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5 Japanese-American Women Activists Excluded From US History Books

A history lesson about five women whose internment during World War II inspired them to action.

This article has been adapted from a previous version published by Densho.

From African American activists critical of the 1963 March on Washington to Japanese American women among the 120,000 wrongfully imprisoned by a panicked and – let’s be honest – racist United States government after Pearl Harbor, the story has a unfortunate tendency to suppress the role of women played in the great social movements throughout the 20th century.

As an antidote to this historic stifling of loud female voices, here’s a little history lesson on five women whose incarceration during World War II inspired them to fight back. And no, they don’t care if they hurt your stereotypes of calm, submissive Asian women.


Screenshot of Densho’s Densho High School Diploma Denied.

The turnaround movement owes a lot to Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga. A hardworking single mother, Herzig-Yoshinaga resettled in New York after the war and became deputy director of a public health organization providing, as she put it, “education in venereal disease.” (They must have called it “social health”, because, you know, think of the children!)

In the 1960s, she joined Asian Americans for Action (AAA), a group led by women activists and a few men in struggle, and became 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 to 60 hours a week — cataloging information about wartime incarceration. As the principal investigator of the Camps Inquiry, she uncovered evidence disproving the government’s claims of “military necessity”. Its findings served as the basis for the report leading to the Redress Bill, as well as the coram nobis cases that overturned convictions for challenging exclusion.


Photo courtesy of Densho and Richard Marshall.

Michi Nishiura Weglyn, author of years of infamy, was fifteen when his family was “evacuated” to the Gila River. Not one to let the man put him down, Wedlyn spent his time at camp leading his high school’s Forensic League, winning awards for writing and public speaking, and organizing charities. young women. She left camp to major in biology (and minored in pioneering for women in STEM), but her studies were cut short when she contracted tuberculosis.

After moving to New York and gaining acclaim as a costume designer for the Perry Come Show, Weglyn devoted herself to researching the “untold story” of the concentration camps. In 1975 she published what has been called “the bible of the reparation movement”. His book exposed bias and misinformation as drivers of incarceration and built 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.


Photo from the Densho Kurose collection.

Aki Kurose: social justice advocate, award-winning teacher of “math, science and peace” and extraordinary 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 change diapers and sweep floors.

Upon returning to Seattle after the war, Kurose worked for an interethnic porters’ union. Then, after first-hand experience with discriminatory “sorry it’s already sold” estate agents, she got involved in the open housing movement. In the 1970s, she began teaching and was soon transferred to an affluent, mostly all-white school as part of the district’s desegregation plan. Kurose managed to do his job despite criticism and scrutiny from “worried” racist parents. She helped integrate students of color into the school, pushed other teachers to embrace a multicultural education, and generally killed her in the classroom. She received the United Nations Human Rights Award in 1992.


Kochiyama family photo.

Best known for her friendship with Malcolm X (and the famous photo of her kneeling on him after his assassination), 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 worsened existing health conditions, Kochiyama’s father died upon his release. Imprisoned in Jerome, Arkansas, during the war, she moved to New York with her family and embraced increasingly radical political views as she became active in Asian Americans for Action (AAA) and other grassroots organizations. defense of civil rights.

Kochiyama came into contact with the civil rights movement through Malcolm X, and she continued to work with black nationalist groups long after her assassination in 1965, supporting political prisoners and building coalitions between black and Asian Americans. She also advocated for nuclear disarmament, an end to the Vietnam War, Japanese American reparations, independence for Puerto Rico, and many other issues until her death in 2014. Rest in Power, Sister Yuri.


Photo courtesy of Densho.

Cherry Kinoshita has spent a lot of time in guy-centric spaces. Often she was the only woman in the room, but she had no problem standing up for herself, even when her co-workers made fun of her for being emotional and feminine 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 when the recourse movement began to gain momentum in the 1970s (and later served as vice-governor of the Northwest District and vice-chairman of the board of national administration of the JACL). Cherry helped get the grassroots movement off the ground, took the lead in preparing the community for CWRIC hearings, and was heavily involved in lobbying for redress and redress, all while facing opposition from those who said that the incarceration story would only cause problems. . Oh, and in her spare time, she ran a successful campaign to force the Seattle School District to compensate Nikkei employees they had fired in response to Pearl Harbor.

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Nina Wallace

is a yonsei (fourth-generation Japanese-American) who writes, researches, and speaks about the history of current times, both online and in IRL. She is the Communications Coordinator at Densho, a Seattle-based nonprofit that preserves and shares the stories of Japanese American incarceration during World War II through open-access digital archives, resources educational and public dialogue. In her work at Densho and beyond, Nina is passionate about empowering youth leadership and preventing the physical and cultural erasure of historically marginalized communities.