THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: JA ‘godmother of redress’ was an internationally esteemed community-builder

bioline_Greg RobinsonAiko Herzig Yoshinaga, who passed away on July 18, 2018, was not a household name, even among Japanese Americans.

Yet her place in history as “godmother of Japanese American redress” seems secure. A one-woman research team, she spent years combing through the National Archives and other government document centers in search of material on the wartime imprisonment of Japanese Americans.

It is hard for me to write about Aiko, because I loved and admired her — and because writing a memorial also requires me to deal with the fact of her passing. We first spoke in 1997 or 1998. As a budding researcher of Japanese American history, I contacted Peter Irons, who directed me instead to Aiko. I had a brief phone conversation with her where she gave me some pointers on sources. (Aiko also told me NOT to bother Michi Nishiura Weglyn, who was ailing, but instead to look to her if I needed help. Fortunately, Michi learned of my research and proceeded to call me up herself and offer me valuable insight during our extended phone chat.) As I did the research for my dissertation, which eventually morphed into the book “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans,” I discovered to my great joy that the law library at New York University, where I was studying, had a copy of the microfilm rolls of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians papers — the thousands of documents that Aiko had so patiently put together and organized. It was a major find for me, which, (along with some selections from Roger Daniels’ multi-volume document collection “American Concentration Camps”) made it possible for me to write an informed study. It was for this reason that I noted in my acknowledgments that my work would have been “inconceivable, let alone impossible” without such compilation efforts.

I met Aiko face-to-face for the first time in 2000, when I was living in Washington, D.C. I was introduced to her at the Smithsonian Institution, when her friend and disciple Tom Fujita Rony gave a lecture. Because of my intellectual debt to Aiko, I was both excited and apprehensive to speak to her.

However, Aiko immediately put me at ease, and in fact related to me more in motherly than in academic fashion. (It didn’t hurt that my mother had grown up in the same neighborhood where Aiko had lived in New York, and was a contemporary of her kids.)

From the beginning, I learned important lessons from Aiko and Jack Herzig, not just about Japanese American history, but life in general. Aiko touched me with her generous and unassuming character. She did not minimize the work she had put in, but was careful to offer credit to others, and was quite modest about her own importance. When I told her that I would be insufferably arrogant if I had ever accomplished a fraction of what she had, she would laugh and say, “Oh Greg, I have so much to learn from you.” In vain would I sputter that she had surely already forgotten more than I would ever know. When I spoke of her as a role model, she would snap, “I have had three husbands,” and talk about the years she had labored under the disapproval of more conservative family members. Once I escorted Aiko to a staged reading of “A Divided Community,” Momo Yashima and Frank Chin’s play about the wartime draft resisters, which was drawn in part from my book “By Order of the President.” At the end of the play, the cast saluted Aiko’s presence in the audience and asked her to take a bow. She did so, but generously shouted to the cast that they should also have Greg Robinson take a bow.

By the same token, I learned a lot from Aiko about building community. As she did with historical documents, Aiko excelled at the task of bringing people together. She and Jack quickly brought me into their circle of friends and colleagues, and I benefitted from the contacts I made through them with diverse scholars and activists: Leila Meyerratken, the teacher whose class made a quilt commemorating Japanese American confinement; Yeiichi Kelly Kuwayama, a New York-born 442nd veteran; and Professors Rita Takahashi of San Francisco State and Scott Sandage of Carnegie Mellon. Aiko introduced me to Takeya Mizuno, then a graduate student in journalism at the University of Missouri and later a distinguished professor of journalism at Toyo University, who became a longtime friend. When I first visited Japan in 2006, I discovered that Aiko’s appeal was truly international. At her request, scholars from Nara, Kyoto and Tokyo all made time to take me out to eat and share information. Aiko in turn asked me if I would help out her daughter Gerrie Lani, who was pursuing a degree in sociology, by agreeing to be interviewed by her during a visit I made to Los Angeles. We hit it off, and became friends in our own right. Similarly, once when I was in New York, I stopped by the house of Aiko’s brother Johnnie to pick up a package she had left for me, and had a lovely time speaking French with Johnnie and his Haitian-born wife Lucienne. These family connections further solidified my bond with Aiko.

One area where Aiko was of supreme help to me was in connection with the artist Miné Okubo. Aiko had known Okubo in her New York days and they had attended together the Supreme Court hearings on the National Council for Japanese Americans Redress lawsuit. Aiko had lobbied successfully for University of Washington Press to undertake a reprint edition of Okubo’s graphic camp memoir “Citizen 13660.” Okubo was famously prickly about selling individual artworks, but she so admired Aiko that she permitted William Hohri to buy one of her paintings as a wedding present for Aiko and Jack. After Okubo died in 2001, my partner Elena Tajima Creef and I planned a memorial tribute, first as a special issue of Amerasia Journal and then as a book-length volume. The problem was that Okubo’s papers and her collection of her artworks were all stuck in extended probate, and we were unable to gain access to them. Aiko stepped in to save the day. She granted us permission to reproduce her wedding present, which became the cover of our “Amerasia” issue, and she entrusted me with her extended file of Okubo material. Elena and I gladly dedicated our anthology volume “Mine Okubo: Following her Own Road” to Aiko and Jack (I thus always referred to it to her as “Aiko’s book”). Aiko was so touched by the dedication that she presented me with a small piece of Okubo’s art that she had acquired.
Throughout Aiko’s last years, I would visit her whenever I was in Los Angeles. At first, we met for lunch in Little Tokyo (Aiko never missed my public events at the Japanese American National Museum), then when she grew more frail I would stop by her house. She liked to reminisce about her girlhood years, and she always pressed me for details of my latest researches. I will miss her presence and her warm kindness.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. His new book based upon his Nichi Bei columns, “The Great Unknown: Japanese American Sketches,” was recently published by University Press of Colorado. He can be reached at robinson.greg@uqam.ca. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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