5 Bad Ass Japanese American Women Activists You Probably Didn’t Learn About in History Class

Since history tends to sideline the central role so many women played in the major social movements of the 20th century, here’s a little herstory lesson about five women warriors whose incarceration during World War II inspired them to fight back–some more widely known than others, all supremely talented and fierce activists who nuh care if them hurt hurt hurting your stereotypes about quiet, submissive Asian women.

1. Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga

AikoHerzig-YoshinagaThe redress movement owes a lot to Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga. A hardworking single mom, after the war she resettled in New York, where she 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, cuz, 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 bros down with the struggle, and got involved in the Civil Rights Movement and protests against the Vietnam War. Aiko remarried and moved to Washington, D.C. in 1978, and 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. “You’re welcome” — Aiko, probably.

2. Michi Nishiura Weglyn

en-denshopd-p245-00001-1_1Michi 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, Michi 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, Michi devoted herself to researching the “untold story” of the concentration camps. (Spoiler alert: it was racist!) In 1975, she published what would come to be known as the “Bible of the Redress Movement,” exposing prejudice and misinformation as the driving forces behind the incarceration, and bolstering 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

ddr-densho-104-2-mezzanine-18dd147b66-aThis is 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, from a young age she 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, she worked for an interethnic porter’s union and, after some firsthand experience with discriminatory, “Sorry, it’s been sold already” realtors, became involved in CORE and the open housing movement. She began teaching in the 1970s and was soon transferred to an affluent, essentially all-white school as part of the district’s desegregation plan. Aki somehow managed to do her job despite having to put up with the criticism and literal surveillance of racist “concerned” parents, helping to integrate students of color being bused in, pushing other teachers to adopt multicultural education, and generally killing it in the classroom. She received the United Nations Human Rights Award in 1992.

4. Yuri Kochiyama

blackedout-yuriBest known for her friendship with Malcolm X (and that famous photo), 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 mere hours after Pearl Harbor and, after six weeks of detention that aggravated existing health conditions, died upon his release. Imprisoned in Jerome during the war, she relocated to New York with her family and adopted an increasingly radical political view as she became active in Asian Americans for Action and other civil rights organizations.  She came into contact with the movement through Malcolm, but Yuri continued to work with Black nationalist groups well past his 1965 assassination, supporting political prisoners and building coalitions between Black and Asian American activists, in addition to advocating for nuclear disarmament, an end to the Vietnam War, Japanese American redress, Puerto Rican independence, and many, many other issues until her death in 2014. Rest in power, Sister Yuri.

5. Cherry Kinoshita

CherryKinoshitaCherry Kinoshita spent a lot of time in the kind of dude-centric spaces where she’d often be the only woman in the room — and had exactly zero problems 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 grass roots 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 drudging 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.

By Nina Wallace, Densho Special Projects Coordinator

    • 16/03/2016 at 15:32

    Brava! One person you missed who preceded Aiko and Yuri is Kazu Iijima, who founded Triple A that Aiko and Yuri were members and who Yuri called “the most informative and compelling Asian American woman on the East Coast.” See Serve the People: Making Asian America in the Long Sixties pp 91-94 for just a taste of what Kazu was about.

    • 16/03/2016 at 22:44

    Yuri was my mentors mentor. She detailed us to work with Malcolm X’s grandson and challenged us to participate in The Jericho Movement for political prisoners, the Reparations movement, Mumia Abu Jamal’s release and the anti-war organization Not in My Name. She represents the best of this country.

    • 06/03/2017 at 16:34

    I would like to remember and honor Sachiko Nakamura here. She was a child at Manzanar, grew up to become politically active in the Bay Area, and was a wonderful performer and creator of theater works. She was also startlingly funny.

    • 20/03/2017 at 7:52

    While recently going through my files on redress and Manzanar, I had the pleasure of re-reading dozens of old notes and letters from the extraordinary Michi Weglyn. Michi was one of the most gracious and generous of sources for this journalist. Even in her later years, she always gave of her time and energy to help me and others with insights and information on the camps. In many ways, her spirit lives on.

    • 06/03/2018 at 5:28

    The portraits of these brave women who worked diligently for social justice for their families, oppression of Japanese people, though never fully discouraged. Slowly, year after year their courage came from their hearts & minds, knowing that good was to come in many forms: jobs, family reunification, health & so much more justice for their
    segregated ethnicity. The struggle must continue. We are all here for the long haul & must pass on our knowledge, love & power, change for the good for all human kind. Thank you for these strong women, I want to read more about their lives to rise above oppression, find freedom & liberation for all who move on that path.

    • 10/03/2020 at 18:11

    Michi Weglyn and my aunt, Ruby Yoshino Schaar, were friends and led the NY JACL in the redress movement. Aunt Ruby was an aspiring , trained, opera singer at the time of the war. Instead of being sent to one camp, she was sent to all the camps, to entertain, the prisoners. We found pictures of her at the bedside of a nisei soldier at Walter Reed Hispital in DC, where she had performed. We did not know this until a few years ago, when my husband found the information, accidentally on-line.

    • 04/03/2021 at 19:43

    While waiting for the Tule Lake Pilgrimage bus to load, an elderly lady approached my husband and me.
    She introduced herself as Mary Nakahara and was interested in us since we were also Nakaharas. My first impression was that she was a nice quiet, grandmotherly lady. So I was shocked when at the Pilgrimage, she strode purposefully down the aisle, went onto the stage and transformed into the fiery Yuri Kochiyama!

    • 04/03/2021 at 23:18

    The one woman who played a role that tops them all is MITSUYE ENDO. If we don’t know why, we have not learned the most important Constitutional lesson regarding the Relocation Camps. Mitsue Endo’s case in the Supreme Court focused on the “writ of habeas corpus,” with her formal request of charges for incarceration. Her case, when finally heard, was decisive and unanimous, and was the primary reason the camps were swiftly brought to a halt. It freed us all. She was not a fearsome champion, but in her quiet manner became the spearhead for destiny..

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