5 Japanese-American Women Activists Left Out Of U.S. History Books
A herstory lesson about five women whose World War II internment inspired them to action.
This article was adapted from a previous version published by Densho.
From African American activists critical to the 1963 March on Washington to the Japanese American women among the 120,000 wrongly imprisoned by a panic-stricken and—let’s be honest—racist United State government after Pearl Harbor, history has a nasty tendency of suppressing the role women played in major social movements throughout the 20th century.
As an antidote to this historical stifling of strong female voices, here’s a little herstory lesson about five women whose World War II incarceration inspired them to fight back. And no, they don’t care if they’re hurting your stereotypes about quiet, submissive Asian women.
The redress movement owes a lot to Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga. A hardworking single mom, Herzig-Yoshinaga resettled in New York after the war and became assistant director of a public health organization providing, as she put it, “education about venereal diseases.” (They had to call it “social health” though, because, you know, think of the children!)
In the 1960s, she joined Asian Americans for Action (AAA), a group led by lady activists and a few guys down with the struggle, and got involved in the civil rights movement, and protests against the Vietnam War. Then in 1978, Herzig-Yoshinaga moved to Washington, D.C. She dove headfirst into the National Archives—working 50-60 hour weeks—cataloging information on the wartime incarceration. As lead researcher of the investigation into the camps, she uncovered evidence disproving government claims of “military necessity.” Her findings were the foundation of the report leading to the redress bill, as well as the coram nobis cases that overturned convictions for challenging the exclusion.
Michi Nishiura Weglyn, author of Years of Infamy, was fifteen when her family was “evacuated” to Gila River. Not one to let the Man get her down, Wedlyn spent her time in camp heading her high school’s Forensics League, winning awards for writing and public speaking, and organizing young women’s associations. She left camp to major in biology (and minor in pioneering for women in STEM), but her education was cut short when she contracted tuberculosis.
After moving to New York and winning acclaim as a costume designer for the Perry Como Show, Weglyn devoted herself to researching the “untold story” of the concentration camps. In 1975, she published what came to be known as “the bible of the redress movement.” Her book exposed prejudice and misinformation as the driving forces behind the incarceration, and bolstered support for the growing movement. She later turned her attention to Japanese Latin Americans and others who had been denied reparations, advocating on their behalf well into the 1990s.
3. Aki Kurose
Aki Kurose: social justice advocate, award-winning teacher of “math, science and peace,” and all-around amazing human being. Growing up in a diverse (and red-lined) neighborhood of Seattle, Kurose was encouraged by her parents to challenge stereotypes and aspire to more than changing diapers and sweeping floors.
Upon returning to Seattle after the war, Kurose worked for an interethnic porter’s union. Then, after some firsthand experience with discriminatory “sorry, it’s been sold already” realtors, she became involved in the open housing movement. In the 1970s she began teaching, and was soon transferred to an affluent, essentially all-white school as part of the district’s desegregation plan. Kurose managed to do her job despite having to put up with the criticism and surveillance of racist “concerned” parents. She helped integrate students of color into the school, pushed other teachers to adopt multicultural education, and generally killed it in the classroom. She received the United Nations Human Rights Award in 1992.
Best known for her friendship with Malcolm X (and the famous photo of her kneeling over him after he was assassinated), Yuri Kochiyama was a revolutionary in her own right. Her relatively privileged childhood came to an abrupt end when her father was arrested by the FBI immediately after Pearl Harbor. After six weeks in detention, which aggravated existing health conditions, Kochiyama’s father died upon his release. Imprisoned in Jerome, Arkansas, during the war, she relocated to New York with her family and adopted increasingly radical political views as she became active in Asian Americans for Action (AAA) and other civil rights organizations.
Kochiyama came into contact with the civil rights movement through Malcolm X, and she continued to work with black nationalist groups well past his 1965 assassination—supporting political prisoners and building coalitions between black and Asian American activists. She also advocated for nuclear disarmament, an end to the Vietnam War, Japanese American redress, Puerto Rican independence, and many other issues until her death in 2014. Rest in power, Sister Yuri.
Cherry Kinoshita spent a lot of time in dude-centric spaces. Often times she was the only woman in the room, but she had no problem holding her own, even when her colleagues made fun of her for being all emotional and womanish or whatever.
A former Minidoka inmate, she returned to Seattle with her husband after the war and joined the local Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). She was chapter president by the time the redress movement began to gain steam in the 1970s (and would go on to serve as vice governor for the Northwest district and vice president of the JACL’s national board). Cherry helped get the grassroots movement off the ground, took the lead in preparing the community for the CWRIC hearings, and was heavily involved in lobbying for redress and reparations—all while facing opposition from those who said dredging up the incarceration history would only cause trouble. Oh, and in her spare time she ran a successful campaign to force the Seattle school district to compensate Nikkei clerks they’d fired in response to Pearl Harbor.
Nina Wallace wrote this article for Densho. Nina has a B.A. in English and philosophy from Seattle University and is Densho’s special projects coordinator.