Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga is a Nisei (2nd generation) Japanese American born in 1925 in Los Angeles. She was incarcerated at Manzanar, California, and later Jerome and Rohwer, Arkansas. In the 1980s, working as the primary archival researcher for the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, she discovered documents that led to the federal congressional commission’s recommendation of a presidential apology and monetary redress for surviving Japanese American detainees. In this interview excerpt, she describes the confusion and stress of having to pack for immediate “evacuation” from the military zones declared on the West Coast in early 1942. People destroyed family treasures that tied them culturally to Japan, and with as little as a week’s notice, they were forced to sell belongings for a fraction of their value.
EO: So tell me, now, about having to move. How long did you have, and what did you decide to take, and how did you dispose of things?
AH: Oh. I was all of seventeen years old, ready to graduate high school, madly in love with this young Nisei man, a young man, who lived on the other side of town, other side of Los Angeles. We were all frantic about where each one of us would be moving to. Los Angeles was a big area, it was divided into different sections. Certain areas would be, were told they would be going somewhere, no name, but a certain section of, inland. And therefore, since the army did not notify each family exactly where they would be going, what kind of weather they would be encountering, or exactly when they would be moving, efforts within the, each family started to roll, to get rid of, to sell or to store their household goods. And then trying to separate out what they thought they would need and what they thought they could either store or sell. It was a hectic, frantic time for all the Japanese families. In our family, my father, as a matter of fact, destroyed all of his Japanese language books because rumors spread that if the FBI came to your home and found Japanese language books, your father or uncle, or mother would be taken away and fear just gripped the community over things like that. My father destroyed almost all of his Japanese language books, including a book that he had written — he had a number of copies of a autobiography my sister said he had written. Also, he had been carrying around the ashes of one of my sisters, a half-sister, and my mother told me many, many years later that he had buried those ashes in the backyard of our home in Los Angeles. She didn’t know where, what part of the yard. I’ve often thought of going back to that house, but I didn’t know how to approach the occupant of the house to ask if I could dig up his backyard to look for the ashes of my sister my father had buried fifty years ago. [Laughs] So I’ve never done it. But I’ve passed in front of the house a couple of times, and wondered what could I do.
EO: And he had her ashes because — why, why was he carrying her ashes around?
AH: I’m not sure. You know, I think that he thought perhaps — she was born in Japan — and I have a feeling he had hoped one day to take her ashes back to Japan. Either that or he was waiting for, to get settled someplace, in say, southern California, where he could feel, this is where we’re going to set our roots, place our roots, and perhaps get our family plot, and bury her there. But I have a feeling it was that he was planning to take her ashes back to Japan.
EO: Did they bury anything? They burned these books. Did you leave anything else? I mean, where, what did you do with your things?
AH: Oh, all right. Many families owned their homes, so they had a lot more problems in terms of their economic situation and property. We were so poor, we didn’t own the home, we were renting, so that, that was not as big a problem for us. Our problem was what to take, what to destroy, what to sell. And the neighbors, the persons, the non-Japanese who were not moving, being asked to move, knew that the shorter time we had to leave, the more willing we would be to lower our prices. So there were “vultures” all around, hanging around for days, waiting for the day that we would move, and that we would literally have to give things away. My mother, of course, had some small items, beautiful little dishes from Japan, and I think some heirlooms that she decided to sell — brooches, obitome — things like that that I, I know that she had to get rid of, to sell, because she felt we must take what is absolutely necessary as long as we were permitted to take only what we could carry, at the time. And I have heard many stories of mothers who were so furious at the insulting prices that were offered by buyers, that they rather, rather than sell them at these prices, they would break the dishes or the big platters that they cherished so much. I believe those who left for the camps early on did not have the opportunity, or the knowledge at the time, or the permission by the government, that they could store some things. That kind of information came later on and those who moved into these army-run assembly centers later on, say, June, July, they were told that they could store some things. So many of those families were able to keep household goods, furnitures, where those of us who left very early could not do that. I myself — yes?
EO: At whose expense?
AH: The furniture could be stored sometimes in Buddhist churches, or community centers. The government itself offered in certain areas to store the furniture, but with a caveat: you store them at your own expense, at your own risk. And, of course, as, when many folks went back to that area later on, they found their homes and property vandalized, broken, stolen.
Source: Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, interview, March 20, 1994, San Francisco, California. From Densho Digital Archive, http://www.densho.org/. Interviewers: Emiko Omori, Chizu Omori, segment 5, denshovh-haiko-02–0005 (accessed October 14, 2009).
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