The real talk aspect of this blog is about to get REALLY REAL – this is not a happy fun post, but a post that must be written. Thank you in advanced for reading this post, my reflection on Japanese American incarceration.
On Tuesday, I woke up from a 4 day trip up to Tule Lake, the site of one of the ten Japanese Concentration Camps, and wondered “how do I do life?”
The pilgrimage to Tule Lake was a Christmas present from my mother. Her mother, my Bachan, was incarcerated at Tule Lake and my mom and aunt had attended the pilgrimage a few years ago. She had asked me a little before Christmas of 2015, if I wanted my fiancé and I’s Christmas present to be the Tule Lake pilgrimage and we both gave a resounding yes. On Tuesday when I woke up in my own bed, in my own home, I had this moment of confusion about how to go through my day. The pilgrimage is an intensive workshop of history and community, from the time we boarded the bus at 10:00am on Friday, July 1st. Upon returning home, I forgot my routine and was filled with reflective thoughts. My eyes new with a changed perspective on life as a whole. If this is what I was experiencing after 4 days, I can only wrap my mind around how the innocent Japanese Americans felt when released, the same way I can wrap my mind around the concept of infinity. It’s feeble and lacking, false by all measure.
Everything was taken from them in an instant, and then 4 years later in a flash they are let back into the world with nothing. Except for a country that betrayed them and a society manipulated to reject them.
We were surrounded by people who understood the history of Japanese American incarceration during WWII, from the moment we stepped on our respective buses. But maybe not the atrocities that took place at Tule Lake, nor the divide Tule Lake caused with in the Japanese community. And this is what we would learn over the next two days.
In Japanese culture, you don’t make waves. You don’t speak out against authority, and you respect the establishment to the utmost degree. So when the American government presented the Japanese American people with a distasteful and deceiving “loyalty agreement”, after already being incarcerated for over a year, those who rebelled against it were sent to Tule Lake. In turn they were seen as “disloyal” to America within the Japanese American community. When in reality, these “disloyals” were really men and women who believed in their civil rights or were infuriated with the country who just incarcerated them when innocent. Basically, flipping them the bird. I come from a lineage of the latter, and I don’t blame my Great Grandfather for his decision to mark No, No.
Tule Lake around 1943 was turned into a segregation camp, sending all those who refused to sign the “loyalty agreement” from the other Japanese American concentration camps to Tule Lake. What I found interesting and heart breaking, was that after the war when the Japanese American community began to rebuild, those who were incarcerated in Tule Lake never shared that information. They didn’t want to be judged by their community and seen as troublemakers or disloyal, so this fraction of the community couldn’t even bond or connect with fellow Japanese Americans about their experience, because they were shamed into silence.
Many of the people who were incarcerated at the Japanese Concentration Camps never talked about their experience there. And everyone on the pilgrimage seemed to be desperate for pieces of the puzzle in order to create a full picture of the Tule Lake experience. The adults who were incarcerated have already passed on, and now we scrape at the memories of those who were teens or children at camp to collect their stories and perspective on the time. Our elders have died with their stories locked behind the doors of trauma, and their children search their own memories for what stories might have slipped.
As I write this I’m conflicted with what I can share and what is left behind closed doors. It is not easy for people to share their trauma and pain, and it is not right for me to exploit those stories for my own readers without their permission. All I can do is paint a picture. Imagine you are told you can only take what you can carry, heirlooms and family pets are left behind. You are trying to figure out what you can sell off for the best price, because you don’t know when you’ll return home, and your customer knows the desperate situation you’re in and does not have a compassionate heart. The plans you had for the future were stolen from you. The family dynamic is dissolved, and you end up living in a barrack with 10 other families. Your bed is merely a cot with a mattress cover you stuff with straw. The holes in the walls bring in dirt and dust from the outside. You’re never clean. You’re never comfortable. You don’t have a home. You’re innocent. You were born in America and have pledge the allegiance during school, “with liberty and justice for all.” But you have yellow skin, almond eyes, and black hair; apparently that excluded you. So you had to board a train to destination unknown and live in a prison for an undetermined amount of time.
On Saturday, the pilgrimage collected in front of the jail that is currently undergoing a restoration at Tule Lake, and held a memorial service for all those who had died and lived through the Japanese Concentration Camp. The pilgrimage hosted a Christian and Buddhist service and the attendees were able to lay down flowers and cranes for our family and fallen. It was a moving service. Later in the day my fiancé and I took a bus tour of the camp, which was massive, and my heart broke for the lack of preservation. An airport runway now runs through Block 25 where my Bachan lived at Tule Lake. The Tule Lake cemetery was turned into a landfill. All but 10 bodies which were unidentified have been returned to the families. And as I sat on the bus with our guide vaguely pointing out where certain buildings of the camp would have been, I looked out onto a neighborhood and a grassy field confused as to what was where, and then just in awe of the size of this camp that held up to 18,000 people. It’s the closest thing to walking a mile in my Bachan’s shoes I could ever get.
A few of the ‘super seniors’, those who were teens while at Tule Lake shared their stories. One explained the process of building the jail (can you imagine building a jail to house your own people?) and then the abuse that took place to those who were put behind bars, inside the fence they were already trapped behind. These people further incarcerated, not because of legitimate crimes, but because they were brave enough to talk back and express their freedom of speech or were labeled a “troublemaker”. Another ‘super senior’ shared his story of refusing to answer the loyalty agreement and in turn was sent to a department of justice camp. In the middle of the night he was thrown on his knees in front of a firing squad verbally abused until the guard wanted to let him and his fellow rebels go.
What were the questions he refused to answer that led to this kind of psychological torture.
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 of America 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?”
This same gentlemen had tried to enlist after Pearl Harbor to defend his country, America, but was denied and told he was an enemy alien. Now, he was asked to draft himself again after a year of imprisonment! And how can you forswear allegiance to a country you were never aligned with in the first place? Disgusting.
Both Friday and Saturday night I listened to those who were incarcerated tell their story, and I was moved. I listened to their memories like they were water and I had been thirsty in a desert. Sunday morning, the 450 attendees were divided into smaller groups to reflect on their experience and ask questions to try piece together the past. In the afternoon I watched a talk by Nancy Ukai, Dr. Satsuki Ina, and Dr. Junko Kobayashi on Camp Artifacts: Giving Voice and Bearing Witness. There were 6 other amazing talks going on concurrently, but I had met Nancy in our morning discussion group and was intrigued by the story objects can invoke. Nancy was an integral part in stopping the sale of 450 concentration camp artifacts at a Rago art auction. I wasn’t aware of this when it occurred, but it was announced in the New York Times and quickly there after the Japanese American community did a “hell no!” and a petition circulated effectively stopping the auction. Nancy shared the stories behind three different pieces from the collection that would have been sold, and their connection to Tule Lake. The piece that was most moving was the propaganda photo that was taken to shed a positive light on the Japanese American incarceration of an adorable Japanese boy in a cereal box flower crown. Nancy was able to track down the boy, now a 70 year old man, who shared he did not even remember the photo nor the fabricated fairy tale attached to the photo – that the class was putting on a cheerful Labor Day performance. She opened the discussion with this powerful poem that I think should be kept in mind when viewing any of the photos from that time.
Because my mouth
Is wide with laughter
And my throat
Is deep with song,
You do not think
I suffer after
I have held my pain
Because my mouth
Is wide with laughter,
You do not hear
My inner cry?
Because my feet
Are gay with dancing,
You do not know
“Minstrel Man”, Langston Hughes
The pilgrimage ended on July 4th, my Bachan’s birthday, and we boarded our buses back to our respective airports or pick up points and said good bye to this moving experience. While headed back to the Sacramento Airport, we shared out thoughts on the pilgrimage and as I shared my feelings I broke into tears. The night before I had sobbed thinking of my Bachan, missing her. On the bus, my tears were for her pain and the anger she held inside. I commented about how my dirty and draining days in the sun at Coachella for two weeks inspires a deep desire for comfort. After the festival I immediately book a shiatsu appointment, manicure, give myself a face mask, and sink into my comfortable bed like a heavenly cloud. This is only after a few days of the elements, and my Bachan experienced the same sun and dirt relentlessly for 4 years. No comfortable bed. No spa like shower. No privacy.
Airport runway now runs between where my Bachan barrack would have been.
The foundation of the 73rd block latrine.
An example of what the camp barracks looked like on view at the Tule Lake museum
What I haven’t talked about are the riots, the Marshall Law, the guard abuse, the deaths, the torture, the renouncing of citizenship under collusion, and the endless examples of total civil rights violation. I hope my sharing of the pilgrimage inspires you to search out that information independently. I also hop e my story inspired people to educate themselves and stand up against the fear induced hatred toward any community of innocent people. The people who experienced this are still alive, this is not ancient history, THIS is living history. We must hold onto our stories and history in order to keep it from ever happening again. Refuse to become complacent.
When I think of my Bachan and what she endured, I am humbled. My troubles become trivial, and I tell myself I come from good stock. I was born with a strength inside of me to persevere, to move forward and thrive. If my Bachan can live in a concentration camp for 4 years and go on to see me born, love me, and make me feel like I am supremely special – then I will not disrespect her belief in me by not believing in myself.
Thank you for reading my story and following my journey to #knowbachan