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

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Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga was a high school senior when she entered the Manzanar internment camp. Now 92, she points to the place in Manzanar, near Death Valley in California, where she lived.

When the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga (then Aiko Yoshinaga) was a senior at Los Angeles High School.

She remembers the day the following spring that her principal took the Japanese students aside and said, "You're not getting your diplomas because your people bombed Pearl Harbor."

Japanese-American families on the West Coast were rounded up and sent to internment camps. Yoshinaga was worried that she would be separated from her boyfriend, so to the horror of her parents, Yoshinaga and her boyfriend eloped.

The Yoshinaga family was sent to the Santa Anita, Calif., detention center, and later to Jerome, Ark. Meanwhile, Yoshinaga and her new in-laws were sent to Manzanar, near Death Valley. Yoshinaga remembers their first day as hot and dusty, even though it was only April. The barracks where the family lived were crowded and sparsely decorated.

"The only thing that was in the 'apartments' when we got there were army metal beds with the springs on it, and a potbellied stove in the middle of the room," Herzig-Yoshinaga says. "That was the only thing. No chest of drawers, no nothing, no curtains on the windows. It was the barest of the bare."

She remembers being given a canvas bag and being told to fill it with hay for use as a makeshift mattress.

"In my case, I had never even had sex before I went into the camp. And trying to make love on a noisy, hay-filled canvas bag was just a joke!" she says.

The families eventually created room dividers out of sheets and began making a life in the Manzanar War Relocation Center. Yoshinaga gave birth to her daughter in the camp.

Not long after, she received word from her family in Arkansas that her father was gravely ill. Yoshinaga requested a transfer of camps and traveled, with the child her family had never met, to Arkansas.

"As we were pulling into the camp, [an] ambulance was taking my father to the hospital," she said. "So I grabbed my daughter and went to see him. And that was the one and only time he got to see her because he died sometime after that."

Her father died before the Japanese were freed from the camps. Yoshinaga says that it was years before she questioned the legality of the internment camps and detention centers.

It wasn't until she was living in Washington, D.C., with her third husband, Jack Herzig, that she started looking into her family's personal history in the camps. Her research broadened and she joined the redress effort, working to bring reparations to Japanese-Americans who lived in the camps.

In the course of her research, she discovered a report which quoted a government official saying that there was no national security reason for incarcerating the Japanese-Americans during the war.

"I think until then, it was mostly like, 'You know this was just an honest mistake that we put these people into camps,' " says Martha Nakagawa, who helped process Herzig-Yoshinaga's papers into the library at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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

The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was signed by President Ronald Reagan, who said that it was a mistake for the government to incarcerate Japanese-Americans without trial during the war. It awarded victims and their families $20,000 and, perhaps more importantly, an apology.

At 92, Herzig-Yoshinaga now lives in Los Angeles — the place her family called home before they were forced out. She eventually did get her high school diploma, and her suburban home is filled with pictures of loved ones.

But she also has a black-and-white photo on her dining room wall of a jagged mountain landscape. In the foreground are rows and rows of barracks and barbed wire fences that made up the Manzanar War Relocation Center.

She says she worries now, when she hears people talk about creating a registry for all Muslims in the United States.

"We haven't learned from all these lessons!" she says. "It's happened once, and unless you are careful it could happen again."

NPR's Katrina Alarkon contributed to this story.

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