Sunday, July 12, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Return To Tule Lake -- Japanese-American Internees And Their Families Make A Pilgrimage To The `No-No Camp,' Where Loyalty And Patriotism Meant Different Things To Those Who Were There

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

Two months after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, banishing 120,000 Japanese Americans to inland internment camps. One of the camps was Tule (pronounced Too-lee) Lake, hastily constructed in the spring of 1942 on a flat, ancient lake bed in Northern California.

Tule Lake, whose population peaked at 18,789, was unique because it became the destination for those who refused to declare undivided loyalty to the U.S., who became known as the "No-nos."

It was the last camp to close - on March 20, 1946.

TULE LAKE, Calif. - On this fine summer morning, Marianne Sumihiro West sifts through the sand at a dusty field, trying to find seashells. Each is fragile, no bigger than a fingernail. She tells her grown daughters she had painted shells and strung them together to wear when she was a teenager.

"I left the necklaces behind," she says as her daughters huddle around her protectively. "I left a lot of things behind."

She looks around the field and sighs. Memories can blindside.

For years, West, 71, of Spokane, didn't think about Tule Lake, and she rarely mentioned it to her children or grandchildren. This is her first visit to the camp site since she left more than 50 years ago.

"Intellectually, I knew I wasn't guilty of anything," she says. "But there was a feeling that I had done something wrong because I was here" at the notorious camp, which at one point was under martial law because of heated protests from rebelling internees.

And because, at age 16, feeling betrayed by her country, she sided with the "No-nos."

In the years since, "I blocked it out."

No taste of freedom

Fifty-six years ago on this land, federal workers patched together hundreds of barracks using cheap green lumber and sheets of tar paper. Barbed wire enclosed the 1 1/4-square-mile camp and sharpshooters peered down from guard towers. Here, no one tasted freedom.

This weekend, nearly 300 people from California, Oregon and Washington have journeyed to what remains of Tule Lake. Most are Sansei, third-generation Japanese Americans, who have heard about the camp most of their lives. It is the place where their parents and grandparents were first imprisoned because of their ancestry, and later, because of how they answered on a loyalty test given in the winter of 1943 - a time when loyalty and patriotism meant vastly different things to imprisoned Japanese Americans.

"This place is part of my family's history," says Mayumi Tsutakawa, who has accompanied her mother, Ayame, on the pilgrimage. Ayame met her husband, the late prominent Seattle artist George Tsutakawa, at the camp. George was visiting, on furlough from serving in the U.S. Army; Ayame's family had remained at the camp when at mid-war it became a segregation center for "No-nos."

Mayumi has brought her two children on the pilgrimage as well. "I want to understand what happened to my mother and what were the influences in her life," says Mayumi, a curator, writer and former King County Arts Commission director. "You can't get that from a book."

For those once imprisoned here, the pilgrimage is tantamount to an awakening. Through the years, Tule Lake has been a crumpled memory of hopelessness, shame and self-doubt, tucked deeply away with other distasteful thoughts. Many have refused to talk about their experiences, or even admit they'd been here.

"Why talk about such bad things?" they'd respond when children and grandchildren asked.

This Fourth of July weekend, there were answers. As internees and their families returned, many for the first time, they shared long-hidden memories.

"I didn't know what prejudice was until I was sent to camp," West asserts. "Then I knew."

Fertile land, barbed wire

The road to the old barracks skirts some of the most fertile farmland in the country. Klamath Basin's only town, Tulelake, has a population of just over 1,000 and bills itself as the horseradish capital of the world. Four miles from the Oregon border and 30 miles south of Klamath Falls, the basin also is home to Lava Beds National Monument and two wildlife refuges, where thousands of migrating birds blanket the sky every fall. Willowy desert grass and gopher holes dot the land, and the sand crunches with the tiny seashells that glitter in the sun.

The sturdiest building left on the old campground is the concrete stockade, where the most militant internees were sent for starting mass demonstrations and pressuring other inmates to renounce their American citizenship. Reinforced steel bars still jut from the window openings, but swallows have built nests on the brackets that held the bunk beds.

The prisoners had scrawled poems, curses and their hopes in pencil on the walls. Their words, in English and Japanese, have survived.

"Show me the way to go home," one man pined.

The barracks are almost all gone. Most were sold at the end of the war for a dollar each to area farmers, who used them as sheds or to house migrant farmworkers. The few that remain are rickety and smell of rot. But that did not stop anyone on the pilgrimage from exploring them. They touched the torn tar paper, the crumbling walls and the rusty nails.

They lingered, even when it was time to move on.

"It still seems unreal," says West's daughter, Mayre Johnson of Kent. "My mother is pretty quiet about life. She never discussed what it was like living here. We knew she was in camp. But that was it."

Nothing can be done

When the United States declared war on Japan, Ayame Iwasa was a 17-year-old junior at Sacramento High School. Though she had been chosen Miss Nisei Sacramento and represented the Japanese-American community at San Francisco's 1939 fair, she was shy, more comfortable speaking Japanese than English. Ayame was a Kibei - born in America but sent to Japan for several years to learn its culture and language.

Her parents operated a thriving wholesale liquor business, and the family rented a modest house. When orders came in 1942 for everyone of Japanese descent to evacuate, each family member was allowed to bring only one piece of baggage. In her duffel bag, Ayame bundled a photo of her older brother, Takeo, who had remained in Japan. Her parents persuaded a friend to store most of their belongings, including a cedar chest carefully packed with Ayame's dance kimonos.

They traveled by train from Sacramento to Klamath Falls, then by bus 30 miles south to Tule Lake. There they met up with other Japanese Americans who'd been ordered to the camp from parts of Portland and rural counties in Washington. At that point, early in the war, Japanese Americans were sent to particular internment camps according to where they lived; Tule Lake was not yet the designated camp for disloyals.

The sun was still bright when they stepped inside the gates. The dark barracks loomed ahead, row after row. Everything was dry, brown.

"Shikata ga nai," people whispered. Nothing can be done.

"There was fear and wondering what it was going to be like for us," Ayame Iwasa Tsutakawa recalls. "What we were going to eat or drink? Who might beat us up? Where do we sleep?"

Ayame's mother squeezed a cot and a small desk into a tiny nook for her daughter. There, on the desk, she kept the photo of her brother.

Rowdy, adamant, vocal

Each camp had a reputation. Those who lived at Tule Lake were rowdy, adamant about their rights and vocal about their living conditions. The inmates protested often and had numerous strikes about mess-hall food, work conditions in the fields and on construction jobs, and about pay. At one point, the entire community rose in protest when camp officials refused to allow a public funeral for a man killed in a truck accident.

A vocal minority wanted to repatriate to Japan. They clanged on huge dish pans to call together meetings.

The most strident in the camp came from California's Sacramento Valley, where anti-Japanese sentiment had produced some of the worst discrimination in the country. Historically, Asians were blamed for taking away whites' jobs by accepting lower wages, and later they were accused of unfair competition in farming.

Though 70 percent of the inmates in Tule Lake were Nisei, American-born citizens, their Japanese-born parents were not allowed to become naturalized citizens or buy property. Some laws had prohibited them from marrying or going to school with Caucasians.

And now, imprisoned at Tule Lake, they had lost their homes, livelihoods and their constitutional rights.

West recalls how angry that made her feel, at age 16. So angry that, at one point, she renounced her U.S. citizenship. "Here I was a citizen, but I was in camp," she remembers.

She later rescinded her request, but her pain remained. Her parents never recovered economically; her father, a foreman for a railroad company before the war, lost his seniority and became a laborer.

"I felt betrayed," she says. "But the hurt was there more for my parents. My father had taught himself to read and write in English. To have all of that thrown back at him was the most painful to see."

Camp life, home life

Families were assigned to barracks apartments, furnished with a pot-bellied stove and Army cots. Sand and dirt blew in through gaping cracks in walls and floors. Early arrivals grabbed leftover scrap lumber and built furniture and partitions for their homes. There was no privacy in communal latrines.

Crammed into one room, each family tried to make it home: A photo of Rita Hayworth on the wall. A Buddhist shrine against the corner. Some stitched-together Army blankets and old clothes for curtains.

Some wealthier families bought canned food at the cooperative stores and cooked in their apartments. But most relied on the mess halls for meals, and worked for a monthly stipend in the potato fields outside the camp.

Ayame Iwasa Tsutakawa recalls how she immersed herself in classical Japanese dance and studied the koto, a harp. Every weekend, she performed. Everyone kept busy in his own way.

The young even had their own band, the Down Beats. The teenage boys swaggered in stiff Levis, striped T-shirts and high-top black boots with lifted heels. The girls wore skirts, sweaters and bobby socks. Any colorful outfit from the outside was cherished.

Families sidestepped the prohibition on radios by ordering parts from the Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog and building their own shortwaves.

Listening to Japanese military broadcasts, Ayame's parents convinced themselves that Japan would be victorious. When a visitor told her stepfather that the United States was on the verge of winning, he banged the kitchen table with his fist. NO! That could not be.

Once the war was over, they planned to return to Japan permanently to join the rest of their family, particularly her brother, who was trapped there by the war's sudden start.

"Many expected Japan to win," Ayame recalls. "All the propaganda said so. We couldn't tell what was true or not."

Who was loyal and who wasn't

Even on the pilgrimage, few willingly talk openly about loyalty. This is the sore spot that refuses to heal, particularly for the men. Nisei veterans still ostracize "No-no boys," those who refused to swear allegiance to the United States.

But Tule Lake was all about loyalty. Who was and who wasn't - at least on paper.

In the last week of January 1943, the War Relocation Authority, the federal agency that administered the camps, required every adult inmate to answer a lengthy, complicated survey. Questions 27 and 28 were the most important: Would you be willing to serve in the United States armed forces or nursing corps; do you swear allegiance to the United States and forswear any obedience to the Japanese emperor?

"Yes, Yes" meant loyalty to the U.S. and, ultimately, the chance to leave camp to either serve in the military, find work outside the West Coast or attend college.

But for many internees, the questions created confusion and distrust.

The surveys frightened the older Issei, or first generation, who did not have U.S. citizenship. In essence, they were asked to be stateless, people without a country.

The Issei also feared their answers would ultimately send their sons to combat.

The majority of the Nisei, those born in America, readily volunteered to fight for the U.S. despite spending two years in camp. During the war, more than 26,000 Japanese Americans served in the armed forces.

But some refused to swear allegiance to a country that they felt had disowned them.

Anyone who answered other than "Yes, Yes" was tagged a disloyal, including those who refused to fill out the survey. Tule Lake had the highest percentage of "disloyals" at 42 percent. In the fall of 1943, the War Relocation Authority began segregating the disloyals from the other nine camps across the country and sent them to Tule Lake.

Tule Lake became known as the "No-no camp."

Ayame Tsutakawa says she does not remember how her family answered the questions, but they remained at Tule Lake for the duration of the war.

"There was so much resting on so few words," says her daughter, Mayumi. "It was so vague a concept, but so much counted on those answers."

Militancy in the rising sun

Camp life became increasingly turbulent because of those who wanted to repatriate to Japan. Though they were a minority at Tule Lake, they formed their own militant groups. One called itself Hokoku Seinen-dan (Young Men's Organization to Serve Our Mother Country). Members shaved their heads, exercised at dawn to the rising sun and donned Sears, Roebuck shirts stenciled with Hokoku. The ringleaders were sent to the stockade.

There was some sympathy among the other internees for those who were pro-Japanese, but most just tried to find normalcy.

In the spring of 1945, Ayame Iwasa met her future husband, George Tsutakawa, when he visited his sister. He was on furlough from the U.S. military intelligence school, where he had taught Japanese ever since he had enlisted in the U.S. Army.

He and Ayame talked for hours about camp, about life outside, about their hopes. On the last day of his visit, Ayame walked him to the gate and they waved goodbye.

Days later, Ayame received a tiny package in the mail, something from George. She eagerly ripped it open. Sparkling from the box was a diamond ring.

War is over

After the U.S. bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, news of Japan's surrender flashed through the camp. Those who had shortwave radios huddled in their homes for news. They thought that all of Japan had been bombed.

Ayame's family worried about Takeo. Was he dead? They listened to the Japanese emperor apologize for the war. Later, they heard that Takeo was killed by the atomic blast while he was in Hiroshima. There was no place in Japan where the family could return.

For some, there was celebration. For others, there was acceptance. The war was over; it was time to leave camp.

Would they understand?

Before the pilgrimage, Ayame Tsutakawa had wondered whether her grandchildren should visit Tule Lake. Maybe they wouldn't understand.

She wasn't sure herself whether she wanted to return. Her husband, George, is now gone. The memories were sure to be bittersweet. But in these past few days, she shared what she remembers of Tule Lake. Her daughter and grandchildren have now seen what is left, its remaining buildings disappearing into the sand. They helped make 1,001 origami cranes in memory of those who died at the camp, and offered flowers at a Shinto, Buddhist and Christian service.

"They've never experienced something like that," Ayame says of her grandchildren. "Now they've seen it, and I think it is good for them."

At the end of the pilgrimage, West has shared dozens of stories with her daughters. And she has collected a handful of tiny shells for her granddaughter. She wants her to know the shells are from Tule Lake.

A place, she says, she will not keep quiet about anymore.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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