library Special Collections.
In the beginning, Herzig-Yoshinaga didn’t envision any “project” per se. She acted out of a desire to see what documents existed that related to her and her loved ones, she recalled.
“But I didn’t get interested in the subject until I met a group of activists, middle-aged Nisei women, like me, in New York City,” she said. “They were a very progressive, forward-thinking, wonderful group of women, and they instilled in me a desire to learn more about what happened to us during World War II and why.”
Herzig-Yoshinaga and her husband had moved to Washington D.C., where, with some time on her hands, she decided to begin searching the National Archive.
“It was not meant to become such a big thing, but it took over my whole life,” she said. “The fact that I was able to sort out some of the reasons why this happened helped me a lot, and I felt, ‘I can’t keep this to myself.’”
Over the years, Herzig-Yoshinaga uncovered details steeped in partisan politics and economic issues that drove the establishment of the internment camps. She discovered, for example, that part of the original intent for the camps was to hold Japanese-Americans hostage to potentially trade them for American prisoners of war — presumably white or of European descent — being held in Japan.
“Why exchange an American citizen for an American citizen?” she asked. “It was baffling to me.”
She also discovered documents and cables that showed that officials knew well in advance, almost to the hour, that the “surprise attack” on Pearl Harbor would occur. Anticipating a war with Japan as early as 1936, President Roosevelt suggested to the army that all people of Japanese ancestry in Hawaii be rounded up and placed on the island of Molokai, known as the “Island of Lepers.”
UCLA students and researchers can now access and analyze these and many other illuminating pieces of information for themselves. Having access to this information is an incredible gift, said David Yoo, vice provost of the UCLA Institute of American Cultures and professor of Asian American studies.
“The collection being here will enable future research to take place so new questions may be asked by future generations of researchers,” Yoo said. “The legacy of what the Herzigs have done will benefit not just the people who have been working on these projects for a long time, but students who may not know anything about the topic.”
To view the Jack and Aiko Herzig Papers resource portal, visit this website.