While doing research on my upcoming documentary that deals with attorney Wayne Collins and his unprecedented fight to get American citizenship back for more than 5,500 renunciants at the Tule Lake Segregation Center, I’ve been confronted with some of the saddest stories from camp I’ve ever heard.

Given our cultural tradition of gaman, it’s easy to understand why we don’t like to talk about the most terrible things that happened there, including suicides, murders, and cases of insanity, and would even rather ignore them. Yet these stories are an important part of our complicated histories and help me understand why I continue to be plagued by the legacy of trauma indelibly caused by the concentration camp experience.

Even though my family was incarcerated at Poston, I’ve always been particularly disturbed by the events that led to the stigmatization of those confined at Tule Lake. Ever since I attended my first Tule Lake Pilgrimage in 1994, I’ve witnessed the unique burdens carried by those who didn’t want to admit even to their friends they were Tuleans.

In my zeal to get away from the “model minority” myth, I’ve always considered these resisters “badass” (as one renunciant’s son aptly described his father), but I never fully understood the tremendous psychological price paid when thousands answered “no-no” to the infamous, confusing and ambiguous Questions 27 and 28.

There’s the sad story of a teenager who was arrested at Tule Lake merely for being in the wrong place at the wrong time when he was caught by a search party of guards alone in his family barrack, where his mother’s collection of Japanese 78 rpm records was found. As a result, he was thrown into the infamous stockade for three weeks and subjected to freezing temperatures, frozen blankets, bayonets repeatedly thrust at his back, and constant surveillance.

Worst of all, he had to deal with the lonely uncertainty of not knowing what he did and how long he was going to be forced to stay there. It’s no wonder the mental stress he suffered led to physical illness, including dizziness, lack of concentration and forgetfulness long after he was released from this internal (both literally and figuratively) prison.

As he describes it, “I was suffering from a severe constant dizzy spell and many times I hardly knew what I was doing or where I was going.” For an otherwise healthy teenaged boy, what else but severe depression could cause these classic stress-induced symptoms?

Tule Lake barrack home of a woman who killed one of her children and critically injured another. (Photo by R.H. Ross, Courtesy National Archives)

Depression was merely the tip of the iceberg and could go unnoticed, but more severe cases of mental illness that led to brutally unfathomable actions were also present. Although records for the incidents of suicide are difficult to find, there is a War Relocation Authority photo of one man who hanged himself by tying a noose around his neck above his single bed in his small, unkempt barrack.

A story that struck close to home was one told by someone I know as a friend. This Tule Lake descendant discovered the apparent suicide attempt by his grandfather through documents he found while exploring his family’s history.

His grandfather tried to kill himself by swallowing gasoline after finding out that he might be separated from his family when his son and family were going to be sent to Japan. Even though the repatriation never happened, the mere thought of being left alone was clearly devastating for this elderly issei.

Perhaps worst of all, he ended up being taken away from the family and living his final days in a mental institution. There, he stopped talking as he faced the life he feared the most — one with no family around him and left all alone.

In perhaps the worst story yet, a woman took a hammer to her two small children’s heads, murdering one and critically injuring the other. I had to turn away after seeing photos of the crime scene that showed the hammer she used and the blood-soaked child’s head. Her brother, who was serving in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team at the time, would later testify that his sister was suffering from insanity caused by her incarceration and renunciation.

These are some of the most extreme examples of the effects of the fear, loneliness, and humiliation of the camp experience that attorney Collins so aptly described as “extreme governmental duress.” Collins was wise enough to show that this duress was suffered by literally everyone held in camp by virtue of the government’s actions against them.

As he put it in a letter to then Attorney General Tom Clark, “They have submitted to grosser indignities and suffered greater losses of rights and liberties than any other group of persons during the entire history of the nation, all without good cause or reason. They have been misunderstood, slandered, abused and long have been held up to public ridicule, shame and contempt.”

He used specific cases of duress in thousands of affidavits he filed on behalf of those who chose to renounce their citizenship after suffering from such unjust treatment.

In looking back at the traumas of camp, it’s horrible to think that it’s still a part of our present-day conversations and deep-seated conflicts. Take, for example, the ongoing battle being waged over the memorial stone for James Wakasa, who was shot at the Topaz camp by a sentry for allegedly trying to crawl under the fence.

Though facts proved otherwise, the guard was acquitted, and the large stone monument erected by Issei to memorialize the spot where he was killed was recently “unearthed” and moved by the Topaz Museum without consultation with members of the Japanese American community. Today, its future is the subject of a fractious and deeply divided debate.

As for Tule Lake, the JACL passed a resolution in 2019 to apologize to those at the Tule Lake Segregation Center who have long suffered “shame and stigma” at the hands of the JACL community. Although the amended resolution was overwhelmingly passed, it was the subject of angry criticism from such organizations as the National Veterans Network as well as other JACL chapters that were concerned about protecting the reputations of not only the veterans who served during the war but also JACL members who were physically attacked by so-called “troublemakers.”

Such arguments continue to undermine the fact that the actions and attitudes of so many incarcerees were the result of stress, trauma, and as Wayne Collins pointed out, governmental duress.

It seems to me it’s up to us to recognize the trauma and try to understand its causes. After all, why continue to blame the victims?


Sharon Yamato writes from Playa del Rey and can be reached at Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *