At 92, A Japanese-American Reflects On The Lessons Of Internment Camps Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga was at a Los Angeles high school when she and other Japanese-Americans were placed in internment camps. Decades later, her efforts helped lead to an official apology.
NPR logo

At 92, A Japanese-American Reflects On The Lessons Of Internment Camps

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/504602293/504651783" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
At 92, A Japanese-American Reflects On The Lessons Of Internment Camps

At 92, A Japanese-American Reflects On The Lessons Of Internment Camps

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/504602293/504651783" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

On this day 75 years ago, a breaking news flash shook the nation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: We interrupt this program to bring you a special news bulletin. The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, by air, President Roosevelt has just announced.

INSKEEP: Now, on today's program, we're hearing the voices of survivors of that attack who recall it 75 years later. Next up, we meet a woman who was in California on that day in 1941. Her name is Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga. She's Japanese-American. NPR's Lauren Migaki visited her in Los Angeles one recent afternoon.

AIKO HERZIG-YOSHINAGA: Hello.

LAUREN MIGAKI, BYLINE: Hello, hi.

HERZIG-YOSHINAGA: Come in.

MIGAKI: When you walk into Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga's home, you walk into the arms of her family. Photos of her kids and grandkids are everywhere.

HERZIG-YOSHINAGA: You can tell I got a big family.

MIGAKI: At 92, Aiko's a tiny woman - thin with wiry, white hair. In her younger years, she was a force in the movement to get reparations for the Japanese-Americans who spent years living in internment camps. The story begins after Pearl Harbor, in the spring of 1942. Seniors in high school, Aiko and her boyfriend were in love and just months away from graduating.

HERZIG-YOSHINAGA: The principal called us in and said, you're not going to get your diplomas because your people bombed Pearl Harbor, as if we were the cause. I thought, what the [expletive], you know?

MIGAKI: Word spread quickly. Japanese families would be rounded up and sent to internment camps. Afraid of losing her high school sweetheart, she made a rash decision.

HERZIG-YOSHINAGA: I didn't know what the heck I was doing, but we eloped, so I went with his family. To no end, my family was so upset about that.

MIGAKI: Her family was sent to Arkansas while Aiko and her new in-laws were sent to Manzanar in California. There, the barracks were crowded, amenities spare. A canvas bag stuffed with hay was a makeshift mattress. But they tried to put a life together the best they could.

HERZIG-YOSHINAGA: In my case, I had never even had sex. And trying to make - make love on a noisy, hay-filled canvas bag was just a joke.

MIGAKI: Aiko's daughter was born in the camp. At the time, Aiko didn't question the legality of rounding up U.S. citizens because of their race. But decades later, she grew curious and then obsessed. She poured over archival documents from that period and eventually discovered a key piece of evidence - a report with an explosive admission by a government official saying there wasn't a military reason for interning Japanese-Americans. Martha Nakagawa worked with the University of California Los Angeles to collect Aiko's research.

MARTHA NAKAGAWA: Without Aiko, the passage of the redress bill would not have gone as smoothly. It would have been difficult to prove that the government had done any wrongdoing.

MIGAKI: That bill, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, was signed by President Ronald Reagan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RONALD REAGAN: My fellow Americans, we gather here today to right a grave wrong.

MIGAKI: Japanese families receive $20,000 and an apology from the U.S. government. These days, Aiko says she hears echoes from the past. She's troubled by the rhetoric aimed at minorities and wonders whether there's potential for it to escalate.

HERZIG-YOSHINAGA: Same thing - we haven't learned from all these lessons. It's happened once, and unless you are careful, it could happen again.

MIGAKI: Seventy-five years later, it's a lesson that hangs prominently in Aiko's home, where a black and white photo of Manzanar displays rows and rows of barracks surrounded by barbed wire. Lauren Migaki, NPR News.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.