Tule Lake was the crucible for Japanese American resistance to incarceration during World War II, where thousands of Japanese Americans met America's betrayal of their hopes and dreams with anger, defiance and rejection.
Tule Lake was the largest and most conflict-ridden of the ten War Relocation Authority WRA camps used to carry out the government’s system of exclusion and detention of persons of Japanese descent, mandated by Executive Order 9066. The Order, which eliminated the constitutional protections of due process and violated the Bill of Rights, was issued February 19, 1942, following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Two-thirds of the 120,000 persons of Japanese descent incarcerated in American concentration camps were American citizens, an act that culminated decades of anti-Japanese violence, discrimination and propaganda.
Tule Lake opened May 26, 1942, detaining persons of Japanese descent removed from western Washington, Oregon and Northern California. With a peak population of 18,700, Tule Lake was the largest of the camps - the only one converted into a maximum-security segregation center, ruled under martial law and occupied by the Army. Due to turmoil and strife, Tule Lake was the last to close, on March 28, 1946.
Tule Lake Becomes a High-Security Segregation Center
Tule Lake became a Segregation Center to imprison Japanese-Americans deemed potential enemies of America because of their response to an infamous, misguided loyalty questionnaire intended to distinguish loyal American citizens from enemy alien supporters of Japan. As a method to separate the loyal from the disloyal, the questionnaire asked two clumsily worded questions. The questions, number 27 and 28, caused sharp conflicts and division within each camp, and led to agonizing turmoil within many families. This questionnaire became known as the loyalty review program, which initiated the most wrenching and divisive crisis of the entire incarceration, and led to creation of the high-security, conflict-ridden Tule Lake Segregation Center.
Question 27 asked, “Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?” Question 28 asked, “Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or any other foreign government, power, or organization?”
Inmates stewed over the questionnaire with a combination of resentment, confusion and suspicion. If its purpose was to determine loyalty, why had it not been given earlier in the Army’s temporary concentration camps? Inmates puzzled over the meaning of the wording, wondering if a “yes” to 27 meant that the respondent was volunteering. Were they being asked to fight for freedom and democracy while their families remained imprisoned without cause? Was 28 a trick question, with a “yes” implying the respondent was, at some time, loyal to the emperor? For the Issei, who were legally defined as “aliens ineligible for citizenship,” would a “yes” leave them stateless? Could the government be asking for their unqualified allegiance after smearing all persons of Japanese descent with mistrust and suspicion?
After mistreatment, discriminatory laws, forced eviction and imprisonment, a loyalty litmus test seemed cruel and perverse. Each person of Japanese descent was challenged to swallow their anger and humiliation at such unfair treatment. Many could not and either refused to register or answered the loyalty questions “no-no.” Refusal to fill out the questionnaire was defined as disloyalty. “No” responses were treated as proof of disloyalty. If one gave “yes” answers but wrote in qualifying comments like, “if my family is freed” or “if our rights are returned,” such qualifiers were treated as evidence of disloyalty.
At Tule Lake, hundreds of young men resisted the demand they respond to Questions 27 and 28. Threatened with violating the Espionage Act, $10,000 fines and 20 years in prison, protesters were imprisoned in County jails in Alturas and Klamath Falls, and removed to the Camp Tulelake CCC camp, where protesters feared harm from trigger-happy guards armed with machine guns.
Refusal to answer or “No” answers were viewed as proof of disloyalty, and resulted in removal to Tule Lake, which became the Segregation Center because it had the highest proportion of persons who answered “No” to 27 and 28. The Japanese American Citizens League harshly condemned “No-Nos” as disloyal troublemakers, believing the situation demanded a strong show of loyalty to America.
The Army had hoped to recruit 3,500 men from the WRA camps to serve in the segregated all-Nisei combat unit. Only 1,181 volunteered. From Tule Lake, only 57 inmates volunteered to enlist in the Army. Many did volunteer or enlist in the military before 1942, but were discharged after Pearl Harbor or reclassified as 4-C, “enemy aliens.” Now they and their families were locked up indefinitely. Why should they volunteer, many wondered?
In Hawaii, where there was no mass incarceration, the Army expected 1,500 volunteers. Nearly 10,000 Japanese Americans quickly volunteered - ultimately forming the Nisei l00/442nd Regimental Combat Team, distinguished as the most decorated unit of its size in U.S. military history. Some 33,000 Japanese Americans served in the military during World War II, including 2,800 Nisei who were drafted while imprisoned in American concentration camps.
Tule Lake Segregation Center
The idea for a separate segregation center arose after the loyalty questionnaire, because of pressure from a Senate Committee, DeWitt, the War Department and the Japanese American Citizens League. On July 15, 1943, Tule Lake - which, of the 10 WRA camps imprisoned the largest number of inmates categorized as “disloyal” - was named the segregation center for those who refused to register or answered the loyalty questions “no-no.”
Security at Tule Lake was increased with a battalion of 1,000 military police. Tanks rolled in, and an eight-foot high double “man-proof” fence was constructed around the maximum-security facility. During the fall of 1943, thousands of prisoners were transferred into and out of Tule Lake. Ultimately, some 12,000 “no-no’s,” including their family members were transferred to Tule Lake. About 6,500 were sent to other camps and 6,000 pre-segregation Tuleans remained. Some refused to answer the loyalty oath or responded “no-no.” Others did not want to make another grueling move due to sick or aging family members, or wanted to remain and keep their family together. Some did not want to give up jobs and the little security they had for an uncertain future in a new camp.
After segregation, Tule Lake became a very complicated prison camp with inmates from different camps. With more than 18,700 people crowded into a camp built for 15,000, Tule Lake Segregation Center became the largest of the ten WRA camps. Additional barracks were constructed for 1,800 Manzanar inmates who were not segregated until early spring 1944. In late spring, contingents from Colorado River, Rohwer, and Jerome arrived and were assigned to the leftover housing and less desirable jobs. Tempers were short and frustrations were high.
At other WRA camps, many of those defined as loyal were being released, while Tule Lake became a repressive, high-security prison filled with the dissatisfied. Many were disillusioned Issei who, because of the 1924 Japanese Exclusion Act, were not allowed to become U.S. Citizens and opted to repatriate to Japan, deciding they had enough of America’s racism. Others were angered by their unjust treatment as second-class citizens and used the loyalty questions as a form of non-violent protest. Many were spouses or family members who did not want to be separated from their head of household.
Repression and Resistance at Tule Lake
Squalid housing and sanitation, unsafe working conditions, and inadequate food and medical care at the Tule Lake Segregation Center led to increasing dissatisfaction. The Center was soon wracked by work stoppages, labor disputes and demonstrations. On November 1, 1943, a crowd estimated at 5,000 to 10,000 inmates gathered near the administration area to show interest and support for camp leaders meeting with WRA administrators. The mass gathering of Japanese Americans alarmed the Caucasian staff and led to construction of a barbed wire fence to separate the colony from the WRA administrative personnel. The Army was poised to take over the camp in case of trouble, with tanks lined up in a display of potential force. On November 4, 1943, disputes over truckloads of food taken from the warehouse led to the Army takeover of the camp. Martial law was imposed and was continued until January 15, 1944.
The imposition of martial law and the sweep of Tule Lake's popularly elected leaders into a military stockade led to questions of what future Japanese Americans had in a country that showed so little regard for them? Within days of martial law ending, in what seemed a perverse test of how much government hypocrisy would be endured, the Army began issuing draft notices. At Tule Lake, 27 inmates resisted notice to report for their physicals and were put on trial for violating the Selective Service Act. U.S. District Judge Louis Goodman dismissed the charges against Tule Lake's draft resisters, and in his July 1944 opinion, United States v. Masaaki Kuwabara, expressed outrage. "It is shocking to the conscience that an American citizen be confined on the ground of disloyalty and then, while so under duress and restraint, be compelled to serve in the armed forces, or be prosecuted for not yielding to such compulsion." The draft resisters were released and returned to captivity in Tule Lake.
Dorey Nomiyama 2012
Perhaps the most tragic and divisive issue was created when Public Law 405 was passed by Congress and signed by President Roosevelt on July 1, 1944. This law, directed at Japanese Americans in Tule Lake, permitted an American citizen to renounce their citizenship in wartime.
Passage of the renunciation law began one of the saddest and least known chapters of Japanese American history. Of the 5,589 Japanese Americans who renounced their U.S. citizenship, 5,461 were detained at Tule Lake, where 70% of all adult American citizens there renounced. At Tule Lake, 73% of families had at least one member who gave up their citizenship. Of that group, 1,327 of them, including young children, were expatriated to Japan. Most renunciants remained in the U.S. stripped of their citizenship, as powerless Native American Aliens.
The stampede to renounce took place in late December 1944, after it was announced detention was ending and the camps would be closing. The prison-like Segregation Center was swept up in panic, anger and confusion.
Motives for renouncing varied widely. Many inmates feared they would be forced into hostile American communities with no money, no promise of income and no place to live. Army personnel told them they could remain safe in Tule Lake until the war ended if they renounced their U.S. citizenship. Second generation Nisei and Kibei, both children and adults, described intense pressure from their non-citizen Issei parents to renounce U.S. citizenship as a strategy to keep the family together in case the Issei were deported to Japan after the war.
Rumors, speculation, and the lack of trusted sources of information gave inmates little basis for making an informed decision about the future. Some believed propaganda heard over contraband short-wave radios; they dismissed news of Allied victories as lies and thought that they needed to renounce U.S. citizenship to prepare for life in a victorious Japan. Some remembered pro-Japan extremists who behaved like agent provocateurs, pressuring others to renounce but not doing so themselves. Teenagers and young adults who were classified by the Army as 4-C, enemy aliens, renounced to avoid being drafted by the country that imprisoned them and their families. For people with no legal forums available to them, renouncing was a way to protest America’s shabby treatment of them and their families.
The Tragic Aftermath
When the war ended, the tragedy of the renunciants became apparent when the Justice Department prepared for mass deportation of the thousands who renounced. The renunciants had little understanding of what they gave up, or that they would become enemy aliens who could be legally expelled. Nearly all of the renunciants eventually sought restoration of their citizenship, including those who expatriated to Japan.
Most regained their citizenship primarily due to the heroic but little-known efforts of Wayne Mortimer Collins, a civil rights attorney from San Francisco. In Collins' class action case, Abo v. Clark, decided by U.S. District Judge Louis Goodman, Judge Goodman decided the renunciants' citizenship should be restored because the renunciations took place under duress, and voided the renunciations and restored citizenship to those who sought to reclaim it. However, the U.S. Department of Justice appealed the decision and Collins wound up fighting for over 20 years to help former renunciants regain their citizenship.
Although absolved by the government, Japanese Americans who answered the loyalty questionnaire “No” and those who renounced their U.S. citizenship were stigmatized and ostracized for their choices. The renunciants, along with draft resisters, were condemned at the 1946 National JACL convention, which led to decades of them being marginalized for wartime choices. Consequently, they speak little about their life in the Segregation Center, a topic filled with powerful feelings of stigma and shame.
At the end of World War II, Japanese Americans faced rebuilding their lives. The Issei (first generation) had to start again after losing almost everything. Nisei (second generation) were raising families and starting careers in a still hostile post-war environment. In the 1960's, Sansei (third generation) joined other people of color in the Civil Rights movement and the quest to learn our suppressed histories through ethnic studies. In this way, many Sansei learned their families had spent WWII in American concentration camps.
As awareness of the wrongfulness of the incarceration grew, a movement developed to gain an apology and redress from the U.S. government. Students, community activists, and former inmates organized the first Tule Lake Pilgrimage in 1974 to build support for redress through educating the larger community. Japanese American community activism succeeded in getting the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 (CLA) passed, and survivors received an official apology, token $20,000 payments, and a promise to fund education about the incarceration to deter future violations.
The government's apology and redress transformed the experience of Japanese Americans from one tinged with shame and guilt over wrongful imprisonment, to one of hope and renewal. The story does not end, however, with a Presidential apology and a redress payment. The most important legacy of redress is the continuing need to educate future generations to ensure that the principles embodied in the Constitution are more than empty words on a piece of paper.
Text is drawn from Tule Lake Revisited: A Brief History and Guide to the Tule Lake Concentration Camp Site, Second Edition, by Barbara Takei and Judy Tachibana. Published by the Tule Lake Committee, 2012.