Farmers behind barbed-wire fences: Japanese Americans remember incarceration during World War II
Last month in San Francisco, an estimated 30,000 people protested against President Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration policy, which has led to the incarceration and separation of children from their parents.
One particularly vocal group at the protest: Japanese Americans, part of the group Nikkei Resistors.
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 Two. In 1942, almost 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, most 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.
These kinds of introductions were taking place on other buses, too, traveling from San Jose, Union City, Seattle, 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 years old, soon after he was forced off his family’s farm in Bellingham, Wash. 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.
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 vegetables 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 area 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 for deer up in the Tule Lake Basin when all he could see was dusty land and scrub brush. When, in 1942, 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.”
Jim Tanimoto and many other once-successful farm owners were about to become field workers for the U.S. government.
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.
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 lake bed, 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 threatened with $20 a month fines.
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.
Before the war, Lucille Hitomi’s father ran a commercial flower business in Mountain View, California. 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 pounds of it from Tule Lake alone.
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 farm boy. 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.
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 re-named 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 of 1943, 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 the 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 worker 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 a dollar an hour, so in two days they could make more than a farm worker at Tule Lake would make in a month,” Takei said.
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. Two-hundred 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 pre-war 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 Two incarceration of Japanese Americans to see that’s not true.
Correction: The article and audio have been updated from the original to reflect the accurate number of produce, grain, and hay grown by Tule Lake prisoners and sold on the open market. It was 2 million pounds, not 2 million tons.
The music for this piece comes from Takenobu.
This story was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, a non-profit 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.
This story first aired on Crosscurrents on February 16, 2017. Slight modifications have been made from the original.