Recalling "a dark moment"

Ex-internees confront memories of shame at Tule Lake Camp

Published: Friday, May. 11, 2012 - 12:09 pm

Originally published July 7, 1996

It has been a strangely liberating Fourth of July weekend for Hiroshi Masuda.

The retired Sacramento barber passed up his family's annual Independence Day croquet match for a bus trip to the high desert, where he and 18,000 other Americans of Japanese ancestry were penned up behind barbed wire for most of World War II.

While most Americans celebrated freedom, justice and equal rights under the law, Masuda and 250 other Japanese Americans from throughout the West came to Tulelake to reflect on one of the darkest chapters in American history: the imprisonment without trial of 110,000 Japanese Americans.

The journey from Sacramento took eight hours and half a century, but it has taken Masuda and many of the other 119 internment survivors of the Tule Lake Relocation and Segregation Center that long to face the anger, shame and bitterness they've locked away like old camp suitcases all these years. Many were taken on the pilgrimage by children and grandchildren hoping to finally crack the wall of silence internees have built around their emotions.

"It was a dark moment in our lives," said Masuda, 76. Though he met his wife in the Tule Lake kitchen and fathered a son before his release in 1946, "I've never allowed my six children to know I was in camp - I didn't want them to feel like second-class citizens," he said.

Janice Yamaichi Morrison, 46, said her parents said "zero" about their imprisonment, even though her father Jimi Yamaichi, 74, helped organize the pilgrimage.

"My mother asked me why am I coming," said Morrison, a bank officer in Vallejo. She told her mother, "We're searching for our history. Please share. It may be painful, but if we don't know, we can't pass it on and be proud of our heritage."

In 1942, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor unleashed a wave of anti-Japanese hysteria, Japanese Americans on the West Coast were uprooted from their homes, farms and businesses and herded into 10 crowded, desolate internment camps throughout the country.

The most notorious of the camps was Tule Lake, built upon a dried-up lake bed encrusted with lava rock. Here, Masuda and the others, including about 8,000 Japanese Americans from the Sacramento area, lived in flimsy barracks of tar-paper and pine that kept no secrets and felt the wrath of every season.

"There was no privacy," Masuda said. "You could hear people snore on the other side of the wall. And when the wind blew, the sand would crawl up through the floor, the doors and the windows like ants."

But it was not the blinding sand storms or the bone-chilling desert nights that set Tule Lake apart. It was here that in the fall of 1943 the U.S. government sent the "disloyals" - 7,000 internees from other camps who refused to renounce their loyalty to the Japanese emperor and pledge their allegiance to America and to serve, if called, in the U.S. armed forces.

"It was a trick question, like "Have you stopped beating your wife?' " said Wayne Maeda, an ethnic studies professor from California State University, Sacramento. "If you renounced your loyalty to the emperor, it implied you had some loyalty to begin with."

Many of those in the camps were Japanese immigrants. Denied U.S. citizenship, they faced an impossible choice; if they renounced the emperor, they feared they would have no country after the war. And how could they swear to honor and defend the United States, a country that had branded them potential "enemy aliens" and stripped them of their homes, livelihood and dignity?

Some Japanese Americans, when asked if they were loyal to America and would be willing to risk their lives in battle to prove it, answered "yes" - if their rights were restored.

Many of those deemed loyal were transferred from Tule Lake to other camps to make way for the "no-no boys," whose presence heaped added shame on the camp and bred resentment among internees who had sworn allegiance to America.

A 10-foot high chain-link fence was erected around the barbed wire, Tule Lake was labeled a "Segregation Center" and the new camp director, Raymond Best, said his camp was full of "bad apples" best deported after the war.

At war's end, several hundred internees did return to Japan, only to face further rejection.

"We were never accepted in Japan," said a female internee who moved back to the United States in 1951.

Among the "no-no boys" was the late Takekuma Takei, who lost his cleaning business and was taken at gunpoint from his Los Angeles home, said his son, George Takei, better known as Mr. Sulu of "Star Trek" fame.

"This country didn't allow naturalization and now they're asking him to swear allegiance - how crazy is that?" said Takei, 59. "He would not grovel before this racist, hysterical government."

But Takei respects the sacrifice of Japanese Americans such as Tom Kashawabara of Sacramento, who left the camps to join the 100th Infantry Battalion/442nd Combat Regiment, a highly decorated all-Japanese American unit. "My citizenship was paid for with the blood of those who put on the uniform of their jailers and fought with such valor," he said.

Takei said he was inspired to become an actor after sitting on a blanket watching movies in camp, and hearing fellow campers do all the roles and voices when the sound broke one night.

"As a teenager, you realize camp was like jail and only bad people go to jail, so you grow up with this intangible sense of guilt and shame," said Takei.

He recalled accusing his father of leading the family like sheep to the camp. "I wish I could take those words back," he said.

The segregation order splintered families. Rich Nagaoka, a vineyard consultant from St. Helena, was born in a camp in Rohwer, Ark., while his grandparents were in Tule Lake.

Nagaoka, who graduated from Lodi High, said his family's silence on internment made him ashamed of his Japanese roots. "I spent decades trying to be Caucasian," said Nagaoka, 52. "They called me "banana,' yellow on the outside and white on the inside. I married a white woman and avoided any Asian lest I be linked to a minority. Suddenly it occurred to me that this wasn't an accident. I call it internalized racism.

"The light bulb went on five years ago when I noticed how alienated I was from my family," Nagaoka said. He began attending Japanese American community meetings and found many Japanese Americans his age had similar experiences.

"I finally feel like I belong to a community, like the ugly duckling who finds the other swans and learns he's a swan, too," he said.

He said several offspring of internees have become civil rights advocates for victims of discrimination, including Arab Americans during the Persian Gulf War. "In some way they're serving their parents' pain," Nagaoka said.

"Almost everybody knows somebody, an aunt or a cousin, who had a nervous breakdown from being jailed without cause," he said.

Mary Kawano Fong, 69, was among those traumatized by the loss of friends, home and identity. "When I got to camp, I got really sick," Fong said. "All my normal functions stopped. For six months, I couldn't eat, couldn't sleep."

Fong said her father frequently reminded her: "You have done nothing wrong. We're going to get through this together and we're going home to Loomis."

Fong made it back to Loomis and went on to become a secretary for the Sacramento Unified School District. Her father died in a construction accident at the camp.

Saturday, Fong picked some tule grass she once used to weave baskets in camp.

To combat boredom, young internees went to Japanese school in the morning and American school in the afternoon. They played baseball, football and basketball, took art classes and hula lessons and made exquisite flowers out of the tiny puka shells unearthed from the days when the camp site was under water. Sumo wrestling, hootenannies, a tofu factory and a sake still were all part of camp life.

The tule grass is still there, as is the ditch surrounding the camp where Melvin Okamoto, 60, of Sacramento and other children swam in summer and ice skated in winter.

But there are few signs now that there was ever a prison camp here. The grounds are covered with sagebrush. Gone are the guard towers, the school and the hospital. All that's left standing are the stockade and a few tar-paper barracks.

"When I saw the barracks I couldn't stay in there any longer," said Yoshiko Sunada, 85, of Newcastle. "It made me really sad. I had three children with me in camp and I was worried about their future. They're all doing well, so I guess things turned out OK. I don't hate them (her jailers) but it hurts me to hold my feelings back."

Sunada's grandson Craig, 25, an engineer for Hewlett Packard, wanted his grandmother and other internees to let their pain out. "The group discussions made me angry," he said. "The stories were mostly happy stories told with smiling faces. They're still denying the bad things."

Masuda, who served as assistant fire chief at Tule Lake, remembers some of the bad things.

A young Japanese American was shot to death by a guard after a disagreement over whether he could drive his truck out of the camp; the guard was fined $1, and the family was not allowed a public funeral. After 18 inmates tried to catch guards who they thought were smuggling out their food and reselling it on the black market, the Army tore through the camp with tanks and machine guns.

Eighteen internees were hospitalized; one was permanently brain damaged. Two women employees of the U.S. government later reported finding blood and handfuls of black hair in the interrogation room, along with a bloody baseball bat.

"I never talk about internment because I hated it," said Sakae Ikemoto, who said his family lost their grocery store at 10th and T streets in Sacramento. "But I'm going to be 80 next year and I can't die feeling this way."

Many of the internees' silence, said Sharon Yamato, a writer from Southern California whose mother and older sisters were interned, is owed partly to traditional beliefs. "This is a very nonverbal culture," Yamato said. "There's a lot of "Grin and bear it, it can't be helped.' "

Yamato, 47, likened the pilgrimage to a weekend of group therapy, where people go through stages of denial, anger, sadness and acceptance.

"When you have a lot of people well known in the community talking about it, it takes the shame away," she said.

Masuda, a "no-no boy" who lost his U.S. citizenship for eight years, said the pilgrimage has been healing and uplifting. "The anger is long gone. I'm more at peace," he said. "I love my country. I've forgiven it."

Read more articles by Stephen Magagnini



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