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"Destructive Force": Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga's Gendered Labor in the Japanese American Redress Movement

From: Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies
Volume 24, Number 1, 2003
pp. 38-60 | 10.1353/fro.2003.0017

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Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 24.1 (2003) 38-60

In recent years, scholars have significantly deepened our understanding of the instrumental role of women in political movements. As these studies have pointed out, gendered narratives of struggle have often limited the ways in which women's work is perceived as contributing to these efforts. Especially when this labor is not visible to outsiders, their crucial contributions have often gone underacknowledged, as when women act as informal organizers, as the bridges between differing sectors of a movement, or when they perform "support" functions.

This article explores the labor of one such woman, activist Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, who played a vital role in the national movement for Japanese American redress in the 1980s and 1990s. Her discovery of previously unknown factual evidence and, crucially, her ability to recreate and document the "paper trail" leading to and contextualizing this factual evidence for others prompted one opposing lawyer to call her a "destructive force." Her efforts were essential in the redress campaign that decisively shattered the image of government benevolence and innocence in the World War II exclusion and incarceration of the West Coast's Japanese American population. The article that follows will discuss how her involvement was shaped by previous experiences in political struggles, and, significantly, by her decades of experience as a clerical worker, a field which has been a largely female occupation in the post-World War II era.

Because of her involvement in the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s and 1970s, Herzig-Yoshinaga became curious about what information the government had collected on her and her family, both from the wartime years when she had been incarcerated on the basis of her Japanese ancestry, and from more recent decades. She discovered that while contemporary records were generally not available, information on the wartime exclusion and incarceration was publicly accessible. Upon her formal retirement in 1978, she dove into this vast sea of records, and began to systematically retrieve and catalog items she found significant. Shortly thereafter, she joined an organization that eventually brought a $27 billion class-action lawsuit against the government. In 1981, a congressional commission charged with investigating the wartime treatment of Japanese Americans and indigenous Aleuts recognized her expertise, hiring her as the coordinator of research with the title of research associate.

The catalog she developed and the documents it indexed became the core of the commission's evidentiary base. Shortly after joining the commission, she assisted a separate, independent effort to obtain evidence showing that in winning their wartime legal cases, Justice Department lawyers had perpetrated a fraud upon the Supreme Court. Late in 1982, after examining hundreds of thousands of pages of documents, she found irrefutable proof that the U.S. Army had knowingly lied about the "military necessity" of Japanese American exclusion and incarceration.

In addition to her document-finding and retrieval abilities, Herzig-Yoshinaga was also able to provide detailed documentary evidence that government officials had knowingly engaged in deliberately planned illegal actions. The prompt and comprehensive provision of this vital evidence was a critical factor in shaping the commission's authoritative report documenting and denouncing the government's wartime conduct, and the recommendations that an apology and monetary redress were due those who had been incarcerated. She later also provided the majority of the archival evidence in the suits that destroyed the legal underpinnings of the cases used by the government during the war to legitimize the exclusion and incarceration.

To explore these issues at greater length, I will begin by profiling Herzig-Yoshinaga's personal and professional background prior to 1978, and then will introduce a brief discussion on clerical labor to contextualize her work during the redress campaign. Next, her critical contribution to this political struggle will be dealt with in detail. I will argue that her work in this movement was deeply informed by her long experience as a skilled clerical worker and that this was crucial to the success of the redress campaign. By doing so, I hope to join a growing number of scholars who have charted the specific ways women have participated in political movements, and how their experiences and strategies...

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