When President Trump signed an executive order last month banning people from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S. and advocated for a Muslim registry, some of the loudest opponents were Japanese-Americans.

They have long memories of another executive order, No. 9066, that forced all Japanese-Americans on the West Coast from their homes and businesses during World War II. In 1942, almost 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, most of them American citizens and farmers, were incarcerated in what were euphemistically called “relocation” or “internment” camps.

Last summer, I got on a bus in San Francisco’s Japantown, joining a four-day pilgrimage to one of these camps — the former Tule Lake Segregation Center, just south of the Oregon border in Modoc County.

Out the bus window, I saw the sparsely populated Tule Lake Basin, alternating between well-irrigated farm fields, dusty land and the occasional dramatic rock outcropping. On the bus, survivors of camps like Tule Lake and their children and grandchildren passed a microphone around. They introduced themselves and shared why they were making the trip: trying to make sense of an experience their families rarely talk about, making connections with others with a common history, visiting the place of their birth.

The Segregation Center was located in the Tule Lake Basin, where irrigated fields still butt up against dusty land, interrupted by scrub brush and dramatic outcroppings.
The Segregation Center was located in the Tule Lake Basin, where irrigated fields still butt up against dusty land, interrupted by scrub brush and dramatic outcroppings. (Courtesy Gen Fujitani)

These kinds of introductions were taking place on other buses, too, traveling from San Jose, Union City, Seattle and Portland. Over 450 people converged for this pilgrimage that takes place every other year.

When we arrived at the nearby Oregon Institute of Technology that would be our base for the visit, one of the first people I met was Sacramento resident Riichi Fuwa.

“I wanted to see the place for the last time,” he told me. Fuwa, 98, doesn’t think he’ll make this trip again, but his memories of being imprisoned at Tule Lake are crystal clear. At his age he doesn’t remember his Social Security number, but he remembers this: “19949. That was my number the government gave me,” he said. “19949. You were more number than name.”

Camp administrators assigned Fuwa that number when he was 24, soon after he was forced off his family’s farm in Bellingham, Washington. Before the war, nearly two-thirds of West Coast Japanese-Americans worked in agriculture, people like 93-year-old Jim Tanimoto, from the Sacramento Valley town of Gridley. His father grew rice, then cultivated peaches.

Riichi Fuwa, 98, drove a tractor on the farm at the Tule Lake Segregation Center. Of his time there, he recalls 'You were more number than name.'
Riichi Fuwa, 98, drove a tractor on the farm at the Tule Lake Segregation Center. Of his time there, he recalls, “You were more number than name.” (Lisa Morehouse/KQED)

Tanimoto and Fuwa’s immigrant parents faced laws barring them from owning or holding long-term leases on land. Despite that, by 1940 they and their American-born children grew almost 40 percent of the produce in California.

Then, on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese military bombed Pearl Harbor. Resentment and hysteria grew about anyone of Japanese origin, even those born in the United States. Tanimoto remembered, “Then Executive Order 9066 was signed. Things changed.”

On February 19, 1942, when President Franklin Roosevelt signed the executive order authorizing the removal of anyone of Japanese ancestry from military areas, Japanese-Americans could read between the lines. Soon, the commanding general determined that all people of Japanese origin — whether immigrant or U.S.-born citizen — in coastal areas had to move inland onto so-called relocation camps. Many had to abandon their orchards and fields, with crops ready to harvest.

“When I stepped out of the train, the terrain was not a big shock,” Tanimoto said. “I knew what the terrain looked like.”

That’s because, when he was younger, Tanimoto had hunted deer up in the Tule Lake Basin, where all he could see was dusty land and scrub brush. In 1942, when Tanimoto and the 15,000 other forcibly evacuated Japanese-Americans arrived at Tule Lake, they saw a landscape dominated by barracks covered in black tar paper.

“Rows and rows and rows of these buildings,” said Tanimoto. “We were inside the barbed wire fence, the armed guard towers. We couldn’t walk out of the enclosure. I might get shot.” He remembered thinking, “Hey, I’m an American citizen! Now I’m the one being hunted.”

Tanimoto and many other once-successful farm owners were about to become field workers for the U.S. government.

Government Farmworkers

The guard towers and rows of barracks have long since been torn down or moved. Our guide on the pilgrimage points out the few remaining buildings, and the huge swaths of farmland once worked by Tule Lake prisoners. Over 1,000 Japanese-Americans worked in the fields, most earning just $12 a month, a quarter of what farmworkers made at the time.

Many of the Japanese-Americans incarcerated at Tule Lake had been farmers before the war. At camp, they were employed as field workers, often for just $12 a month.
Many of the Japanese-Americans incarcerated at Tule Lake had been farmers before the war. At camp, they were employed as field workers, often for just $12 a month. (Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project via National Archives and Records Administration Collection)

Agriculture wasn’t incidental at any of the incarceration camps. Many of the new War Relocation Authority administrators came right from the Department of Agriculture. Camp locations, though usually in deserts and other inhospitable places, were often chosen for their existing government irrigation projects or agricultural potential. The government’s intention was to improve the land for after the war.

Each of the 10 incarceration camps nationwide had working farms, but Tule Lake was different. The land was on a former lakebed, so despite a dusty, snowy and windy climate and a short growing season, it produced enough food for its own mess halls and those at other camps. That production was so essential that when the Tule Lake camp opened, eligible men who refused to work were fined $20 a month.

Farmworkers at Tule Lake harvested almost 30 crops, including potatoes, rutabagas and daikon radishes. They also grew grain and hay for animal feed, and kept hogs and chickens.

Japanese-Americans cut seed potatoes at the Tule Lake farm. The original War Relocation Authority caption for this May, 1943 image read, '7,500 sacks of potatoes will be cut by 48 workers in 2-1/2 weeks. This will be enough seeds to plant the 600 acres.'
Japanese-Americans cut seed potatoes at the Tule Lake farm. The original War Relocation Authority caption for this May, 1943, image read, “7,500 sacks of potatoes will be cut by 48 workers in 2-1/2 weeks. This will be enough seeds to plant the 600 acres.” (Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project via National Archives and Records Administration Collection)

Before the war, Lucille Hitomi’s father ran a commercial flower business in Mountain View. At Tule Lake, he worked the fields, under white supervisors.

“I remember my dad saying, ‘I don’t know if they were good farmers,’ ” she said, but those bosses relied on the expertise of the Japanese-American laborers to develop a productive farm. To keep some semblance of normalcy, families like Hitomi’s tried to create special meals. It helped that her brother worked at the camp slaughterhouse.

“I don’t know if this was legal,” Hitomi remembered, “but sometimes he would bring bits of meat home. My mother brought to camp a hot plate and a frying pan, and she’d cook the meat in the barrack,” instead of joining hundreds of others in the mess hall. “I guess it was more like home,” Hitomi said.

The stated purpose of these farms was to feed incarcerees, but camp administrators took produce, grain and hay grown by these imprisoned Japanese-American workers and sold it on the open market — over 2 million tons of it from Tule Lake alone.

Loyalty Questioned

One year after ordering Japanese-Americans out of their homes, the government made every adult in every camp fill out a questionnaire.

“This outrageous questionnaire was used to separate the so-called loyal people from the disloyal,” said writer and historian Barbara Takei, who also attended the pilgrimage.

Jim Tanimoto remembers that two questions caused the most confusion and anger: number 27 asked a person’s willingness to join the armed forces — this, after being incarcerated.

“And number 28 was sort of like a trick question, ‘Would you cut your ties with Japan and the emperor?’ ” he said.

“Well, I’m an American citizen and a Gridley farmboy. I have no ties with Japan or the emperor, so how was I supposed to answer this question?” If he had no ties to begin with, he couldn’t answer “yes” and cut them, but if he answered “no,” the U.S. government would assume he was disloyal.

Jim Tanimoto worked on the freight crew, packing and shipping out produce from the Tule Lake farm. Along with many others, he refused to sign the infamous “loyalty questionnaire.” He was jailed in a nearby town, and at this former Civilian Conservation Corps camp. He says, “I stood on my constitutional rights. You can’t do this to American citizens.”
Jim Tanimoto worked on the freight crew, packing and shipping out produce from the Tule Lake farm. Along with many others, he refused to sign the infamous “loyalty questionnaire.” He was jailed in a nearby town, and at this former Civilian Conservation Corps camp. He says, “I stood on my constitutional rights. You can’t do this to American citizens.” (Courtesy Gen Fujitani)

Tanimoto and all of the other young men in Block 42, his area of the Tule Lake camp, refused to answer. They were arrested and jailed in nearby towns, then at a former Civilian Conservation Corps camp nearby.

“I stood on my constitutional rights” Tanimoto said. “You can’t do this to American citizens.”

More people at Tule Lake refused to answer these questions, or answered “no” to one or both, than at any other camp. Additional fences and guard towers went up, and anyone in the whole camp system who didn’t answer “yes” to both questions was labeled “disloyal” and was sent to the renamed Tule Lake Segregation Center. This was in the 1940s, two decades before the civil rights movement.

“Now, post-civil rights movement, we realize that the right to protest is a precious American right,” Takei said. “It was something that the people who were imprisoned in Tule Lake exercised, and because of that they were punished.”

Largest ‘City’ in Region

By fall 1943, the Tule Lake Segregation Center became the largest “city” in California north of Sacramento, ballooning to nearly 19,000 people, most of them labeled “troublemakers.” Camp got tense. With a larger workforce, the administrators expanded the farm and expected a huge harvest — but laborers complained of poor food rations and major safety concerns.

Then, a truck carrying Japanese-American laborers from the farm had an accident. Nearly 30 workers were injured. One died. Farmworkers refused to go back to work.

“They recognized that they had leverage by having the strike right when the crops are ready to pick,” Takei explained. The camp director turned around and brought in Japanese-Americans from other incarceration camps to break the strike.

“These strikebreakers were also paid $1 an hour, so in two days they could make more than a farmworker at Tule Lake would make in a month,” Takei said.

Many of the Japanese-Americans incarcerated at Tule Lake had been farmers before the war. At camp, they were employed as field workers, often for $12 a month. Here, incarcerees work in a carrot field.
Many of the Japanese-Americans incarcerated at Tule Lake had been farmers before the war. At camp, they were employed as field workers, often for $12 a month. Here, incarcerees work in a carrot field. (National Archives and Records Administration Collection/Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project)

Camp administrators would simply not let the fields go unharvested. A few days later, Takei explained, the Tule Lake laborers became even angrier.

“Workers saw a truck leaving the warehouse area filled with food,” ostensibly to feed the strikebreakers. About 200 people surrounded the truck.

“And that’s what caused the camp director to call in a battalion, with the tanks rolling in, and the camp was shut down,” said Takei.

Japanese-American leaders were thrown in a stockade, with no legal recourse. Within days, martial law was declared.

This marked the end of large-scale farming, and the beginning of two tumultuous years at Tule Lake. The military raided barracks, and hundreds of people ended up in the stockade, then a jail, for months. There were more protests. A radical faction grew in camp, and eventually thousands of angry, scared or confused Japanese-Americans imprisoned at Tule Lake renounced their U.S. citizenship — actions many felt were made under duress, and which took 20 years to reverse.

The Tule Lake Segregation Center closed in the spring of 1946, six months after the war ended. What remained were empty barracks that once housed families, and thousands of acres of rich farmland. Ninety-eight-year-old Riichi Fuwa remembered that the land he and other Japanese-Americans improved got parceled off to veterans returning from war.

“When the soldiers came back and they wanted to farm, they could homestead that place,” he said.

I asked him, jokingly, if he was offered that land. Fuwa just laughed.

Some former incarcerees returned home and eventually rebuilt successful farm businesses. Not Fuwa. His farm was overgrown, all the equipment stolen.

“There’s no way to express that feeling when you see the place like that,” he said.

He soon left farming forever. By 1960, the number of Japanese-American farmers dropped to a quarter of their prewar presence. With lost farms, homes and businesses, it’s estimated that wartime incarceration cost Japanese-Americans up to $4 billion in today’s values. Some of those losses were compensated in 1988, when President Ronald Reagan signed redress legislation offering a formal apology and giving $20,000 to each survivor.

The non-economic losses — to Japanese-Americans, to California, to the whole country — are impossible to measure.

Especially now, Takei said, we must remember “how easily people — because of fear and anger — lose sight of our important national values of justice and rule of law.” She drew parallels with Muslim Americans, refugees and immigrants, “as though demonizing other people is going to solve our problems.”

All we have to do, she said, is look at the World War II incarceration of Japanese-Americans to see that’s not true.

This story was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, a nonprofit investigative news organization. Meradith Hoddinott helped with research.

For more on the Tule Lake story, please visit Tule Lake Committee, Resistance at Tule Lake, Tule Lake Revisited, Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project, and the work of Dr. Karl Lillquist and Michael David Schmidli. For more stories in the series, visit California Foodways.

  • virgil

    I completely resent the attempt to compare Trump;s so called travel ban with the highly questionable internment of Japanese Americans in WWII. First, Islam (if it is an “Muslim ban”) is a religion not a race or ethnic group—people of all races are Muslims. Second, many of the people interned in WWII were American citizens—Trump’s order did not preclude USA citizens from entering the USA. Third the internment of Japanese Americans was largely motivated by a desire for revenge for PH—with the Trump order there is an on going danger from people entering the USA with the intent or propensity to attack the USA;;;you know like the Tsarnaev brothers in Boston or the female shooter in San Bernandino.

  • A.d. Jacobs

    The article begins: When President Trump signed an executive order last month banning people
    from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S. and
    advocated for a Muslim registry, some of the loudest opponents were
    Japanese-Americans.
    I ask why haven’t the Japanese Americans raised their voices regarding the internment of German Americans and Itlalian Americans, many of whom were in the same camps Japanese Americans! Is it because it would kill the race card.

    • Mo T

      why would Japanese Americans speak on behalf of Italian and German Americans? And if they did, who would listen? They were in internment camps. And as for the race card…..puh-lease. The US government played the race card when they put Japanese Americans in camps.
      Yes, Italian and German Americans were also in internment camps, but by no means were all Italian and German Americans put in camps. The numbers of both groups were quite large in the U.S. in the 1940s. There were like a million Americans that were German American at the time, and more so of German descent. Italians Americans were eventually considered less dangerous than Japanese Americans by the gov’t. So the Italian and German Americans placed in internment camps were done so on an individual basis, and not as whole like with Japanese Americans.

      • A.d. Jacobs

        You are suggesting, I think, that if all the Germans and Italians would have been interned then the internment would have been just! Justice is not dependent on numbers, if one is treated unjustly it is un-American. And you are implying that Germans and Italians were interned for cause. There is no proof of that. They, like the Japanese were interned because they were of the nationality of the enemy! There goes your race card!

        • Mo T

          Nothing can truly justify the internment of U.S. Citizens ever! Don’t try to twist what I wrote.

          • A.d. Jacobs

            Here is what you wrote: “Yes, Italian and German Americans were also in internment camps, but by
            no means were all Italian and German Americans put in camps.” I did not twist what you wrote! You implied! https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/2fbeeaeff78d5e591ad815f10e64c8e432c9d11d09c41ba5f6fe0759be54f969.jpg

            The photo below is of the American-born children of German heritage in the Crystal City Internment Camp. Many of those children were sent to a Germany under siege and traded for Americans caught behind enemy lines and wounded U.S. soldiers and airmen.

    • Byard Pidgeon

      German and Italian POWs were usually interned under better conditions than the Tule Lake internees, even the few who were nearby in the CCC camp.
      Also, German and Italian POWs were…and I have eyewitness accounts…often allowed to work off-base, unsupervised, and even allowed to go off-base for recreation, like dating, in the POW facility in Medford, OR, and in the for many years unacknowledged POW facility at Camp Adair, OR.
      The race card was, is, and shall always be relevant in the internments, just as it is in the Black civil rights movement. The German and Italian POWs were known enemy combatants, but they were white.

      • A.d. Jacobs

        We were not discussing POW but Civilian Internees of War. For your information thousands of Japanese Americans left their relocation centers to attend colleges and universities in the Midwest. In addition, others were released to work for Seabrook Farms in New Jersey. Those interned were of the ethnicity of the then enemies, Germany, Italy, and Japan!

        • Byard Pidgeon

          The Japanese Americans who “left” their concentration camps were released, under supervision, and were those who were deemed to be no threat. They were not free to go where they chose, and being sent to New Jersey to do farm labor isn’t exactly being “released”.
          By the way, a friend’s father was under two of those conditional releases, in large part because he was a christian minister.
          In comparison, very few German ancestry or Italian ancestry people were interned, only because they’d been very vocal, or worse, in their actual support of the Axis powers. I know of no one on the large Italian side of my family who had ever felt threatened by internment, nor did they know anyone who had been.
          My partner’s heritage is German, and some of her relatives in Germany were active Nazis, but no one in her extended family in this country, even those who were immigrants, was ever threatened or concerned about internment.
          The race card, which for some unknowable reason you seem obsessed with trying to deny, was obviously and irrefutably largely responsible for the targeting of Japanese Americans; there was already a long history of discrimination, both formal/legal and informal.

          • A.d. Jacobs

            I was interned! I was locked up with Japanese Americans. No one to my knowledge who was interned was charged with any crime. For the record, my father and his family was interned because the government was running out of exchange bait. And you should do more research on the Japanese who were released to go to college; and regarding those who went to Seabrook Farms. FURTHERMORE the Japanese Americans could have left the coastal defense areas and other defense areas as many German Americans did…and thus avoid relocation! https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/e5b555f23aaf54b58b5e1f56fa436603393ad506bbd96c78ce2e13af704db418.jpg
            The boxcar is similar to the one in which I was transported in the winter of 1946 in Germany, frigid and stench filled for 92 hours no heat…..and then taken to a prison….I was but 12…..this transport was under armed U.S. Guards…..

          • Byard Pidgeon

            I don’t understand the “exchange” you refer to, or the boxcar transport in 1946, when the war had ended…but…I think you should contact the news staff at KQED and the writer of this article, Lisa Morehouse, about your experience and the greater story of which you were a part.
            It seems like something a news organization would be interested in pursuing.

          • A.d. Jacobs

            Thanks for the suggestion. I will follow up! https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/f10c01e1f1c10f4fab82fb764c3fa462d8bbc30e21f48b3bed57d91ec6a92050.jpg

            And this is how I was guarded at the prison

    • Byard Pidgeon

      http://tpr.org/post/texas-matters-secret-history-crystal-city-wwii-internment-camp

      I just found this from Texas Public Radio, 1915, don’t know if you’ve referred to it.

      Thanks for letting me know about these internments. Still, I think you’d best lay off the “race card” stuff, because the racist background is very well documented, and about 8 times the number of Japanese imprisoned as Germans.

      By the way, I live about an hour’s drive from the site of the Tule Lake concentration camp, usually go down there a couple times a year to visit Lava Beds National Monument.

Author

Lisa Morehouse

Lisa Morehouse is an award-winning public radio and print journalist, who has filed for National Public Radio, American Public Media, KQED Public Radio, Edutopia, and McSweeney’s. Her reporting has taken her from Samoan traveling circuses to Mississippi Delta classrooms to the homes of Lao refugees in rural Iowa. In addition to reporting, she teaches radio production to at-risk youth in the Bay Area.  Her series After the Gold Rush featured the changing industries, populations and identities of rural towns throughout California. She’s now producing California Foodways, a series exploring the intersections of food, culture, economics, history and labor.  Follow along on the Facebook page or on Twitter @cafoodways.

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