Civil rights resistance at Tule Lake

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Contemplating the loss of the South African leader Nelson Mandela and his courage in challenging and dismantling the racist system of apartheid — incarcerated for 27 years because he sought human and civil rights — I couldn’t help but think about how the Nikkei community treated its own civil rights heroes.

Fred Korematsu and Gordon Hirabayashi legally challenged the government’s unjust incarceration, and for much of their lives were ignored, even accused by some Nikkei as being “troublemakers.” Thus, it was a significant moment when, in 1998, Korematsu was presented with our nation’s highest civilian honor, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, given by then-President Bill Clinton. In 2012, President Barack Obama posthumously honored Hirabayashi with the Medal of Freedom. The Presidential recognition was clear validation of their heroism — of seeking justice in response to the government’s injustice — an expression of cherished American values. These men, once attacked as troublemaking “disloyals,” were given the highest official recognition for their courage and patriotism.

During World War II, more than 10 percent of imprisoned Japanese Americans found the courage to assert their dignity and demand justice by protesting the government’s abuse of power. They used the non-violent options available to them — refusing to answer “yes” to the loyalty questions, renouncing their citizenship, refusing to serve in the keeper’s army. Rather than being recognized for seeking justice, these individuals were shamed by our community and marginalized as “disloyal,” as “cowards” and as “troublemakers.”

Understandably, traumatized Japanese Americans internalized the message of power, instinctively seeing obedience as the way to show “loyalty” to authority, however unjust that authority was. Those with the courage or “baka guts” to protest the racist acts of the government were stigmatized by other Nikkei as “disloyal.”

Instead of supporting demands for equal justice and fair treatment, the Japanese American Citizens League condemned wartime resistance. Later, at the 1946 National Convention, JACL leaders wondered how they could punish draft resisters and Tule Lake’s dissenters, believing “they would serve as a reminder that there were some Japanese who waivered [sic] in their loyalty to the United States and would always be a source of irritation to local Japanese communities.” For those who were manipulated into giving up their U.S. citizenship, JACL leadership recommended the “J.A.C.L. go on record favoring their deportation immediately.”

Thus, it was a major milestone in 2002 when the JACL looked back to acknowledge a lapse in its wartime civil rights advocacy. “At that time, we did not recognize and we neglected to respect the right of protest and civil disobedience expressed by some who were in camps,” reflected Floyd Mori, the then-executive director of the JACL who represented the organization at the Nisei Resisters of Conscience of World War II Recognition and Reconciliation Ceremony. At the event, Mori validated the draft resisters acts as “a means to emphasize the importance of the Constitution under which the laws of the country were designed to protect their individual rights.”

While the draft resister ceremony was an important step toward resolving its past, the JACL apologized to only a few hundred Nisei draft resisters who explicitly responded “yes-yes” to questions #27 and #28. The JACL’s apology did not cover the more than 12,000 dissenters who were segregated at the maximum-security Tule Lake concentration camp — the “no-nos” who refused to give unqualified “yes” answers to the loyalty questions, or the 5,461 victims of the government’s denationalization and deportation scheme at Tule Lake.

As a participant in the 2009 Tule Lake Pilgrimage, representing the JACL, Mori celebrated Tule Lake’s becoming a National Park Service unit. At that four-day pilgrimage, he learned of the toxic legacy of the government’s decision to divide the community. It was a powerful experience to be immersed among the families the government stigmatized as “disloyal” — a stigma that was perpetuated by a JACL and Nikkei community narrative that honored only so-called “loyals” who cooperated with the government.

Those who used the loyalty questionnaire as a vehicle of protest were labeled as “disloyal,” and shamed and forgotten.

“Many of those who were considered as unpatriotic and labeled as troublemakers at Tule Lake were people of great principle and conscience,” Mori wrote after that pilgrimage, vowing to begin a conversation about Tule Lake within the JACL. Mori, who now serves as the executive director of the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies, initiated that conversation at the 2013 National JACL convention by convening a well-attended panel on Tule Lake’s protest history. (Disclosure: the panel at the JACL National convention included Mori, Dr. Satsuki Ina and myself).

For a younger generation of Japanese Americans, several articles about Tule Lake’s segregation story are posted at www.discovernikkei.org. The JACL’s wartime acts are part of a JACL-commissioned document known as the “Lim Report” posted at www.javoice.com. Hopefully, in 2014 at the next JACL National Convention in San Jose, the organization will continue the conversation about Tule Lake, with the understanding that dissent is not disloyalty, but the expression of a cherished American value.

For the dwindling number of survivors who protested the unjust incarceration and were scorned by their own community, we are running out of time to validate their actions and to encourage them to share their stories for future generations. How tragic it would be for our community’s history and legacy to be perpetually deformed by the hollowed-out, racist propaganda imposed by the War Relocation Authority, the Western Defense Command and the Department of Justice.

Barbara Takei writes from Sacramento, Calif. The views expressed in the preceding commentary are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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