I’ve been “forced” to recall how I got started as a community activist quite a bit lately.
Indeed, back in June, when NCRR (Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress; originally the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations) held their event to launch their new book about their incredible, highly impactful history, it reminded me of all the activists who came before me who have been mentors and teachers for my own community activism.
On the morning of July 19, I received word that Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga passed away the night before. She was just a little over a month away from celebrating her 93rd birthday.
Aiko is well-known in the Japanese American, Asian American, and broader civil rights communities for her tireless work for social justice since her time in New York after she was one of the 120,000 Japanese/Japanese Americans who were unjustly incarcerated in American concentration camps and other confinement sites during World War II.
First incarcerated at Manzanar, Aiko was then transferred to Rohwer and then Jerome, both in Arkansas.
Most notably, and as I wrote in the Manzanar Committee’s statement on her passing, Aiko is best known, “… for her painstaking research in the National Archives where she discovered the original edition of Western Defense Command General John DeWitt’s Final Report, Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast, 1942, which clearly indicated that racism, not national security concerns or military necessity, was the primary motivating factor in the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans from the West Coast some 76 years ago.”
To make a long story short, that discovery, along with the rest of her research, made it possible for Fred Korematsu and Gordon Hirabayashi to get their convictions for defying the 1944 forced removal orders vacated in United States District Court in 1983. The discovery also provided much of the legal basis for the Japanese American community to seek and win redress and reparations in 1988.
For more details on Aiko’s work, check out the Manzanar Committee statement on her passing in Manzanar Committee Mourns The Loss of Legendary Community Activist Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga.
I first met Aiko when, as an undergraduate at UCLA and a member of the UCLA Nikkei Student Union, we brought her to campus in 1986, all the way from her home in Falls Church, Virginia, to speak on a panel during our Week of Remembrance in which we sponsored educational programs about Japanese American Incarceration.
Joining Aiko on that panel was Korematsu’s lead attorney in his coram nobis case, Dale Minami, and Frank Emi, one of the 63 members of the Fair Play Committee at the Heart Mountain concentration camp who resisted the draft.
As I’ve said several times in the past, talk about three of the heaviest of heavy hitters in the Japanese American community and we had them all together in the same room, at the same table.
Back then, many young Sansei (third generation
Japanese Americans; the second generation born in the United States) didn’t know much at all about the incarceration experience, being very much victims of the fact that their Nisei (second generation Japanese American; children of immigrants) parents and Issei (first generation Japanese Americans; immigrants from Japan) were so very reticent to speak of their experiences behind the barbed wire and we were no exception. As such, the events we held that week were as much for our own education as they were for the UCLA campus community.
As I listened to Dale, Frank (who passed away in 2010) and Aiko, I was so inspired by their remarks that I realized that I had three new heroes in my life and I’ve been so privileged to have worked with each of them and to have developed relationships with them over the years since that program.
But in Aiko’s case, my connection with her was far more personal. Whenever I saw her and her husband, Jack, who passed away in 2005, their faces always lit up with big, big smiles. They always greeted me warmly. Jack often had a joke or an otherwise witty remark and Aiko would always grab my hand and hold onto it throughout our conversations, no matter how long they lasted.
Aiko and Jack always wanted to know, not only how I was doing at the time, but what I was doing, and without actually saying it, what impact it was having on the lives of others. They always told me stories about their past activism, hoping that I’d learn from them—I certainly did—and they’d always encourage me to continue my work as a community activist.
Back in 2011, when the Manzanar Committee named Aiko as our recipient of the Sue Kunitomi Embrey Legacy Award, I wrote to her, “I never did tell you this, and I feel awful that I didn’t do so before Jack passed away, but your story together—the work you did in the National Archives and even before that as an activist, and then working with you on [son-in-law] Warren [Furutani’s] campaigns—you both were a huge influence in my development as a community activist from my days as a UCLA student. You and Jack are among the people I consider to be heroes and mentors in my life. I can’t thank you enough.”
In February 2018, at the Day of Remembrance program at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo, we were graced by Aiko’s presence and, the rock star that she is, she was pretty much the center of attention before and after the event, with seemingly everyone wanting to chat with her and take a photo with her.
When I finally approached her, she looked at me and her face lit up with the biggest smile you can imagine. “Gann! It is wonderful to see you,” she beamed, reaching for my hand as she always did, and she held it for the entire time we talked, again, as she always did. I took the opportunity to thank her again for everything she’s done for our community and especially for myself. As you can see from the lead photo for this post, I also had the presence of mind to take a photo with her—it was the last time I saw her.
As I noted, Aiko was in very high demand at DOR, so she didn’t get much time to say anything. But my conversation with her reminded me of her response to what I wrote to her back in 2011 (see above).
“I can just see Jack, grinning from ear to ear, so very pleased to think that he made a lasting mark and influenced your life as positively as you have described your association with us,” she wrote. “He would have been so-o-o-o proud! I too, appreciate your kind words. I feel personally very much rewarded that what we did together has had some beneficial effect on your life in encouraging your talents geared to social activism. Your fine attributes, enveloped in compassion for the underdogs, will bring you great satisfaction through the leadership you are exhibiting that will help our community, and the wider society, to bring about mutual understanding and respect for our brothers and sisters.”
“[Written] in appreciation and exhorting you to GO FOR IT,” she concluded.
Coming from Aiko, in particular, those words still serve as inspiration for me in my community work.
As devastating as Aiko’s passing is for us, she has been reunited with Jack, which should bring us at least a little bit of solace. To say that she’ll be missed is an understatement of epic proportions. After all, the legacy she has left cannot be measured. For my part, at least, I just hope that my work will honor that incredibly important legacy, now and in the future.
Rest in power, Aiko, and please say hi to Jack for me.
Gann Matsuda is the Manzanar Committee’s Director of Communications and Social Media/Web Editor. He writes from Culver City, California.
The views expressed in this story are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the Manzanar Committee.
LEAD PHOTO: Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga (left) with Manzanar Committee member Gann Matsuda at the annual Day of Remembrance program at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles on February 17, 2018. Photo: Alisa Lynch.
SECOND PHOYO: Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga (center), shown here with Frank Emi (left) and Dale Minami (right) following a panel discussion at UCLA in 1986. Photo: Gann Matsuda.
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