A version of this post originally appeared in The Rafu Shimpo.
By Bill Watanabe
I am a Manzanar baby—actually a Manzanar/Tule Lake baby, due to the fact that almost immediately after I was born, our family moved from Manzanar to Tule Lake. I’m embarrassed to admit that it did not occur to me until fairly recently that if you said, “My family went from Manzanar to Tule Lake” that that meant something! Occasionally, after informing someone in the Nikkei community that you were at Manzanar and then went to Tule Lake, there would be a pause and a certain look of awareness on the face of the other person. You could sort of guess that they were thinking, “So you and your family were one of those!” Some may even verbalize, although no longer with any hint of animosity, “So your parents must have been ‘No-No’s’.” Years ago, it seemed there were negative feelings by some towards those who were identified as “No-No’s”, but that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.
From about April 1942 to March 1944, my family was incarcerated at Manzanar. My father was an Issei, and thus ineligible by law from becoming a US citizen, and my mother was a Kibei Nisei. Since my father decided to answer “No-No” to the Loyalty Questionnaire requested of all incarcerates, my mother, for the sake of family unity, also answered “No-No” and then tied to this, she renounced her US citizenship (I wish I had asked my parents before they died how they came to that decision, but alas, I never did ask, and the chance to find out is forever gone). So off we went by train in the middle of a snowstorm to Tule Lake, which by that time had become a “Segregation Center” for the “No-No’s” and renunciants and other categories of supposed “troublemakers and disloyals.” Such is life—I was only two months old and already branded a troublemaker and disloyal!
Fast forward several decades and there are well-planned Pilgrimages to both camps. I have been on the annual Manzanar Pilgrimage a number of times and always enjoy the trip; sometimes, after the Pilgrimage, I keep going north on Highway 395 to do some trout fishing in the beautiful High Sierras. Nowadays, as many as a thousand people come to commemorate the camp experience through a moving multi-denominational memorial service, pot-luck lunch, keynote speeches and ondo dancing. Mostly, the Pilgrimage is to serve as a reminder of an injustice that should never be repeated.
I went to Tule Lake two years ago. In July of 2012, my wife and I joined 350 other persons to participate in the biennial Tule Lake Pilgrimage. My purpose in going was to learn more about what it meant to be a “No-No” and a renunciant, and to learn more about this mixed bag of “undesirable people” who were sent to Tule Lake. It was a great trip, with wonderful workshops and group events led by knowledgeable volunteers. There was a bus tour of the Tule Lake Camp, although there are not many remnants. The camp itself during WW2 was huge, much larger than Manzanar and held almost twice as many people. Tule Lake was much more like a “concentration camp” as we know the term; there was no sneaking out of Tule Lake to go fishing—anyone who tried would likely be shot. The most prominent physical remains still standing is a solidly built stockade—a prison within the prison to detain the “real troublemakers”! A couple of my uncles were active members of the “Hoshi-dan”, or pro-Japan faction, and I wondered, as I gazed on the cold barren walls of the stockade, if they spent any time locked up there. I couldn’t resist thinking how “cool” it would be to have had a relative that was actually in the stockade (although it wouldn’t have been fun for them).
While at the Tule Lake Pilgrimage, I detected comparisons being made between Manzanar and Tule Lake, but it’s really like comparing apples and oranges. Tule Lake’s story as a segregation center is truly unique and the Tule Lake Pilgrimage (which covers 3 days) is very intense but rewarding. On the other hand, I think the Manzanar site represents a great job of preserving and presenting the former facilities, giving those who do the Manzanar Pilgrimage a grand visual experience of the camps themselves.
The Manzanar Pilgrimage is about a 4-hour drive from Los Angeles, and took place on Saturday, April 26th, and was open to anyone who can get to the site. The Tule Lake Pilgrimage (the site is in Northern California, close to the Oregon border) will take place July 4-7. Registration is now open, and the 350 slots, though pricey, fill up fast. I hope that if you have never done either pilgrimage you will make the effort to do so this year—both are amazing experiences and you will learn so much about the history and heritage of our Nikkei community, even about the “troublemakers!”
Bill Watanabe co-founded the Little Tokyo Service Center in Los Angeles, California, and served as the LTSC‘s executive director for over 30 years. He has served on the boards of numerous local organizations, and is a highly respected member of the APA community.