Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga: Activist Speaks at CSU Dominguez Hills on Rhetoric and Redress with “Words Can Lie or Clarify”
On May 1, activist and researcher Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga discussed her seminal essay, “Words Can Lie or Clarify: Terminology of the World War II Incarceration of Japanese Americans” at a reception in her honor in the new South Wing of the University Library at California State University, Dominguez Hills. Herzig-Yoshinaga, who was imprisoned as a teenager at camps in Manzanar and Jerome, Ark. spoke with a panel made up of academic experts on the imprisonment of Japanese American citizens in concentration camps during World War II due to suspicion of treason by the U.S. military.
Along with her late husband Jack Herzig, Aiko compiled a list of the euphemisms that society – including Japanese Americans – used to sugarcoat the incarceration of harmless citizens at concentration camps throughout the United States. “Words Can Lie or Clarify” is the fruit of that labor.
Familial ties to the cause run deep in Herzig-Yoshinaga’s family. Aiko was one of six children; three of her siblings were born in her parents’ native Japan. All of the members of her family except for one sister who lived in New York, away from the anti-Japanese sentiment on the West Coast, were incarcerated. As a teenage newlywed, Herzig-Yoshinaga gave birth to her first daughter was born in Manzanar, her second husband Jack Herzig was a lawyer active in the Japanese American redress movement, and her younger daughter Lisa Furutani is married to State Assemblymember Warren Furutani (D- 55th Dist.), the author of Assembly Bill 37, which grants honorary degrees to Japanese Americans whose education at the California State University was disrupted during World War II. CSU Dominguez Hills will present the honorary degrees to those former students in the Southern California area during its Commencement exercises on May 21.
The panel on May 1 included Karen L. Ishizuka, author of “Lost and Found: Reclaiming the Japanese American Incarceration,” Dr. Don Hata, emeritus professor of history at CSU Dominguez Hills who with his late wife Dr. Nadine Ishitani Hata, co-authored “Japanese Americans and World War II: Mass Removal, Imprisonment, and Redress,” and Dr. Mitch Maki, dean of the College of Professional Studies at CSU Dominguez Hills and author of “Achieving the Impossible Dream: How Japanese Americans Obtained Redress.”
Dateline recently had a conversation with Herzig-Yoshinaga, who admitted like many Japanese Americans that she had kept silent about her time in the camps but that the questions of her children – and of the future - led her to go beyond the silence.
Dateline: What was it like being incarcerated as a young adult at Manzanar?
Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga: I was actually a teenager. We were told we were going to be sent somewhere, we weren’t told where. I lived on the Westside, the boy I was dating lived in Boyle Heights. Impulsively, we eloped. He had just graduated and I was about to graduate from Los Angeles High School. I went [to Manzanar] with my then-husband’s family. My family went someplace else.
Since I was an old married woman at the age of 17, my life in the camps as a teenager was not like an average teenager’s. About a year later, I had given birth to my first daughter. As a young mother, I did have gripes about lack of medical care, nutrition, things like that.
It was very strange feeling to know that we were behind barbed wire. The loss of freedom had a tremendous impact on me... and the lack of privacy. You had to have special permission to leave. Some snuck out but they knew they couldn’t get very far, looking Asian. After a while, if someone was given the opportunity to go to school, and it was proved they would not be a burden [to] the community, they would be allowed to leave but that didn’t happen right away.
I was in camp three years at Manzanar when I received word that my father was seriously ill, so I left to go to a camp in Jerome, Ark. I lost my father about ten days before I arrived. Just before I left, I lost my mother-in-law at Manzanar.
Three [of my siblings] were immigrants and three were American-born. One of my older sisters, an alien, was living in New York when the camps happened, so she didn’t have to go. I remember how she used to visit us in Arkansas. It was ironic, there was my ‘alien’ sister visiting us in camp. The other older siblings were with us in the camp. It was not until 1952 that people like my sister and mother and father were allowed to become citizens.
I asked [my first daughter] when she was 17, ‘What do you tell people when they ask you where you were born?’ She said, ‘I tell them I was born in Sacramento. That’s not too far from Manzanar, is it?’ I thought, ‘Poor kid, she has been carrying this burden around all these years.’
Dateline: How did it feel to leave the camps?
AHY: I was rather apprehensive because I didn’t know what lay ahead. I had experiences with people who were still hostile with Japanese. When I went to New York to rent an apartment, the landlord said, ‘Consider yourself lucky... who rents to Japs these days?’ I felt so bad.
I remember being told when I was demonstrating during the Vietnam War in the streets of New York, people shouted [at me], ‘Go back to where you came from’ and I thought, ‘California?’
Dateline: Before your period of extensive research for “Words Can Lie or Clarify,” how did you explain the camps to your children?
AHY: We didn’t talk to our kids too much about the camps. We were busy trying to rebuild our lives. My kids mostly grew up in New York after the war so they didn’t have the racial discrimination that I grew up with here. Most of their friends were Irish or Jewish, non- Japanese backgrounds. I thought I would leave it alone. I would not get on my high horse and talk about racial prejudice.
But there was a turning point when my second daughter and I talked much more about the racial prejudice toward people in this country despite the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I think that our kids, because they didn’t go through [incarceration] and were exposed to the civil rights movement in the 1960s, learned to stand up and speak out whereas we of the earlier generation grew up in fear. We wanted to make sure that everything we did was always right and did not want to be criticized by our neighbors. I’m sure this open attitude of our children influenced us older folks to go after the apology of the government.
Dateline: What has the redress movement meant to the survivors of the camps and their descendants?
AHY: Many people suffered huge economic losses because they owned businesses or homes. Our family was poor, so we were spared that. But emotionally, I felt personally betrayed by my government.
Most of the people who were eligible and received redress were grateful for the apology that we had been wronged. The redress for some didn’t make up at all for the huge losses. I was in those camps [for] 1,515 days, and $20,000... it doesn’t come to very much to make up for the loss of dignity and a feeling of being not wanted, not accepted. Money could not erase that.
Dateline: What do you think is the greatest lesson to be learned from the incarceration of Japanese Americans on their home soil during WWII?
AHY: Since 9/11 and now the recent New York incident, I’m so afraid that racial stereotyping... will rear its ugly head again. I know that since 9/11 anyone who looks like they came from [the Middle East], will be looked at suspiciously. I worry for the victims [of racial profiling]. They will feel uneasiness and fear because of what they look like, not because of who they are.
[The new immigration law in Arizona] can’t help but end up being racial profiling. If somebody is of mixed blood and he or she doesn’t look Latino, he or she won’t be stopped. But if you look like you’re from Guatemala or Honduras, it’s likely that you won’t need a reason to be stopped. I’m sure that the officers aren’t going to take chances.
Dateline: How can we prevent something like the incarceration of Japanese Americans from happening again?
AHY: I think it starts at home with education. I think the parents need more education than the kids in terms of being equal and fair.
The multiethnic mixture that CSU Dominguez Hills is getting to be known for is a great thing. When the kids get to know each other, they see they like the same music and sports.
Even though I see so many things that can be improved in this country, I would live nowhere else and I will do what I can to make improvements where I see injustice.
That’s one good thing about this country, that you can speak out. My sense of betrayal has been so strong, that it has been hard for me to contain my anger. Yet, I can’t live anywhere else because I’m too American for that.
To read "Words Can Lie or Clarify," click here.
- Reported by Joanie Harmon
Photo above, L-R: Dr. Don Hata, emeritus professor of history; Karen L. Ishizuka;
Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga; President Mildred García; and Dr. Mitch Maki,
dean of the College of Professional Studies
Photo by Joanie Harmon