America’s Concentration Camps

Tule Lake

May 27, 1942 – March 20, 1946

The fence was heavy wire mesh and “man-proof.” The guard towers were turrets equipped with machine guns. The outer perimeter was patrolled by a half-dozen tanks and armored Jeeps. The guards were battle-ready troops at full battalion strength. Half of the 18,000 internees in Camp Tule Lake were children like me.
—George Takei

Tule Lake Relocation Center, as it was first officially named, was built on a dry lakebed in Northern California, just south of the Oregon border.

John Kanda was a high school senior when he arrived in September of 1942, a few months after the camp opened. To his dismay, school started late, his teachers were inexperienced “volunteers,” and there was “absolutely no equipment—especially for laboratory courses—and a shortage beyond comprehension of textbooks.”

Adult inmates were frustrated with camp conditions as well. Within the first five months, farm laborers and packing shed workers struck, mess hall workers held a protest, and rioting broke out over food shortages.

Martial Law

In the summer of 1943, it was announced that the camp would become the Tule Lake Segregation Center, where incarcerees thought to be disloyal to the U.S. would be separated from others. A lighted “man-proof” fence was erected, more watchtowers were built, and the number of troops on guard was increased from a few hundred to 930. In the fall, Tule Lake inmates who’d declared their loyalty started to move out, and inmates from other camps who were deemed disloyal moved in. Many loyals, however, chose to stay rather than uproot themselves again.

Unrest escalated; there were more strikes and protests. In November, martial law was declared. Military police frequently conducted raids on barrack apartments. Morgan Yamanaka, then a young man and captain of the camp’s fire department, was one of the many inmates rounded up for questioning. “We were herded into army trucks, and we were shoved into a room in the military barracks, and we waited interminably.”

Inmate Ben Takeshita was a schoolboy when his oldest brother was arrested. After several days of questioning, Takeshita’s brother was subjected to a fake execution by firing squad. “They went as far as saying ‘Ready, aim, fire,’ and pulling the trigger, but the rifles had no bullets. They just went click.”

Renouncing Citizenship

Incarcerees were chosen for Tule Lake Segregation Center based on their answers to a mandatory “loyalty” questionnaire. Questions 27 and 28 asked inmates, many of whom had been denied citizenship because of their race, to pledge to serve in the military whenever called upon and to “swear unqualified allegiance” to the U.S.

Some had answered “no” to one or both of these questions on principle. As Hiroshi Kashiwagi said, “Why would anyone want to join the army, you know, and put your life on the line, [given] the way you’d been treated?” Morgan Yamanaka answered “no-no” because he had a brother in the Japanese army, “and I would not want to fight our brother.”

Others, especially first-generation immigrants, didn’t think there would ever be a life for them in the U.S. outside the camps. Violet de Cristoforo said of her father-in-law, “He figured that he was considered an enemy alien, all his assets were frozen, and he had nothing to go back to in California.” He and his family wrote simply, “Refuse to answer, seek repatriation” on the form.

As their immigrant parents considered moving back to Japan, American citizens in the camps were given the chance to renounce their citizenship. Initially, just over one hundred did so. Some hoped to keep their families together should immigrants be deported to Japan. Others felt that they hadn’t been treated as American citizens anyway.

When it was announced that Tule Lake was closing, and that American citizens would be released, there was a panic. Inmates didn’t know what awaited them outside the camp. “We were getting reports [of] people…getting shot at…, houses being burned,” said Tule Lake inmate Tom Akashi. “So all of a sudden, there was a whole avalanche of people renouncing their citizenship.” The number of renunciations at Tule Lake jumped from 117 to 5,461.

1,327 of those who renounced were expatriated to Japan. Most of those who stayed eventually regained their citizenship primarily through the efforts of civil rights attorney Wayne M. Collins, who convinced the federal courts that renunciations took place under extreme duress and difficult circumstances.

Quote credits

George Takei, from To the Stars: The Autobiography of George Takei, Star Trek’s Mr. Sulu, Pocket Books/Star Trek, 1995.
John Kanda, quoted in And Justice for All; An Oral History of the Japanese American Detention Camps, edited by John Tateishi, University of Washington Press, 1999.
Ben Takeshita, quoted in And Justice for All; An Oral History of the Japanese American Detention Camps.
Violet de Cristoforo, quoted in And Justice for All; An Oral History of the Japanese American Detention Camps.
Morgan Yamanaka, quoted in And Justice for All: An Oral History of the Japanese American Detention Camps.
Hiroshi Kashiwagi, interview by Alice Ito, July 3, 2004, Densho Visual History Collection, Densho.
Tom Akashi, interview by Tom Ikeda, July 3, 2004, Densho Visual History Collection, Densho.