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Resistance Revisited: Tule Lake

Review by Harvey Dong of Eastwind Books of Berkeley

 

Current attacks on civil liberties against Muslims and Arab Americans in particular have called attention to the shocking similarities with the WWII internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans in U.S. concentration camps. Recent statements by Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.), who is chair of the Judiciary Sub-committee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security, have echoed past justifications for Japanese internment as precedence.

Besides repeating the argument of internment for their own safety, he added, "some probably were intent on doing harm to us, just as some of these Arab Americans are probably intent on doing harm to us."

Contemporary research into the Japanese American internment, resurrected by the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA) in 1968 with its reprinting of the original internment orders (Instructions to All Persons of Japanese Ancestry), has been a thoroughly researched topic and sometimes considered "dead issue" by many activists and former activists, until recently.

Tule Lake, a historical novel written by Edward Miyakawa in 1980, returns to us like a mockingbird, reminding us of the human rights travesty committed against both citizens (70%) and aliens of Japanese descent by federal, state and local authorities. But this mockingbird adds a further dimension -- the fact that there was resistance from the personal to the collective level. The protagonist, Ben Sensaki, is a young Kibei (born in the U.S., but lived in Japan to learn the language and culture) and Boalt Hall-educated lawyer. He grew up in the Florin area of Sacramento and enters camp with many of his close high school buddies. His brother, Gordie, is a member of JACL, an accommodationist group that favored internment as a security precaution, encouraged cooperation within the camps, and suggested that loyalty oaths could be a way to create a more favorable image of Japanese Americans.

Ben loves his brother but decides to resist the unconstitutionality of his situation. Because of his educational background and the fact that Ben is bilingual, camp authorities apply all sorts of pressures for Ben to also become cooperative.

At one point Ben is called into camp headquarters by Colonel Griffin, the camp commander, for a conversation that centered on the theme of democracy and totalitarianism.

In reply to Griffin’s question about why he chose "disloyal", Ben replied, "I have been uprooted and placed behind barbed wire as a resident of this camp for a year and a half, without a hearing, without charges, without recourse to the normal channels of justice. Everything I have been taught about this country is not. Everything I have been taught democracy is not."

Griffin replies, "You have the nerve to insult the greatest political system ever devised by man? I fought and almost lost my life for this country. You refused to answer the call of your country in wartime. Are you telling me you prefer to live under totalitarianism?"

"We, the Japanese Americans, are already living under totalitarianism. We have been betrayed by democracy. In our case this system of government has been perverted by special interest groups. (Ben)

"Democracy has not failed." (Griffin)

"If democracy has not failed, then what has failed is man’s ability to truly govern himself." (Ben)

"Your talk verges on treason! The registration is a simple procedure. It is a means of determining political loyalties. YES—I am ‘loyal.’ NO!—I am not!’ Any man who chooses freely to complicate his own life and situation does himself and his country a disservice!" (Griffin)

What Do Other Villagers Think?

Thousands in the world protested  the 'mourning' after the U.S. war in Iraq began, including in the U.S. Do you think peace protests should cease during wartime?

No. Freedom of speech is paramount - 75.71%
Yes. It is unpatriotic - 20.34%
I don't know - 3.95%

[Site-wide IMD Poll 3/20-3/31]

On principle, Ben remains a ‘disloyal’ and eventually ‘loyals’ are moved out of Tule Lake and ‘disloyals’ from the other nine camps are re-relocated to Tule Lake. Tule Lake becomes stigmatized as the camp of the ‘disloyals’.

Tule Lake depicts not only the loss of homes and businesses, the splitting of loved ones, divisions between the Yes-Yes, the No-Nos, and the in-betweens, and bitter personal-political feuds; it develops as a story about how a disparate grouping of individuals from diverse class, occupational, regional and birth backgrounds come together to create an opposition that would resound again into the contemporary.

The novel is actually historical fiction, based on Miyakawa’s findings at the UC Berkeley archives as he researched his book in the 60's. There was a sociology study published by the UC Press after the war, compiling the daily observations of Japanese-American graduate students interned in Tule Lake. Dr. Dorothy Swaine Thomas hired her students as they were taken into the camps, realizing this was a pivotal time in American history.

Tule Lake was originally published in 1980 at the beginning of the Japanese American Redress Movement. It has just been republished by Trafford Publishing in Canada due to the renewed interest since September 11, 2001.

Given the current climate, Tule Lake may be a posthumous blessing for the Japanese Americans who resisted Executive Order 9066 to become the present day heroes of those who are standing up for freedom. Tule Lake portrays the desperate struggle of those young people who refused to sign a loyalty oath and refused to be drafted while their families were stuck in camps. Resistance continued within the double barbed-wire camp of 18,000 including a hunger strike, and mass demonstrations for the duration of the war. Some of the younger internees resisted by renouncing their citizenship and were gladly helped by the U.S. Congress that quickly passed an unconstitutional law, "The Denationalization Act."

Today, there is growing resistance to the government’s attempts stigmatize Muslims and Arabs by questioning their loyalties because of their nationality and religion. Rep. Howard Coble are the modern day contemporaries of Colonel Griffin, but the new resistance has a foundation established from the precedent set at Tule Lake.

 

This review originally appeared in the Berkeley-based Hardboiled Magazine and appears here with permission of the author, Harvey Dong of Eastwind Books of Berkeley at www.ewbb.com.


IMDiversity.com is committed to presenting diverse points of view. However, the viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at IMD.