NVC Newsletter

Tule Lake: A Troubling Chapter in American History

by Stan Shikuma
March 2019, Volume 69, Issue 3

[Editor’s Note: Stan Shikuma will give a presentation on Tule Lake: Resistance and Reconciliation at the next NVCF Speaker Series on April 27.]

Tule Lake was one of ten American concentration camps set up by the War Relocation Authority to confine over 120,000 Japanese Americans during WW II. It was designed to hold 12,000 people in 1942, mainly drawn from the Sacramento area of California, rural portions of Oregon, and all of Western Washington outside of Seattle and Bainbridge Island. Tule Lake was later expanded to house 15,000, but the population swelled to nearly 19,000 after Segregation in late 1943.

In February 1943, the US Army began to administer a questionnaire to draft age Nisei to determine if they were loyal to the US and therefore fit to serve in the US military. The WRA decided to adapt the same questionnaire and make it mandatory for all incarcerated Japanese Americans over age 17 – male and female, Issei and Nisei. This became known informally as the “Loyalty Questionnaire” and was supposed to determine who was “loyal” and “disloyal” to the US.

The two key questions were #27, asking if you were willing to serve in the armed forces wherever ordered, and #28, asking you to swear allegiance to the United States and foreswear allegiance to the Emperor of Japan. 84% answered Yes-Yes, but 16% had a problem with one or both questions. Their responses ranged from refusing to fill out the entire questionnaire, to answering Yes-No or No-Yes or No-No, to qualifying their “Yes” answer (e.g. with a “but only when…” or “if you will…” clause), to simply leaving the question blank. More than 12,000 people or about 10% of the Japanese American population in all of the camps, answered in one of these ways. All became known as “No-Nos” though only about half actually gave those exact answers.

All 12,000+ were labeled “disloyal” by the government and sent to Tule Lake, now re-designated as the Tule Lake Segregation Center. Here dissenters from 9 other camps were mixed together with roughly 6,000 original Tule Lake residents, most of whom were “Yes-Yes” but had refused to move to another camp. Tule Lake experienced much discord and discontent after this, with hundreds being arrested and beaten by guards, dozens being removed and sent to Department of Justice camps elsewhere, and over 5000 renouncing their US citizenship in anger or fear.

Security was increased by adding 20 new guard towers in addition to the original 6 towers around the camp perimeter along with a second barbed-wire fence. The “no man’s land” between the two fences was patrolled by armed guards mounted on horseback, and a battalion of 1000 soldiers, complete with armed jeeps and several tanks, was assigned to guard the compound. In essence, Tule Lake Segregation Center became a maximum-security prison.

Many of those who were labeled as “disloyal” and called “No-No Boys” were protesting or resisting unjust treatment at the hands of the government. Many were angry over the loss of their homes, farms, and businesses. Others were frustrated by living conditions in the camp. Some were afraid their families would be separated if they gave different answers, so followed the lead of the head of household. A few were discouraged or exasperated by their loss of freedom and felt they would be better off in Japan.

Whatever their reasons, all would pay a price. Many to this day will not talk about their decisions or what they experienced at Tule Lake. Most have felt ostracized and looked down upon within their own Japanese American community. Their stories are in danger of being lost forever.

It is time to hear these stories. We do not need to agree with everyone’s decisions or actions from within the barbed wire, but it is important that we know them. Our history is incomplete without them. And the government narrative of black and white, “loyal” and “disloyal”, will go unchallenged; their use of the same simplistic answers to complex questions will be repeated. If we neglect our history and the full range of government actions, right or wrong, then arguments of “military necessity” and “national security” may once again override the Constitution.

As Japanese Americans, we know what can happen when racism is allowed to run its course and political leaders fail to protect our civil rights. Let us work together to ensure that history does not repeat.