NEW YORK — Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga, a Japanese-American whose tenacious archival research persuaded Congress to approve reparations for her fellow inmates of World War II internment camps and an official apology to them, died on July 18 in Torrance, Calif. She was 93.
Mrs. Herzig Yoshinaga’s discovery of a document in the National Archives contributed to the 1983 decision by a US District Court in California to void a wartime verdict against Fred Korematsu, who had refused the blanket evacuation order of Japanese-Americans from sensitive military zones, and the convictions of two others, Gordon Hirabayashi and Minoru Yasui, in similar cases.
The document she discovered was apparently the only remaining original version of a 1943 government report that refuted the Pentagon’s claim that the evacuation was a military necessity.
The discovery was part of research that helped lead to a congressional commission’s conclusion in 1983 that the wartime internment was, instead, prompted by “race prejudice, war hysteria, and the failure of political leadership.”
In 2011, the acting US solicitor general acknowledged that the government had suppressed evidence when the Korematsu case was originally heard during the war. The US Supreme Court concurred this year that Americans could not be forcibly relocated on the basis of race.
The lawyer Angus C. Macbeth, who compiled the final report of the congressional body, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, said Mrs. Herzig Yoshinaga had “in large part found and organized and remembered the vast array of primary documents from which the report was written.” She went on to become the commission’s research associate.
As a result of the commission’s conclusions, President Reagan in 1988 signed the Civil Liberties Act, which apologized for indiscriminately jailing Japanese-Americans during the war without trial and awarded camp inmates $20,000 each.
David Kawamoto, a past president of the Japanese American Citizens League, said in 2011 that Mrs. Herzig Yoshinaga’s research role had been indispensable.
“The work that she did was key,” he told the Los Angeles Times, “because through her own personal efforts she found the evidence that our community needed to seek out redress.”
Aiko Louise Yoshinaga was born on Aug. 5, 1924, in Sacramento to Sanji Yoshinaga and Shigeru Kinuwaki, immigrants from Kyushu, Japan. The family moved to Los Angeles in 1933.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order in February 1942 forcing Japanese-Americans into camps. Nearly 120,000 US citizens of Japanese descent and legal resident Japanese nationals were evicted from their homes, mostly on the West Coast.
After eloping with her boyfriend, she was bused 250 miles away to the Manzanar War Relocation Authority camp in Owens Valley, Calif., where she lived in a 20-by-25-foot space with three families in tar-papered barracks and gave birth to a daughter. The rest of her family was sent to the Santa Anita racetrack, northeast of Los Angeles, and then transferred to a camp in Arkansas, where her father died.
After the war, she studied to become a stenographer, went through a divorce and joined her mother and four siblings in New York. There she married an Army officer and then moved to Japan, where he was stationed.
When that marriage ended in divorce, she returned to New York, worked as a clerk, attended night classes at George Washington High School in Manhattan and received a general equivalency diploma.
In New York she became involved with the advocacy group Asian Americans for Action, which opposed racism, nuclear testing, and the war in Vietnam. She also reunited with a former American paratrooper, John Alois Herzig, whom she had met in Japan. They married and moved to Washington in 1978.
In addition to her daughter Lisa, from her second marriage to David Abe, Mrs. Herzig Yoshinaga leaves a son, David, also from her second marriage; another daughter, Gerrie Lani Miyazaki, from her first marriage, to Jacob Miyazaki; a brother, John; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Inspired by Michi Nishiura Weglyn’s book “Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America’s Concentration Camps” (1976), Mrs. Herzig Yoshinaga and her husband signed on as Washington lobbyists for the newly formed National Council for Japanese American Redress, which was suing the government for reparations. She later helped former camp inmates determine their eligibility for remuneration and advised them on how to apply.
In 2016, she was featured in a documentary film by Janice D. Tanaka titled, “Rebel with a Cause: The Life of Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga.”