At seventeen, she was forced from her home, imprisoned, and told her confinement in an internment camp was a “military necessity.” Decades later, her dedicated research would expose the truth.
“This is where they’re gonna shoot us,” thought seventeen-year-old Aiko Yoshinaga as she stepped out into the desolate landscape of the Manzanar prison camp in the spring of 1942. If the government killed them all here, Aiko thought, “Nobody would know the difference.” Desert framed by mountains stretched for miles to the east and west, and the camp was surrounded by a barbed wire fence, studded with guard towers patrolled by military police.
Just a few months earlier, Aiko was a high school senior living in Los Angeles, the daughter of Japanese immigrants who struggled and sacrificed to provide for their six children. “As economically poor as we were, my parents managed to pay for my dance and piano lessons,” she recalled later, “at a time when my father was barely able to come up with the rent for our home.”
All that changed on December 7, 1941. “I had just been at a party, and we were going home in one kid’s car.” The radio announced that the Japanese military had attacked the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor in Hawai‘i. Within thirty-six hours, the United States had declared war on Japan, officially entering World War II. Two months later, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the Western Defense Command, responsible for coordinating the defense of the Pacific Coast region of the U.S., to declare that every person of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast would be subject to “evacuation and resettlement.”
More than 112,000 Japanese Americans were forced to leave their homes indefinitely and move to so-called relocation centers, hastily built camps where they would be imprisoned until the end of World War II. An estimated seventy thousand of those imprisoned were American citizens like Aiko.
When their evacuation orders came, Aiko and her boyfriend Jake (also the child of Japanese immigrants) realized they were going to be separated. Afraid of losing each other, they eloped, just days before they were forced from their homes and into California’s Manzanar Relocation Center.
Aiko’s marriage kept her close to Jake, but separated from her own family. Her parents and two of her siblings were sent to the Jerome and Rohwer camps, more than seventeen hundred miles away in rural Arkansas. Aiko had no idea if she would ever see them again.
In 1943, Aiko lay in the makeshift camp hospital in Manzanar after giving birth to her first child. She worried that she hadn’t done right by her family. She worried about caring for her baby in a cramped room with Jake and five of his family members, without running water to rinse out soiled diapers, without proper nutrition, without a place to cook, without privacy or freedom.
But she made do. “I think it’s just that old Japanese thing,” she said later. “You shikata ga nai. You do the best you can under the circumstances.” She made do when she learned her father was deathly ill; she made do while she waited for permission to transfer to Jerome to see him; she made do on her five-day train journey to Arkansas, without a seat; and she made do when her father died ten days after her arrival, as Christmas Eve turned to Christmas morning 1943.
Aiko also made do when Jake was drafted to fight for the U.S. military while imprisoned at Manzanar.
Two years later, Aiko and her daughter were finally released, handed fifty dollars (around 350 dollars today) and sent out of the camp. Jake was still fighting overseas.
Although at least two government-commissioned studies found no evidence of espionage or threat from Japanese Americans, U.S. officials insisted that imprisonment was a “military necessity.” Some even claimed the internment was for Japanese Americans’ own protection. But forty years after she was released from Manzanar, Aiko would prove that the government was knowingly lying on both counts.
While working full-time and raising a family, Aiko joined an activist group called Asian Americans for Action (AAA). Run primarily by senior-citizen women, the AAA had a profound impact on Aiko’s idea of the world. She began to think differently about the relationship between the government and the people, realizing that she could speak out rather than making do.
In 1978, then in her fifties, Aiko moved to Washington, D.C., and took a break from her decades-long career as a clerical worker. Aiko decided to search the National Archives for internment camp records about herself and her family. She learned from the archivists that thousands of documents existed about the history and policy of internment, and very few people were looking at them. “So I started to examine those records,” Aiko said later, “and they grabbed me. Absolutely grabbed me.”
Aiko had never thought much about the broader story of Japanese American imprisonment—why it happened, who was responsible, and whether it was justified. But as she sifted through government documents, those questions became a full-time project.
Spending fifty or sixty hours a week in the archives, Aiko poured over neglected records, meticulously cataloging her findings. In her first three years of research, she amassed some eight thousand documents, unearthing the true story of Japanese American imprisonment.
Around the same time, the Japanese American Citizens League and Hawai‘i Senators Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga were lobbying for an investigation into the history and impact of the wartime prison camps. They succeeded in 1980 when Congress created the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC), which soon hired Aiko as a researcher.
Aiko’s growing catalog was an incredible starting point for the Commission’s work. “I documented everything I got, exactly where I found it: what file, what box, what record group, and everything else,” she said. Aiko wanted the evidence of government misconduct to be crystal clear and undeniable.
But there was one document that still eluded even Aiko’s exhaustive work. In 1942, the Western Defense Command had printed and bound ten copies of their Final Report on Japanese American Evacuation. The report clearly established that there was no military necessity for internment. Leaders of the War Relocation Authority (WRA)—the government agency that handled the internment of Japanese Americans—knew the report showed the government’s policy was discriminatory. Therefore, the WRA demanded all ten original copies be immediately destroyed and revised. But one copy was never accounted for.
One day, deep in her work at the archives, Aiko discovered a book sitting on the corner of an archivist’s desk. She noticed the book looked like the revised Final Report from 1943, but was surprised when she found notes scrawled throughout the text. She quickly realized these were not just notes; they were edits. She was holding the last remaining copy of the original 1942 Final Report, the one that indisputably implicated the government in a racist plan to revoke the rights and liberties of Japanese Americans.
Aiko maintained that she found the report because of luck, but her tenacity and depth of knowledge meant she knew what luck had brought her. Armed with Aiko’s research, the CWRIC returned to Congress in 1983 to present Personal Justice Denied, their assessment of the government’s misconduct and the damage done to generations of Japanese Americans.
CWRIC’s findings, along with pressure from Aiko and fellow activists, persuaded Congress to pass the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, declaring that “a grave injustice was done to citizens and permanent resident aliens of Japanese ancestry” during World War II. “For these fundamental violations of the basic civil liberties and constitutional rights of these individuals of Japanese ancestry, the Congress apologizes on behalf of the Nation.” The law also allocated twenty thousand dollars to each survivor or their surviving immediate family.
Japanese Americans lost much more than the government paid back, and the reparations came too late for many; but the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 ensured a more honest historical record thanks to the massive effort by Japanese American leaders, politicians, and activists like Aiko.
In 2001, the Memorial to Japanese American Patriotism in World War II was completed in Washington, D.C. Part of the memorial is a stone inscribed with a quote from Senator Daniel Inouye, who fought for the U.S. in World War II and later helped lead the redress movement: “The lessons learned must remain as a grave reminder of what we must not allow to happen again to any group.”