“Kodomo no tame ni
They’re our children set them free!”
I shouted, fist raised in the air, joining the collective voice of over 400 Japanese-Americans, their families, and other pilgrimage-goers. In my right hand I clutched one side of a sign with the phrase “Abolish ICE” encircled in barbed wire, reminiscent of the kind that had held my grandparents captive during WWII. Behind us stood the Tule Lake Concentration Camp jail, a gray, dismal structure that once confined 200 out of the total 18,000 people incarcerated at this camp - a jail within a jail, for the ones deemed especially disobedient. The jail loomed behind us as an ugly reminder of what could easily happen again if we didn’t make our voices heard, and if the nation didn’t listen. The air felt heavy with the realization that we were already basically there.
But looking around at the rally held at the historical, trauma-laden Tule Lake camp on this dry, nearly 90-degree day filled me with a kind of pride and empowerment that I had never felt so strongly within this community before. Positioned in the front row were the surviving Japanese-American concentration camp survivors, ranging from their 80’s to even late 90’s, who roared the chants with an unmatched, enduring ferocity. The rest of us in the back felt both their power and the rage that had been passed down to us through two, three, and sometimes four generations. Our spirits were joined by the spirits of ones who had passed away. I thought of my grandpa on my mother’s side, who we called “jiichan”; my grandpa and grandma on my father’s side. My voice was not just my own, but was carried by the strength of my elders and the respect I felt their lives and memories deserved.
Our protest was one of many that day. On June 30th, 2018, people all across the United States gathered to take a stand against family separation and detention. But as Japanese-Americans, we bear a history of mass detention and incarceration. We not only offer a crucial perspective in that regard, but even for those of us in the younger generation, we still feel the raw pain of our parents’ and grandparents’ suffering.
This protest was one important part of a four-day long pilgrimage to Tule Lake, California, occurring every other year. For four days, former incarcerees, their family members, and others not directly related but were compelled to learn attended workshops, watched plays and performances, and visited the camp site itself. Through these experiences, we were able to gain insight into Japanese-American incarceration, collectively heal from our trauma, and begin to take action to ensure it never happens to anyone again. Tule Lake as a camp was unique because about a year in, it was made into a segregation camp, which held everyone who the government decided was a resister. This meant a lot of things, and historical records have shown that in some cases the reasons for being sent to Tule Lake were arbitrary. However, Tule Lake quickly developed the reputation as the camp filled with people who were disloyal to the United States.
Most commonly, these were people who answered “no-no” to two key questions, questions 27 and 28, on the Loyalty Questionnaire, a form required for all Japanese-Americans. Question 27 asked "Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty wherever ordered?", and 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?" Any answer outside of an unqualified “yes-yes” to these unfair and criminalizing questions were grounds to be sent to Tule Lake. Many answered “no-no” or refused to take the Loyalty Questionnaire as a way to protest their incarceration.
These were people who were not afraid to fight for justice. And for that, they’re often erased from history or written off as “troublemakers” that made everyone else look bad. Even among Japanese-Americans, there is a stigma associated with Tule Lake and those incarcerated there. Post-incarceration, Tule Lake survivors were discriminated against because the government painted them as disloyal. At the pilgrimage, we learned how effective the government’s propaganda was in dividing our community, to the point where we turned on each other and forgot who we were really fighting against.
Understanding the truth about Tule Lake was a breakthrough for me. I was stunned as I realized that my community, always labeled as silent, passive, and obedient, was not silent after all. And my passion to fight injustice and oppression is not so uncharacteristic, after all. My own grandfather, my jiichan, was incarcerated at Tule Lake. We still don’t know all of what he went through and the extent to which he suffered in this hellish camp, but he was a fighter. It’s in my blood.
When you think of Japanese-Americans, resistance is not in the dominant narrative. At the pilgrimage, we talked a great deal about redefining and reclaiming this narrative to include the survivors of Tule Lake. It is about time everyone knew our history of speaking up, for our struggle, though not identical, has parallels with many others. Mass incarceration of Black and Brown folks within the prison industrial complex, the detention and separation of families at the border, the xenophobia-fueled Muslim ban, and the threat of a Muslim registry are just a few examples of issues of captivity, exclusion, and loss that we can relate to. And at the final event of the pilgrimage, Native folks from the Modoc tribe, who the land that we were on originally belonged to, reminded us in a striking gesture of solidarity that we had a shared history as well. Our history would be meaningless if we did not take it and fight side-by-side with others who now suffered.
So this is a call to action of the utmost urgency. Japanese-Americans, we need to step up and be so loud they can’t ignore us. Don’t let anyone convince you we ever went down without a fight, because contrary to everything we’ve been told in the US, we never, ever did. I believe we possess this intergenerational fire, carried through generations, that can be channeled into action to support those who are suffering. Like a master manipulator, the government uses the same propaganda with the same messages over and over to justify discrimination and oppression and we must do more to disrupt it.
If you’re not Japanese-American, take the time to learn our history. Extend your knowledge far beyond the brief, whitewashed blurb in your high school history textbook. Read books and watch documentaries like Resistance at Tule Lake, follow the work of Japanese-American activists and the message of #NeverAgain & #NeverAgainIsNow, attend a pilgrimage, etc., and I think you will realize that our story is far more complex than you were initially taught. Tell all who will listen about what you learned, and help us change our narrative.