A.S.I.A. Airs Resistance at Tule Lake, a Reminder of Civil Rights Violations

When I perused my “This Weekend at Conn” email on Friday morning, I was surprised and grateful to find a variation from the standard a capella concerts and Cro dances: that night, Asian Students in Action (A.S.I.A.) would be screening Resistance at Tule Lake, a 2017 documentary by Konrad Aderer about the underexposed dissenters to the internment of Japanese Americans.

Excited about the screening, I texted one of my best Japanese-American friends: my dad. Like me, he had never heard of the movie, but he commented that “people always talk about the ultra-patriotic 442nd, forgetting that there were some resistors. They were called no-no boys because they responded negatively when asked to sign a loyalty oath.” This covered what I knew, in terms of historical context, about the resistance movement: it had existed, and its members were termed the “no-no-boys.” My family members, narrow escapees of internment, were not among its numbers.

Resistance at Tule Lake is about 12,000 people whose histories are intertwined with my family’s own. As the nickname references, the film tells the story of the “no-no” group of Japanese Americans: people who, when asked to respond to a questionnaire supposedly designed to evaluate their loyalty to the United States, responded “no” to two crucial and consecutive questions. Question 27 on the survey asked respondents if they would declare unconditional allegiance to the United States government, and 28 if they would renounce their allegiance to the Japanese state and its emperor.

To thousands of Nisei—a term used to designate the second generation of Japanese diaspora, of which my grandmother was a part—the latter question made no sense. Why would they, American-born citizens, renounce an allegiance that had never been theirs in the first place? And to Issei (first-generation immigrants) and Nisei alike, the former question, as well as the survey in general, was offensive. The surveys were presented within internment camps, meaning that Japanese Americans—whether they were born citizens, naturalized, or had not been granted citizenship—were asked outright to swear their devotion to a government that had incarcerated them simply for living on the West Coast.

All this I knew, going into the movie: that Japanese Americans were expelled from the West Coast, that they either fled to other areas or were relegated to concentration camps, and that thousands declared their patriotism on invasive questionnaires and even enlisted in the U.S. military, just to prove allegiance to a government that had forsaken them. My grandma’s family was fortunate enough to have the flight option: they lived in Los Angeles County, and when the internment began, my grandmother, her Nisei siblings, and her Issei parents escaped California to join family members who lived in the more insulated Colorado. My grandmother’s parents ran a hotel, she told me, but had to abandon their business and turn to farming after they moved.

“I was hoping that my mother and father would go into the hotel business because they had experience,” she said, “I guess they decided it was safer to be out in the country, farming.”

But despite the material and professional losses, my grandmother’s family was one of the lucky ones. Incarcerees in the internment camps were subjected to abysmal conditions of the nature that the U.S. government publicly condemns, and the worst conditions were imposed at Tule Lake. Resistance at Tule Lake explains that after Japanese Americans, already divided among the ten internment camps, responded to the survey of allegiance, the War Relocation Authority (WRA) reorganized camps with answers in mind. Those who had responded negatively to questions 27 and 28, for reasons ranging from indignance to confusion, were sent to Tule Lake in an effort to segregate dissenters. Tule Lake became notorious among the camps—all of which subjected their incarcerees to harsh conditions, including restricted distribution of food, cramped, uncomfortable housing, and arduous labor with low pay—and fostered a group of active dissenters, who formed an alliance to demand rights from the WRA.

The leaders and the most passionate among the resistance movement experienced a dual incarceration. Removed from their families in the barracks at Tule Lake, they were forced to live outside in tents even during the winter, and were subjected to physical torture by the U.S. military. Out of this practice grew an alliance known as the Hoshi Dan, a group which went a step farther than answering “no-no” by actively pursuing allegiance to the Japanese empire from which they, or their parents, had immigrated.

The U.S. government saw this as an opportunity ripe for deportation: dissenting Japanese Americans, especially those at Tule Lake, were encouraged to renounce their American citizenship and return to war-torn Japan. While some members of the Hoshi Dan actively sought Japanese citizenship, they did so in response to the treatment to which the U.S. subjected them, and many were coerced into renouncing their U.S. citizenship. Nearly 6,000 people—about five percent of all internees—eventually selected this option, choosing on paper to abandon the U.S. for Japan while still incarcerated. But this wasn’t a free ticket out of internment: it meant that once the camps were disbanded—most in 1944, though Tule Lake remained in operation after the end of WWII until 1946—Japanese Americans immediately faced the threat of deportation. It was only due to the work of civil rights lawyers and the ACLU, which sued the U.S. Department of Justice, that a majority were able to stay.

In light of this, I have to echo one more comment of my dad’s on the documentary: “Sounds interesting, and depressingly relevant today.” This brought me back to the first time I decided to write about the internment, during my sophomore year, when the current President of the United States was just a hateful, demagogic, nearly incomprehensible and yet increasingly influential candidate. Though typical U.S. history classes comment only briefly, if at all, on the recent reality of Japanese internment, the ruthless and dehumanizing immigration policies that the U.S. currently employs are not too distant from this legacy of coerced citizenship renunciation. Consider the language, used by many current members of Congress, of “self-deportation.” Likewise, the prejudiced and unfounded screenings and bannings of Muslim Americans, immigrants, and refugees are only a few steps away from sentencing people to concentration camps.

The Japanese internment is an ugly piece of history, and its nuanced layers are obfuscated even more than the reality of the occurrence itself: I remember my grandmother telling me, when she reflected on her own near-miss with internment, how the situation was presented with little clarity.

“I was vice president of the Nisei club [at school],” she told me, “They got all the Japanese children together after the announcement of Pearl Harbor and the rounding up of certain Japanese people…The advisor to our club told me to get up there and tell the class that if there were any people who were in trouble—if their mother or father got taken away—they would get help for us.” But beyond the institutional support provided by her school, she said, the idea of “camp” that arose after the initial Issei roundup was marketed in idealistic terms, as Japanese Americans were told that although they had to sacrifice their property and professions, they would be joining a community of other Japanese people, rather than having to live among the largely xenophobic wartime U.S. population. While my grandmother—who is now 93, and was a teenager during the internment—wanted to leave, her younger sister bought the government’s message and was actively resentful toward her parents for choosing to flee. My grandma told me simply that her sister wanted to go to camp, with the other Japanese kids.

What all these stories share, from those of citizenship-renouncers to my internment-enticed great aunt, is the essential tool of misinformation. When the internment and ensuing deportations happened, they relied upon mass deceit of people and policy. On paper, the internment began not with a relegation of humans but in fact a statement that the region of the West Coast itself was problematic, because it was simply too close to the so-called evil influence of the East. It was in selectively enacting the policy, by the removal of people termed “enemy-aliens” or in danger of becoming them, that the internment really began.

Now, historical amnesia causes us to forget not just Japanese internment as a whole, but also its diverse details. The notion that people were actively discouraged from holding allegiance to the United States of course sounds contradictory to the country’s patriotic rhetoric, but it’s not that far from current reality. The will to forget and distort encourages the government to repeat its past mistakes, so we should pay attention to the internment, including its finer details. If we do, we might notice before it happens again.