Just as America was celebrating Independence Day, a quiet pilgrimage had marked a history of loss on a stark stretch of land in California. A group of Japanese Americans came to Tule Lake, California to commemorate the detention of more than 18,000 members of their community in an internment camp there during World War II. It’s a history of the immigrant experience that is far removed from the tales of upward-strivers coming ashore and achieving the American dream–and yet it’s every bit as American. During this obscured period of U.S. World War II history, many Japanese Americans responded to their detention with a combination of resilience, confusion and insistence that they were in fact loyal Americans. But many Tule Lake prisoners were labeled as “disloyal” by the authorities because they refused to affirm two questions that were designed to separate “enemy aliens”–those supposedly aligned with U.S. adversary Japan– from good Americans. According to the Tule Lake Committee’s historical account, two questions were enough to test a person’s loyalty, even if the only country they knew was the one that had incarcerated them because of their ethnicity:
Question 27 asked, Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered? Question 28 asked, Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or any other foreign government, power, or organization?
“No-Nos” gave negative responses to Questions 27 and 28 or refused to answer them. Some answered “No” to protest their incarceration; others were confused about what the questions meant. Refusal to answer or “No” answers were viewed as proof of disloyalty, and resulted in removal to Tule Lake, which became the Segregation Center because it had the highest proportion of persons who answered “No” to 27 and 28. The Japanese American Citizens League harshly condemned “No-Nos” as troublemakers, believing the situation demanded a strong show of loyalty to America.
The Tule Lake encampment has become a site of commemoration for survivors and their families, for remembering an era when the government could use war as a pretext to act with impunity, to turn the force of the state against its own people in the name of patriotism.
Since 1974, descendents of Tule Lake have been organizing pilgrimages to ensure that this memory remains imprinted on the historical record, after survivors tried for years to shroud their memories in shame and silence. The lessons of the “No-Nos” are mirrored today, with the mass detention and deportation of immigrants, and the demonization of communities of color as un-American and in many cases, less than human.
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It’s a curious combination of nativist vitriol and state oppression that allows crimes like this to happen. But the “crime” of those who said No at Tule Lake raised an especially tragic dilemma because it forced many individuals to question whether they could ever truly be a part of the country. It split many families over the question of loyalty. The New York Times reports:
After the end of the war, the no-noes, as they were known, not only struggled to find a place in mainstream society, but also were regarded with suspicion by other Japanese-Americans, whose pledge of undivided loyalty and search for larger acceptance could have been threatened by the no-noes.
For decades, the no-noes themselves never explained what lay behind their answers. Most, in fact, never spoke about Tule Lake at all.
“I came here because I want to know why my parents told me never to talk about Tule Lake,” said James Katsumi Nehira, 68, who was riding a bus on a tour here with his daughter, Cherilyn, 37. “They were ostracized and ashamed they were in Tule Lake. I never talked about it. I honored my dad’s wishes until he passed away.”
It would be generations before the Japanese American community finally attained some form of justice for the oppression and unjust detention they suffered during World War II. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was an official acknowledgement by Congress of the violation of Japanese Americans’ rights, recognizing “the fundamental injustice of the evacuation, relocation, and internment” of both citizens and immigrants. But since then, the anti-immigrant hysteria of the post-9/11 era, the militarization of the border, and the slow crush of basic civil liberties by the executive branch, cast doubt on whether the lessons of history have been understood by the government and the public. And again, the politics of the past and present force us to wrestle with enduring questions of what loyalty means, and whether we can separate our conflicts with the state from our commitment to our communities. The Times reprinted the statement of the parents of George Nakano, a former member of the California State Assembly:
Asked whether they would swear allegiance to the United States and forswear any to Japan, they answered: “Undecided because of the unjust and unconstitutional compulsory evacuation of those citizens of Japanese ancestry and the existing racial discrimination and prejudice.”
As much as some politicians would like to divide us with those questions of allegiance, we are still, sadly but defiantly, undecided.
To learn more about the history of Japanese internment, visit the educational history project densho.org.