Families of Interned Japanese Americans See Parallels to Detentions at Border

Debates over confining migrant parents and children stir activism in a new generation of Japanese Americans.

Because about 120,000 of them were forcibly removed during World War II, many Japanese Americans feel some primacy in the current outrage over the separation and mass detention of migrant families.

Photo courtesy of Glenn Nelson

After a sometimes rousing, mostly solemn, and often tear-filled memorial ceremony brimming with Japanese and Japanese American influences, a scene unfurled that, to common understanding, may have seemed un-Japanese. It happened beside an old jail nested in a much larger prison, the Tule Lake Segregation Center, which during World War II confined people whose only crime was resembling an enemy they didn’t know. Looming overhead was a geological feature called Castle Rock that offers spectacular views of a valley where the Modoc once roamed but from which freedom’s ring was rendered inaudible.

In squint-worthy, northern Californian morning sun, the elders—or camp “survivors”—to this biennial pilgrimage sat grim-faced in folding chairs, holding signs that betrayed their anger.

“No more camps.”

“Kodomo no tame ni (for the sake of the children), they’re our children, set them free.”

“Never again!”

Children and grandchildren engulfed the elders, their chants merging in spirit with other Keep Families Together rallies taking place across the country that day. Someone’s 90-plus-year-old grandmother waved a fist in the air. Soon everybody did. “No-no” were the responses to two key questions on a loyalty questionnaire that forced many of these Japanese Americans and their ancestors to Tule Lake 76 years ago.

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Among this year’s pilgrims was Karen Korematsu, the daughter of Fred Korematsu, the civil rights activist who challenged the legality of the World War II incarceration. An activist in her own right, she was fresh off a round of interviews after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark Korematsu v United States decision that justified the camps and upheld President Trump’s Muslim travel ban in the very same decision. In a scorching dissent of the travel ban decision, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said, “in the name of a superficial claim of national security, the court redeploys the same dangerous logic underlying Korematsu and merely replaces one ‘gravely wrong’ decision with another.”

Many also have compared the confinement of Japanese during World War II to the detention of families seeking refuge from violence in other countries. The Trump Administration is responding to a federal judge’s order to reunify thousands of migrant families separated at the border. During a panel discussion at Tule Lake, Carl Takei, an ACLU attorney who specializes in immigrant detention and private prison policies, said the administration is preparing massive concentration sites that are “extraordinarily inhumane,” including scoping out the site at a former Japanese incarceration camp in Rohwer, Arkansas.

It was an uncanny coincidence that more than 400 people made the pilgrimage this year to Tule Lake as debate over immigration bans and enforcement techniques reached a fevered pitch around the U.S. The only one of the 10 World War II concentration camps designated as a segregation center, Tule Lake was a cauldron of resistance, division and strife whose hugely untold story shatters the pervasive image of quiet American Japanese capitulation.

In the sanitized racial history of America, Japanese incarceration is portrayed as an almost benign act, a story of an acquiescent people reporting impassively to their own imprisonment. Because about 120,000 of them were forcibly removed during World War II, many Japanese Americans feel some primacy in the current outrage over the separation and mass detention of migrant families.

That hasn’t always been the case. Bending to cultural norms such as the Buddhist notion of Gaman—enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity—Japanese Americans often have been recalcitrant protesters. The long, relative silence over the incarceration experience has been like a cancer eating away at the interior of this community, with the long weekend at Tule Lake laying bare much unresolved suffering, unhealed rifts, and unleveraged moral authority.

“We were victims of our own government.”

A restless generation of Japanese Americans is coming of age in a polarized political climate, and they still have venerated elders like Yukio Kawaratani, whose experiences link them directly to their country’s blistering border wars and family separation anxieties.

Kawaratani is an 87-year-old retired Los Angeles city planner who initially presents with the kind of stoniness often projected by elder males of Japanese ancestry. Asking him about the separation of migrating families is to flip his switch from stoicism to zeal. He knows separation, painfully and personally.

At one point, he notes, “Our family of 11 was broken into six pieces.”

The Kawaratani family started at the concentration camp at Poston, Arizona. The loyalty question about military service essentially landed them at Tule Lake. To Kawaratani’s parents, a positive response to No. 27 was the equivalent of exposing three of their six sons, including the youngest, Yukio, to the dangers of military conflict. The oldest three Kawaratani boys already were bound for duty. Plus it had been rumored that Japanese Americans would be assigned by U.S. armed forces to the front lines, where they would be considered expendable. Better to accept the consequences of becoming a “no-no” family, the parents decided. Kawaratani’s father and two brothers later became renunciants and were relocated to Department of Justice camps in North Dakota and Texas.

Kawaratani remained—“alone,” he says—with his mother and three sisters at Tule Lake. Angry and disillusioned with his country, Kawaratani’s father repatriated with his sons to Japan.

“We were victims of our own government,” Kawaratani says firmly.

The consequences of that victimization can be dire and lingering, he knows. His brothers were able to regain their U.S. citizenships, like thousands of Nisei, because of the work of San Francisco attorney Wayne Collins. His father wasn’t as fortunate. He remained trapped in Japan, where he died, his family believes, of a broken heart. Yukio Kawaratani was 14 years old the last time he saw his father at Tule Lake.

The longstanding Japanese American mantra, “Never Again,” was amended at Tule Lake to, “Never Again is Now.” Though pervasive, the sentiment did not find complete unanimity. Just minutes into the first session of the pilgrimage, a man stood and interrupted an appeal for resistance by the event’s organizing chair, Barbara Takei. “Bullshit!” he roared, adding, “This isn’t political.”

Various moments during the pilgrimage also exposed lingering tensions between stigmatized “disloyalists” represented by the “no-no” families and renunciants, and the pro-American loyalists represented on the extreme by the Japanese American Citizens League, which had adopted an accommodationist stance during the war. Still others continue to adhere to Gaman and a cultural bent—“the nail that sticks out gets hammered down”—to conformity that is amplified in the Japanese American experience as a defense mechanism in response to the concentration camps.

“We’ve always been there to be called upon,” observes Kathy Masaoka, a leader with Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress (NCRR), one of the prominent organizations that helped win reparations for World War II incarcerees in 1988. “We’ve learned how to be political. We’ve learned how to speak up. What’s happening today is an opportunity we can seize to keep speaking.”

“I’m hopeful,” says Mike Ishii, a Japanese American activist based in New York. “But a big part is changing the culture of staying quiet until is it necessary to speak out.”