Film dives into the life of iconic researcher and activist Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga


AN ICONIC LIFE ­— (Clockwise from left) Filmmaker Janice Tanaka chronicled the life of Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga, whose work in the 1980s helped uncover documents vital to securing redress for Japanese Americans. The film follows the Nisei activist’s life from a young age, including her time at Manzanar, Calif. where she had her first daughter, Gerrie. courtesy of Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga

AN ICONIC LIFE ­— (Clockwise from left) Filmmaker Janice Tanaka chronicled the life of Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga, whose work in the 1980s helped uncover documents vital to securing redress for Japanese Americans. The film follows the Nisei activist’s life from a young age, including her time at Manzanar, Calif. where she had her first daughter, Gerrie.
courtesy of Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga

Filmmaker Janice Tanaka realized that, despite Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga’s profound impact on U.S. history, there were no films focused specifically on the Nisei activist and researcher. However, a family connection and a unique funding opportunity enabled her to produce “Rebel With a Cause: The Life of Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga” (2016), a tribute to Herzig Yoshinaga’s life a few years before her death in 2018.

“People had done films on Yuri Kochiyama and someone had done one on Michi Weglyn. And I said, ‘Well, I wonder why no one’s ever done one on Aiko?’” the Sansei filmmaker said. “She was a little hesitant, but I think it helped me that … she knew my mom.”

Tanaka frames her documentary from a unique perspective. Herzig Yoshinaga is touted as a major player during the Japanese American movement for redress. She uncovered the original unedited draft of Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt’s report and, with lawyer Peter Irons, secured proof the United States had lied about its reasoning for incarcerating more than 110,000 people of Japanese descent during World War II. Tanaka, however, first got to know Herzig Yoshinaga through the letters she had sent her mother.

Using these two women, Tanaka’s film explores the life of Herzig Yoshinaga parallel to Tanaka’s conservative Nisei mother. Herzig Yoshinaga was a counterpoint to her conservative mother, who preferred not to talk about her friend from high school.

“I just think my mom didn’t want to get into Aiko’s entire life, because it may not be the right role model for me when I was a teenager,” Tanaka said.

As Herzig Yoshinaga agreed to let Tanaka make the film on her life, Tanaka received funding from the Nitto Tire company.

“I did some freelance work with JANM (Japanese American National Museum). And at one point in time, a big sponsor of theirs was a company called Nitto Tire,” Tanaka said. “They wanted to create films about the Japanese American experience … and I was just lucky enough to be a producer that was around JANM at the right time and at the right place.”

While Herzig Yoshinaga made her biggest contributions during the 1980s after marrying Jack Herzig and moving to Washington, D.C., Tanaka delves into how the Nisei activist defied conventions of the time. She eloped at the age of 17 to be with her husband during the war and later became a single mother of three working for a jazz music organization in Harlem and a member of Asian Americans for Action.

Tanaka said it was important for her to get Herzig Yoshinaga’s children to talk about their mother.

“She has two daughters and one son. Lisa (Furutani) and her brother David (Abe) were from the second husband, and so, Gerrie (Miyazaki) grew up eight years apart,” she said. “It took Gerrie a long time to figure out she was OK with being in the film.”

Once in Washington, D.C., she began researching the wartime incarceration at the National Archives for herself. The Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians then hired Herzig Yoshinaga because of her ability to navigate the archives. At the same time, she met Irons who went on to suggest Dale Minami and other lawyers reopen Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi and Minoru Yasui’s Supreme Court cases. According to Minami, lead counsel in Korematsu v. United States’ coram nobis case, Herzig Yoshinaga and Irons provided the original documents to build both the commission’s findings and the coram nobis cases, along with William Hori’s lawsuit for reparations through the National Council for Japanese American Redress.

“Aiko was almost like a double agent for us,” Minami said. “Who would suspect this grandmotherly, very cute lady, giving us documents that were essentially incriminating the government … So her role was kind of like a mole. She was in the archives finding the materials, and working with Peter, delivered them to the various antagonists of the federal government and supporting Redress.”

Minami recalled Herzig Yoshinaga as a gracious and elegant woman who was also mentally tough as nails. She and her husband secured sensitive documents from the government and testified during the Hirabayashi v. United States case in Washington. According to Minami, Herzig Yoshinaga’s sharp memory and powerful testimony essentially led the opposing counsel to “virtually gave up.”

Chizu Omori met Herzig Yoshinaga in the 1980s during the Redress Movement. Then a resident of Seattle, Omori became one of the plaintiffs in Hori’s lawsuit, which demanded $220,000 each for 11 causes of action. Although the case was eventually dismissed after Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, awarding $20,000 to all survivors of the camp experience, Omori said Hori’s case, backed up by Herzig Yoshinaga’s research, was important.

“We didn’t win. But I think that it also put pressure on the government, a lot of pressure,” Omori said. “I don’t think they would ever have given us $220,000 each. … So that 20,000 is really just a symbolic token, but I think it did a lot for the community. We needed validation. We needed to know that, yes, they actually admitted that they were wrong and apologize.”

Minami said Herzig Yoshinaga’s biggest contribution was securing proof that DeWitt had lied in his final report. Herzig Yoshinaga was able to distinguish one copy of the final report on Japanese Americans from the rest and located a lost unedited version of the first draft of the report that contradicts the final report. Minami called it “the nail in the coffin in our case.”

“It was as mind blowing as the information Peter gave us. The document that was an official document that … itself contradicted the arguments made in the Supreme Court by DeWitt himself,” Minami said.

Herzig Yoshinaga’s work is now preserved and available to the public through the Jack and Aiko Herzig Papers available at the Asian American Studies Center at the University of California, Los Angeles. Martha Nakagawa, a researcher and journalist, worked with Herzig Yoshinaga to organize the papers a few years before she passed away.

According to Tanaka, Herzig Yoshinaga’s final goal in life was to make the papers available to the public. She shows Herzig Yoshinaga working with Nakagawa to organize and ready the collection.
Nakagawa helped Herzig Yoshinaga organize the papers the Herzigs had amassed during their tenure at the Office of Redress Administration, where they helped track down paper trails for former inmates who were not immediately identifiable for a Redress check.

“Initially, they were there as consultants, but because they were so critical in trying to find people, they got hired on,” a Nakagawa said.

Nakagawa added that Herzig Yoshinaga also helped other researchers find files from within her collected documents. The former Rafu Shimpo and Pacific Citizen journalist noted Herzig Yoshinaga’s dedication to her work.

“She’s living on the East Coast. She didn’t sleep very often. She is sending me things at four o’clock in the morning, her time. So she didn’t sleep that much,” Nakagawa said. “She was busy helping people. She photocopied a lot of paper for people. She has a section of letters and people thanking her for sending them their family’s papers or helping them with getting the redress. There’s a lot of letters and I think that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

“I mean, she was a woman who hadn’t gone to college or anything. She was mostly … a secretary,” Omori said. “But here was this brilliant mind that was able to organize all this stuff, so that she could put her finger on something if somebody asked her about something. By golly, she could track it down. She had a good system.”

Omori recalled how the Seattle chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League began looking into the so-called loyalty questionnaire the U.S. government administered in the incarceration camps. Omori said she asked Herzig Yoshinaga for a copy of a questionnaire.

“Well, she sends me several: her own, and one of a ‘no-no boy,’ then she sent me government documentation about that program — just stacks of it,” she said. “I just started reading all that stuff and it was like a revelation, … I looked at all that stuff and I said, ‘Man, nobody knows about any of this!’”

To Tanaka, Herzig Yoshinaga represented a progressive Nisei she wished she had known growing up. She noted her openness and willingness to help others defied the more prevalent attitude of not make waves that other Nisei shared.

“So maybe that’s the life lesson, that you really have to open your eyes to see when there are inequities, whether it’s African American, or Latinos, or any other community,” she said.

The 2021 Films of Remembrance will present “Rebel With a Cause: The Life of Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga” by Janice Tanaka. An online panel discussion moderated by Martha Nakagawa will follow a Saturday, Feb. 20, 1 p.m. PST virtual screening of the film with Tanaka, former California state Assemblyman Warren T. Furutani and artist Nobuko Miyamoto. For more information, visit

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