Tule Lake was the largest and most controversial 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 turned into a high-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 detain Japanese-Americans who were deemed potential enemies of America because of their response to an infamous, confusing loyalty questionnaire intended to distinguish loyal American citizens from enemy alien supporters of Japan. 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?
“No-Nos” gave negative responses to Questions 27 and 28 or refused to answer them. Some answered “No” to protest their incarceration; others were confused about what the questions meant. 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 troublemakers, believing the situation demanded a strong show of loyalty to America.
Martial Law Declared 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 staff. The Army was poised to take over the camp in case of trouble. On November 4, 1943, disputes over truckloads of food taken from the warehouse led to the Army takeover of the camp using machine guns and tanks. Martial law was imposed and was continued until January 15, 1944.
Motives for Renouncing Complex
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 who convinced the federal courts that the renunciants citizenship should be restored because the renunciations took place under extreme duress and amidst impossibly difficult circumstances. Collins wound up fighting the Department of Justice over 20 years to help former renunciants reclaim their citizenship. Congress and President Nixon repealed the renunciation law in 1971.
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 a U.S. concentration camp.
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. The July 2010 pilgrimage will mark the 18th pilgrimage organized by the volunteer efforts of the Tule Lake Committee.
The Redress Movement succeeded in getting the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 (CLA) passed. The Act offered an official apology, funded education about the incarceration as a deterrent to future violations, and authorized a ten-year program of token $20,000 payments to most concentration camp survivors. Not all those wronged received redress. After 20 years, both the compensation and the education mandate of the CLA remain unfulfilled. Thus, this longstanding campaign for justice is entering a new phase. Additional legislation is being submitted this year to redress those individuals the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 failed to cover and to reinstitute the education fund. Lawsuits against U.S. government regarding these issues are also still pending. Education, action, and your support are still needed.