‘Resistance at Tule Lake’ sheds new light on inmates’ organized protests

Tule Lake Committee board member Barbara Takei examines the former jail. photo courtesy of Konrad Aderer

“Resistance at Tule Lake,” a film about protests against injustice within the largest wartime United States concentration camp for residents of Japanese ancestry, will be shown at the sixth annual Films of Remembrance, presented by the Nichi Bei Foundation, Saturday, Feb. 25, at 4 p.m., at the New People Cinema, 1746 Post St., in San Francisco’s Japantown.

The film by Japanese American director Konrad Aderer focuses on protesters among the 12,000-plus Nikkei at Tule Lake who resisted the U.S. government’s program of mass incarceration during World War II.

Aderer, whose Kibei Nisei maternal grandparents were incarcerated at Topaz (Central Utah), stated from New York via telephone that he began examining the Tule Lake story following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, while he was making a documentary about a Palestinian activist fighting for human rights for his people. The filmmaker saw similarities between the Tule Lake resisters of the 1940s and the Palestinians today — violations of human rights, hunger strikes, beatings and torture — that led him to make the Tule Lake film.

Aderer, a video journalist in Brooklyn, began going to the Tule Lake Pilgrimage in 2010, asking questions and listening to people’s stories. He received help from members of the Tule Lake Committee in finding individuals to appear in the documentary.

Tule Lake had a very tumultuous history, the native New Yorker stated, with prisoners resisting and protesting for their rights, fair working conditions and enough food. There was the renunciation crisis as well.

The film’s message is that it’s important to recognize that the community can go different ways when faced with oppression, Aderer explained. “Japanese Americans who were incarcerated were asked to be blindly loyal to the United States, not think about the future or about their treatment for generations as second-class citizens ever since they came to this country.”

Nowadays, people understand that someone could protest and not be seen as anti-American, stated the biracial filmmaker.

“During the war, the only thing most Japanese Americans could do was to assimilate … to completely forget you were Japanese.

There wasn’t any multi-culturalism then.”

Intense Hostility
Satsuki Ina, a Tule Lake Committee board member who appeared in the film, stated to Nichi Bei Weekly via e-mail that her Kibei Nisei parents — who were born in the U.S. and educated in Japan before returning to America — were disheartened by the incarceration and fearful for the future of their children. They answered “no-no” to the controversial loyalty questionnaire and were sent to Tule Lake, where she was born.

That questionnaire asked prisoners of all camps if they were willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States, and whether they would swear unqualified allegiance to the U.S. and forswear allegiance or obedience to the Japanese Emperor.

Those answering “no-no” were deemed “disloyal” by the government and exiled from other camps and sent to Tule Lake.

“My father was put in the Tule Lake jail before being sent to Bismarck, North Dakota, internment camp for enemy aliens,” Ina stated. “Bruises and cuts on his face were evident. It has been documented that men held in the jail and stockade were brutally beaten by guards.”

Ever since large numbers of Japanese started immigrating to this country, there had been intense hostility toward them, and discriminatory laws prevented them from owning land, banned them from marrying outside their race, and placed their children in segregated schools, Ina related. “We were at war with Germany and Italy as well, yet only the people of Japanese ancestry suffered the mass incarceration … Japanese aliens and Japanese Americans were the predictable scapegoats for the wartime hysteria.”

Courage to Dissent
Barbara Takei, Tule Lake Committee board member who helped Aderer find individuals to appear in the documentary, shared in an e-mail that her mother and her mother’s family were imprisoned at Tule Lake.

More than 10 percent of the imprisoned Nikkei population protested the injustice of the mass incarceration by refusing to answer the government’s so-called loyalty questionnaire, Takei announced. “Many at Tule Lake were outraged by the idea they needed to prove their loyalty, and refused to answer the questionnaire, especially after giving up homes, businesses, possessions and their freedom.”

Takei pointed out Tule Lake’s history of resistance, starting with protests over living and working conditions in 1942, protests in 1943 over the loyalty questionnaire, multiple strikes over living and working conditions, and the farm strike that moved the War Relocation Authority to lock down the entire camp to find “troublemakers.” Early 1944 saw the declaration of martial law and detention of elected leaders in the stockade, a jail within the prison.

And, late 1944 through 1945, Japan-educated Kibei and Japanese Americans were stripped of their U.S. citizenship so they could be deported as “enemy aliens,” a result of the government’s “denationalization” scheme that provoked the young prisoners to renounce their citizenship.

A total of 5,589 Japanese Americans renounced their U.S. citizenship, and of that number, 5,461 were from Tule Lake, reported writer-researcher Takei. Of the 4,724 Nikkei who sailed to Japan, 4,406 were from Tule Lake (1,116 renunciants, 1,767 U.S. citizens, mostly children under the age of 21 and 1,523 Issei repatriates).

As the film shows, the Tule Lake inmates who peacefully protested their unjust incarceration wound up segregated at Tule Lake, Takei said. “Perversely, these people who had the courage to dissent … bore a lifetime of stigma … as ‘disloyal’ and as ‘troublemakers’ for their courage in speaking out against wrongdoing.”

Tule Lake’s protesters will be remembered and cherished as the Nikkei community’s civil rights heroes, Takei exclaimed. “I’m happy Konrad completed the film.”

Sadly, she warned, history is being repeated today with political leaders using the same fear tactics against innocent people.

“Given the … demonization of Muslims that is going on right now, we need to remind ourselves that … as Japanese Americans, we have the moral authority and responsibility to stand up for what is right.”

“Resistance at Tule Lake” will make its final cut full-length debut at the sixth annual Films of Remembrance on Saturday, Feb. 25, 4 p.m., at New People Cinema, 1746 Post St. in San Francisco’s Japantown. For more information, visit www.nichibei.org/films-of-remembrance. A discussion with the filmmaker will follow, moderated by journalist Martha Nakagawa.

It will have its official premiere at CAAMFest on Saturday, March 11, 12:10 p.m., at the Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St. in San Francisco, preceded by “Yonsei Eyes.” For more information, visit http://caamfest.com/2017.

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