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Over the last ten years, Densho has collected hundreds of hours of video testimony and tens of thousands of historical images. From the Archive is a monthly feature that highlights primary sources from the Densho Digital Archive to illustrate themes in Japanese American history. We hope that it will give you a sense of the rich depth of materials in the Archive. To access the entire collection, simply register for a free user account.

October 2008 - Prison within Prison: The Tule Lake Stockade

Stockade, Tule Lake segregation camp, 1943. (from denshopd-i37-00208)
"It was a really terrible, inhumane thing that they did."
   -- Hiroshi Kashiwagi

Of the hastily erected buildings that figure in the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans, one especially notorious structure stood for nine months and then disappeared when its deplorable purpose was revealed. Between October and November 1943, tensions at the Tule Lake incarceration camp in northern California escalated to intimidation, repression, and military control. Up to 450 "troublemakers" (anyone the camp administrators considered a threat to peaceful order) found themselves imprisoned in an isolated stockade for as long as nine months without hearing or trial, and without contact with family or legal counsel. Though the men were held in jail cells and subjected to strip searches and beatings, the War Relocation Authority (WRA) and the army did not call them prisoners. The "detainees" they held in the Tule Lake stockade were simply undergoing "administrative separation."1

Tule Lake's director, Raymond Best, started the camp's spiral into chaos by suppressing public meetings and refusing to address concerns of residents. After conditions worsened when Tule Lake was declared a segregation center for dissenters and those designated "disloyal" in the forced loyalty registration, detainees elected a negotiating committee to represent them. The Daihyo Sha Kai, a committee of fourteen, met with Best to demand an end to corruption, repression, overcrowding, and dangerous conditions for agricultural workers.

When a large crowd gathered as a show of support, fearful camp administrators reported a riot, and national newspapers inflated the incident. In the following days a group clashed with WRA employees over removing food for farm workers brought in to replace striking Japanese Americans. Army tanks rolled in; martial law was imposed on November 13; and a stockade sprang up. Soldiers searched the camp block by block, bayonets mounted, to find the Daihyo Sha Kai members and other vocal opponents of the WRA.

In his interview with Densho, Hiroshi Kashiwagi describes the army arresting young men:

The stockade, the leaders, the agitators, I guess, the administration figured that they would pull in the leaders because they were bad influence. And so they pulled in a lot of these leaders and put them in the stockade and family members could only visit from a fence or somewhere and wave. It was a really terrible, inhumane thing that they did. …But there was about thirty-five boys from a neighboring block, we were 40 and they were 44. But one night around five o'clock there was a real commotion and somebody banged the mess bell. And everyone gathered because this two army trucks came, and soldiers with bayonets forced these guys onto these trucks, and they took them away and there was a lot of farewells and tearful parting, because they thought, we didn't know where they were going to go.

As the army clamped down, guard lights and random searches swept over the camp. The school and other facilities closed. The newspaper stopped and rumors flew. Fear of violence and a curfew kept people in their barracks. With the farm workers on strike, food deteriorated and then grew scarce. Opponents of the administration and thousands of neutral parties alike endured harsh measures that ramped up resentment.

As a young boy, Kenge Kobayashi got caught up in the chaotic life at Tule Lake after martial law was declared:

Well, one of the thing that they found out was the WRA was stealing some food like meat and selling on the black market, which we were supposed to get. So I, as a kid, I said, "Well, we're going to go in there and steal the meat back." So we went in the cold storage, and we lug out all these meat and took it back to our mess hall, and we had steaks for a whole week. But in the meantime they were throwing tear gas at us and everything and pretty soon there was martial law. And then the army came in with their tanks and started shooting the guns and everything. …. But they didn't shoot at anything, they were shooting at people's, up high, so they didn't shoot anybody, but they were scaring the hell out of everybody. And they were coming between our barracks, the tanks, and shake. Our whole barrack was shaking. … We were hiding under the bed scared. Anyway, we didn't know what was gonna happen. We thought they going to start killing everybody. Who knows.

In January 1944, martial law was lifted after weary Tuleans voted for a more conciliatory coordinating committee. In April, Tokyo objected to the treatment of the stockade prisoners, and some 276 were freed. But Raymond Best steadfastly refused to release the Daihyo Sha Kai fourteen and other "troublemakers." The distraught wives and family member of the men in the stockade repeatedly appealed for help to the Spanish Embassy, which acted as liaison for Japan, and to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Their anxiety increased when the WRA erected a wall that blocked their view of the stockade so they could no longer even wave to the men.

In July 1944, Ernest Besig, the ACLU director for northern California, overcame the camp administrators' obstructions and gained access to Tule Lake. He describes his experience:

When I got up there, I was informed that people were being detained in the stockade. Stockade? Stockade was news to me. And this was to the effect that anybody they-- "they" being the administration--didn't like were put into the stockade. And parents and relatives, children, were not allowed to visit. Well, this didn't make any sense to me. If you're accused of some offense, if they had committed some offense, they were entitled to due process of law... I was allowed to see a limited number who had arranged interviews with me, who wanted to see me, but it was just those people I was allowed to see. Otherwise I was allowed to see guards who wanted to keep an eye on me.

Besig refused to ask questions of the prisoners until armed guards left the room. He published transcripts of the eight interviews he managed to have (of fifty requests received). One prisoner who had been held for eight months was Tom Yoshiyama, a U.S. citizen who was being pressured by the WRA to renounce his citizenship. He told Besig, "I have taken a keen interest in what your organization has been doing in order to uphold the civil rights of the American citizens and the only thing I ask, which I wish to request, is decency...I cannot see the reason of my detention, especially over such a long period of time."2 George Kunitani told Besig he had not seen his newborn baby once, and that prisoners' mail was blocked. Other men reported being humiliated and brutally beaten; their accounts were corroborated by Caucasian employees who spoke to Besig in confidence. Besig later learned some stockade inmates were as young as fifteen and sixteen.

Back in San Francisco, Besig teamed with an ACLU colleague, Wayne Collins, to confront the WRA. In August they demanded, and after much stalling, were granted a meeting with regional WRA officials. The two lawyers threatened to expose the secret abuse at the stockade. They insisted that all inmates be released immediately, and moved to file writs of habeas corpus. Fearing negative publicity, WRA director Dillon Myer conceded. The Daihyo Sha Kai leaders and others were transferred to a Department of Justice camp for enemy aliens, and the remaining prisoners were released into the segregation camp that would experience increasing tension and terror in the coming years. When Collins visited Tule Lake days after winning the inmates' "freedom" to confirm they had been liberated, he discovered the stockade had been demolished without a trace. Brief victory. One year later a new stockade would take its place.

1. Japanese American History: An A-to-Z Reference from 1868 to the Present, Brian Niiya, ed. (Los Angeles: Japanese American National Museum, 1993), p. 317. [ link ]

2. Michi Nishiura Weglyn, Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America's Concentration Camps (1976; reprint, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996), p. 209-10. [ link ]

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