No-nos, renunciants speak out about stigma over wartime actions

A view of Castle Rock from a firebreak road in the Tule Lake Segregation Center. courtesy of Densho

A view of Castle Rock from a firebreak road in the Tule Lake Segregation Center. courtesy of Densho

TORRANCE, Calif. — The “No-No Boys” and renunciants, Nikkei prisoners who protested the injustice of having to answer a “loyalty questionnaire” while incarcerated in American concentration camps during World War II, were the focus of a forum held on Oct. 27 at the Katy Geissert Civic Center Library Community Room in Torrance.

Although 70 years have passed since the imprisonment of 120,000 West Coast residents of Japanese ancestry, the no-nos and renunciants have had to endure the stigma of being labeled as “disloyal” and “troublemakers,” stated emcee Richard Katsuda, the chair of the program. “The purpose of the forum was to allow no-nos and renunciants to tell their stories and others to hear those stories in order to finally bring redemption and healing for those individuals and for the community as a whole.”

The no-nos and renunciants being scapegoated for the Nikkei community’s predicament during World War II have persisted, added Katsuda. “The record needs to be set straight, that everyone at Tule Lake, as well as in the Japanese American community, was loyal.”

‘Loyalty Questionnaire’
During World War II, the United States government questioned the loyalty of all persons of Japanese ancestry living in the country, and the Nikkei from the West Coast were imprisoned in American concentration camps as a group, without any hearing or trial.

In January of 1943, government officials announced that Japanese Americans, even those held in camps, could volunteer for service in an all-Nisei U.S. Army unit. To determine whether the Nikkei were loyal or disloyal, the War Department and the War Relocation Authority in February of 1943 created a loyalty test, initially for males of military service age, but soon expanded to include all persons of Japanese ancestry 17 years old and older. Questions 27 and 28, in particular, stirred up controversy, concern and confusion for many Nikkei:

Question 27: Are you willing to serve in the Armed Forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?
Question 28: Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance to the Japanese emperor or any other foreign government, power or organization?

The government considered a “yes” response to Question 28 a sign of loyalty; a “no” answer was seen as being disloyal to the U.S. Even women and elderly Issei resident aliens, ineligible to become naturalized U.S. citizens, were ordered to respond to Question 27.

Most who answered “no-no” to Questions 27 and 28, as well as those who refused to respond to those two questions, were removed to the Tule Lake, Calif. WRA camp, a “segregation center” to separate the “disloyal” from the “loyal” prisoners, in Northern California. Some so-called “disloyal” families were deported to Japan. Those answering “no-no” to Questions 27 and 28 were familiarly called “No-No Boys.”

Many Nikkei found the questions confusing. Women and resident alien Issei, who were not expected to serve in the armed forces but were required to answer Question 27, wondered what would happen if they answered “no,” Katsuda said.

They began to question themselves and to feel hostility toward those who felt they needed to answer “no” to Question 28, Katsuda added. “Japanese Americans could not confront the federal government that had created this mess. So they began to blame those who had answered ‘no’ for their predicament.”

Some answered “no” to Question 28 because they “felt anger that their government would even dare ask that question, especially after denying them any due process of law,” Katsuda explained. “Japanese immigrants, Issei, were prohibited from becoming naturalized U.S. citizens. Answering ‘yes’ to Question 28 would mean that they could lose their Japanese citizenship, thus leaving them as stateless people. Some thought a ‘yes’ response suggested that respondents had prior loyalties to the Japanese emperor.

Many feared those responding ‘no-no’ would be sent to a separate camp. Some answered ‘no-no’ because their parents had done so and felt they needed to in order to keep their family together.”

At Tule Lake, many renounced their U.S. citizenship and became known as renunciants. The circumstances of why those people renounced their citizenship also created turmoil among inmates at Tule Lake, and many felt the government manipulated the renunciation.

Katsuda said there were approximately 12,000 “No-Nos,” according to the Densho Encyclopedia (including those refusing to register, giving a qualified answer, or not answering), and of the 77,842 “eligible to register,” 65,312 answered “yes” to Question 28, 3,254 refused to register, 2,083 gave a qualified answer, 6,733 answered “no,” 426 did not answer, and 34 were “unknown.”

By July of 1945, 5,589 had renounced their U.S. citizenship, 5,461 at Tule Lake, and 128 at all of the other camps combined, Katsuda added.

‘Accidental Renunciant’
Panelists at the forum included Hiroshi Kashiwagi — a writer, poet, actor and a Tule Lake “No-No Boy” — who shared his experiences and read his poems, “Radio Station KOBY” and “A Meeting at Tule Lake.”

Reared in Placer County, Calif., Kashiwagi was a country boy who attended grade school in Loomis before the war and was familiar with the U.S. Constitution. He refused to answer the loyalty questionnaire because, he said, “I resented my citizenship being questioned and being unjustly interned.”

There was a stigma attached to those known as “No-No Boys,” he pointed out. “We were called malingerers, disloyal, troublemakers … After the war, I dealt with it by escaping my hometown and moving to Los Angeles to go to school. I didn’t talk about the no-no issue. I found out that others had also opposed the loyalty questionnaire.”

Kashiwagi felt that renunciation was a stupid act, but had unknowingly signed it, he admitted. “I thought renunciation was for the pro-Japan fanatics, so I sought to restore my citizenship, but it took many years.”

He would not regret his decision, Kashiwagi said. “The government was responsible for all of this. It’s certain to me that it was the government that did this to us. I don’t feel anyone was disloyal. We were protesting, even the pro-Japan people.”

Kashiwagi told Nichi Bei Weekly after the program, “I’m just impressed and overwhelmed by the response shown here today. I felt stigmatized before. I tried to not talk about it, not mention it to other people. It was not a good feeling. I got over it just by concentrating on what I was doing and not to be distracted by that.”

Kashiwagi chuckled at the thought of being an “accidental” renunciant.

Not Bitter Any More
Another panelist, Bill Nishimura, was one of many refusing to answer the loyalty questionnaire. He was in his 20s when he was sent to the detention camps at Poston III, Ariz., Tule Lake, Santa Fe, N.M. and Crystal City, Texas.

Nishimura’s father was apprehended by the FBI about one month after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and detained at the Department of Justice camp in Santa Fe, N.M.

The Japanese American Citizens League, Nishimura recalled, had “painted a rosy picture about voluntarily evacuating inland” before the forced evacuation of the Nikkei. But his friends who had moved to Utah, Idaho and Colorado were not made to feel welcome. “My friends in the other states said what JACL said was not true.”

Nishimura moved to Central California, which at first was not in the restricted military zone. However, the government’s evacuation notice soon came to Central California, and he wound up in a concentration camp at Poston, Ariz. When the government started the loyalty questionnaire at Poston, Nishimura decided not to answer. Meanwhile, his father was released from Santa Fe and joined the family at Poston. When the camp manager asked Nishimura how he felt about the loyalty questionnaire and why he didn’t respond, Nishimura replied, “The government first has to restore our citizenship.”

He was sent to Tule Lake as a “No-No Boy.” “I renounced my citizenship because I didn’t like being deprived of my civil rights,” he said. After the war, Nishimura, with the help of civil rights attorneys Wayne Collins and Tetsujiro Nakamura, regained his U.S. citizenship after 20 years.

Nishimura added, “I believe it’s about time that JACL, representing us and knowing the facts about the no-no and renunciants, should apologize for all the negative things that happened before.

“I’d like to tell the public that I did nothing wrong,” Nishimura told Nichi Bei Weekly following the event. “I did what any red-blooded American would do. That’s why I’m here, to let the audience know my position and I want to erase the stigma of being called a troublemaker.”

Nishimura “felt bitter” because, although he was a loyal American, he was “treated like a dog. I was a renunciant, and because I didn’t answer Questions 27 and 28, the U.S. made me a no-no.

But after the government told me I was not being deported, I was not bitter any more. I thought then that the U.S. still has a warm heart for me. My feelings toward the U.S. turned 180 degrees from hate to love. Now I’m OK, I’m a true American.”

Family Disintegrated
A third speaker, Grace Hata, remembered Dec. 7, 1941 clearly. “The FBI picked up my father and took him away to be locked up in Wilmington. My father was just a restaurant owner in Gardena, and I was 10 years old then. We visited my father, and he said he was tortured.”

The family was sent to Manzanar, Calif. but “because of my older brother’s no-no business, we ended up at Tule Lake and my father was released to us,” Hata recalled. “Later, my father and oldest brother were taken away to Santa Fe. Then we found out that they were sent to Japan after the war on the first repatriation ship.”

Hata, her mother and younger brother were forced to repatriate with her family to a war-devastated Japan, rather than to their home in Gardena. They were among 3,000 Nikkei on the second repatriation ship to Japan.

“Conditions on that troop ship were terrible,” she recalled. “After we sailed out of Seattle to where we hit the high seas, that ship rocked in every direction. My poor mom wrapped herself up in the bunk and didn’t get out of bed until we got to Yokosuka.”

“We had no food, no money, no dwelling,” Hata recalled. “We were in a terrible state … My father was finally able to get food allotment, horse radish.”

Hata said her parents, in their prime of life, lost their business and all their money. “They never got any money from redress; they died before all that happened. They lost everything financially, and our family disintegrated … But I think those who suffered more were people like my friend Asae and my brother who was in Japan during the war.

They had no family from America supporting them. I think I was lucky. I had discrimination in Japan and I had discrimination here. But I’m glad that I’m an American.”

Jail Within a Jail
The final speaker, Ernie Jane Nishii, a sculptor whose father was imprisoned for several months in the stockade at Tule Lake, was incarcerated when she was a young girl from 4 to 7 years of age.

Her Montebello, Calif.-born Kibei (born in the U.S. but reared and educated in Japan) father, Tatsuo Sugimoto, went with his family to Japan at age 3 and returned to the U.S. as a young man. He taught Japanese language to farm children, married and moved to East Los Angeles, where he operated a grocery store until he lost almost everything with the outbreak of World War II.

“The evacuation was a difficult time, as you could see smoke rising from the backyard incinerators of Japanese American homes,” Nishii stated. “They were throwing away anything and everything that was Japanese … poetry, diplomas, books, pictures, family heirlooms. Samurai swords were buried underground. In 1942, we were first taken to Poston, Ariz., along with my grandma and grandpa Sugimoto, along with my uncles and aunts.”

“When loyalty Questions 27 and 28 came up, Daddy said ‘no-no,’ because he didn’t want to shoot at his brothers in Japan,” she explained. “My mother’s sister remembers how angry grandma and grandpa were because even though he had two small children he answered ‘no-no.’ We left on the back of the truck and went to Tule Lake.”

There was much unrest at Tule Lake, Nishii related. “My father, a judo instructor and civic leader, was considered a potential troublemaker. One night, Army tanks and armed soldiers came to pick him up … I remember that night. He was taken to the stockade, separated from myself, my sister and my very young mother, to a jail within a jail.”

At one point in the stockade, the inmates decided to have a hunger strike, she said. “Some soldiers started to throw bread over the fence and the inmates ran for it. But my dad stood fast. He was hungry but he didn’t run for it.”

After the war, Nishii’s father, who taught judo at Senshin Dojo, passed away. “My sisters and I were clearing out our childhood home and discovered old letters that my father and mother wrote to each while he was in the stockade,” Nishii said. “My Dad, because he wanted to make sure the letters got through the camp censors, got a guard, who had nothing to do, write the letters in English.”

After her first Tule Lake Pilgrimage, Nishii was inspired to create sculptures about Tule Lake and her family.

Military Sweeps
An interested spectator at the forum was George Nakano, former California state Assemblyman from the Torrance area. When he was 6 years old, he was detained with his family, first at Santa Anita Assembly Center, then at Jerome, Ark., and finally at Tule Lake. His mother, who had two children to take care of, responded “no” to Question 27 asking whether she would serve in the military. Meanwhile, his father indicated that his rights would have to be restored before he would serve in the U.S. military.

“We were in Tule Lake for two-and-a-half years and when I came out of Tule Lake, I was 10 years old,” Nakano said. “I remember going to Japanese school and I had a bozu haircut. I remember being one of the last people left in camp; my parents were supposed to go to Japan, but they changed their minds because we had relatives in Hawai‘i. So they petitioned the WRA indicating their two children didn’t want to go to Japan and had never been to Japan. The government accepted that, so we were able to remain in the United States.”

Nakano recalled the turmoil in the camp. “I remember the military sweeps in the camp where they were looking for contraband. I remember going to a movie at the auditorium and I also remember when the auditorium burned down. There was a knifing that took place in that auditorium.”

He called the loyalty questionnaire “really strange. I think it was an attempt to find people who were so-called troublemakers.”

These kinds of programs are vital, because there have not been many discussions on this subject, Nakano pointed out. “This is a very important part of democracy.”

The forum, organized by the Japanese American Historical Society of Southern California and the Torrance Public Library, also featured a showing of “From A Silk Cocoon,” a documentary by Satsuki Ina about the renunciant experiences through the eyes of her Kibei Nisei parents.

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