Connect with us


Lessons from a Crisis of Democracy: Narrating the Internment of Japanese Americans

They were deprived of their liberty and property rights guaranteed by the US Constitution simply because they were of Japanese descent.



Japanese Americans
Tule Lake internment camp (courtesy of the Japanese American National Museum).

On September 2, 1945, Japan, defeated in the preceding World War, signed the Instrument of Surrender. 

In the United States, many Japanese Americans were considered "enemy aliens" and continued to live in concentration camps. Actor George Takei, 85, known for his role in the popular TV series Star Trek, was among them. I visited the site of the former camp in California where Mr Takei spent his childhood.

Soldiers with Guns

“Behind you were a row of barracks," said our guide Danny Ortiz, 40, as he pointed behind us. Plains stretched as far as we could see. We were on the site of the former internment camp in Tule Lake, California. 

In 1942, a year after the outbreak of war between Japan and the United States, Japanese Americans were forced to leave the West Coast and were sent to incarceration in internment camps, of which the Tule Lake camp was the largest. At its peak, more than 18,000 people lived there.

Uncomfortable, Barren Landscape

As the “lake” in the name suggests, Tule Lake was originally a marshy area at the bottom of a lake. Summers were hot, humid, and unsanitary. In the winter, it was a harsh environment with sub-zero temperatures, and outside air seeping into the barrack through the gaps in the walls. On the day of the visit, the blazing sun also heated up this reporter’s recording equipment, causing it to stop working.

“I'm not trying to justify it, but…," said Ortiz, "it was not an incarceration facility like Auschwitz in Nazi Germany. The residents here were self-governing, had their own schools, worked on a variety of things like farming during the day, and sometimes enjoyed picnics in the nearby mountains on weekends. Seasonal events and parties were held, such as New Year's and Christmas.”

“However," he followed, "life in the camps was surrounded by barbed wire and monitored by soldiers holding guns atop towers. The dining hall was shared, and there were no walls in the shower rooms or toilets. The wages they received for their labor were meager.”

The total number of Japanese Americans incarcerated in these camps throughout the United States was over 120,000. About two-thirds of them were Nisei or Sansei (second or third generation) who were born in the US and had US citizenship. 

Despite their American citizenship, they were deprived of their liberty and property rights guaranteed by the US Constitution simply because they were of Japanese descent. Ortiz said clearly, "This was racial discrimination, and it must never be forgotten.

Discrimination Issues Relevant Today

Ortiz is Hispanic and passes as a white American. Why is he telling the history of Japanese Americans?


After the tour, he spoke to me about his background in his office. His mother was born and raised in El Salvador, and his father in Honduras. They were both from Central America. 

Ortiz himself was born and raised in southern California. He moved to Tule Lake several years ago with his fiancée, who introduced him to the job at the site of the internment facility which has now become a National Park.

Starting to read books on the subject in order to guide visitors was when he first learned about the history of the incarcerations. “Late at night, while flipping through the book, tears were coming out of my eyes and I could not stop it," he said.

One reason for his tears was because he recalled "painful memories" of being teased by his classmates as a child of immigrants. Beyond the racial differences, he felt that the story of Japanese Americans was similar to his own.

Another reason was the reports of “caged” children from Central and South America who were detained after crossing the Mexican border with their parents without having a valid visa, he recalled. The image of children having the same roots as he did overlapped with the Japanese Americans in the concentration camps in his mind.

“The issue of Japanese American incarceration is not just about Japanese Americans, nor is it about the past. It is an issue for all Americans who still face discrimination. I will spend the rest of my life telling the story of what happened at Tule Lake.,” he said.

Only Segregation Camp in the United States

One thing that set Tule Lake camp apart from other internment facilities was the assembly of Nikkei (Japanese Americans) who were deemed “anti-American,” based on the results of a loyalty questionnaire in February of 1943.

Question 27 asked if Nisei men were willing to serve on combat duty wherever ordered. Question 28 asked if individuals would swear unqualified allegiance to the United States and forswear any form of allegiance to the Emperor of Japan. Those who answered “no, no” to those two questions were placed at Tule Lake.

The Tule Lake Segregation Center Jail was preserved at Tule Lake National Park. When I entered inside, I found traces of the detainees who left their scribbled names and hometowns on the walls. It was as if the prisoners had left proof of their existence on the walls, believing that they might never get out of there alive.

George Takei (center) surrounded by reporters = May 14, New York (© Sankei by Yusuke Hirata)

No Escape

The eyes focused on the Nikkei at this facility were harsh.

“The barbed wire was triple-layered, and soldiers standing on watchtowers carried machine guns. Tanks were also deployed in case of rebellion," explained George Takei, an actor who was transported to the Tule Lake camp near the California-Oregon border from a camp in Lower, Arkansas in May 1944. “There were brawls between the soldiers and the Japanese Americans," he told me in a telephone interview.


Takei gained popularity for his role as Hikaru Sulu on the US television series Star Trek and has become well known as an activist in the civil rights movement.

He was an elementary school student at the time the brawl wreaked havoc in the camp. As an adult, he learned the details by asking his father about it. His father said that it occurred in the middle of a protest after the arrest of a man accused of radicalism.

According to Takei’s father, "It was important for us to come together as a group and send a message [to the US government] that we oppose the arrests. And it was important that we exercise our freedom of assembly."

“When I heard these words,” said Takei, "I realized that incarceration was a (fundamental) problem for democracy in the US.”

Fred Korematsu and Standing Up for Democracy

Takei introduces to his audience several Americans who supported the Nikkei and tried to protect American democracy when he gives talks or other presentations about the internment of Japanese Americans. "Even in an era of prevailing anti-Japanese sentiment, there were wonderful people who believed that incarceration was wrong and actually took action."

Attorney Wayne Collins (1899-1974) was among them. He was the lawyer who petitioned the court for habeas corpus in the case of Takei's mother, who was forced to renounce her US citizenship under silent pressure from the camp. He saved her from deportation that would have separated her from her family.

“Renunciation of her US citizenship was not the result of her free will, but of illegal detention and the silent pressure that pervaded the community of Tule Lake," said Collins in the court. “The government was solely responsible for this," he argued. 

Thanks to Collins’ efforts, around 5,000 people had their US citizenship restored.

Collins was also known as the first attorney for Fred Korematsu, who claimed the injustice of internment from the beginning and won a retrial in his lawsuit in 1983. In turn, that action paved the way for the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which promised an apology and compensation to the Japanese Americans.

Politicians and Citizens Standing Up

Ralph Carr (1887-1950), governor of Colorado, was also a defender of the incarcerated. He established temporary housing for Japanese Americans who were being evicted from the West Coast. His stance on the issue was resented among voters and cost him his political career when he was defeated for the US Senate in 1942. However, he continued to advocate that "Japanese Americans, like all Americans, are guaranteed the same rights under the Constitution.”


Ralph Lazo (1924-92), a high school student, protested the unjust treatment of his Japanese American friends and voluntarily accompanied his friends to the Manzanar camp, California. Years later, when he was told, "You didn't have to go to the camp." Lazo replied, "No one had to go to the camps.”

Dr Emily Anderson, curator of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, said: "It is encouraging to see that, even during wartime when it was difficult to speak up, our ancestors followed their conscience and did the right thing.” 

She added, “Democracy in the United States is still not perfect today, as some people stormed Congress claiming that the presidential election of 2020 was rigged. In order to uphold the ideals for American democracy which values freedom and fairness, I am sure that we can do our part, today."

Internment of Japanese Americans

After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, anti-Japanese sentiment rose and Nikkei were forced to leave designated military zones on the US West Coast. They were transferred to ten internment camps across the country. 

In August 1988, then President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act and issued an official apology.


Author: Yusuke Hirata, New York Bureau Chief, The Sankei Shimbun

(Read the article in Japanese at this link.)


Our Partners