The National Park Service wants to make better use of a U.S. Japanese internment site. That’s good not just for survivors and their families but for all Americans.
Patrick Taylor works at a place that prompts him to think deeply about things like, “What is patriotism and what defines a hero?”
Taylor works for the National Park Service at the Tule Lake Unit of the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, where he’s the chief of visitor services.
“People fighting on the front lines obviously represent that in one way,” he said by phone this week. But he has learned that people who stand up for their rights “are showing a different form of loyalty and patriotism to Americanism, if not to the American government.”
Governments change, but some core values should never be lost. Tule Lake has a story to tell about resistance to government wrongs that is unique.
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It was one of the 10 big internment camps where the U.S. government held Japanese Americans and also Japanese citizens during World War II. It was the one designated to hold people that the government considered disloyal.
Most people today can agree that Japanese Americans were mistreated by the government during World War II, that their government was being disloyal to them. And, yet, recently we’ve heard from people who are shaping our next administration who say that maybe, for safety’s sake, we need to turn another group of Americans into suspects.
I hope you read last weekend’s story about that by Seattle Times reporter David Gutman.
We still have a way to go in telling the American stories that challenge us to be better and do better when our instincts might lead us in the wrong direction.
I thought about Tule Lake because the Park Service is asking for public comment on a general management plan for the site, which — despite the wealth of history it offers — has never been fully developed.
Tule Lake Relocation Center, as it was originally called, is in California just south of the Oregon state line. It housed mostly people from California but also 2,703 Japanese Americans from King County who lived outside Seattle and 946 from Pierce County. Those in Seattle were mostly sent to Minidoka in Idaho.
A few months after it opened, the government decided to segregate people it considered to be disloyal, including those who answered “no” to two questions on a form all adults were required to fill out. It moved them all to Tule Lake. One question asked about willingness to serve in the military. The other asked the person to renounce loyalty to the Japanese emperor, and some answered no because as Americans, they’d never had that loyalty.
People labeled disloyal were sent to Tule Lake, but some of the original residents — including people who wanted to prove their loyalty — opted to stay. Conflicts among the residents over how to react to being taken from homes and jobs and relocated into camps made Tule Lake a tense place. That kind of divide existed in all of the camps, but was magnified at Tule Lake after it became a segregation camp.
Tom Ikeda, who created the Seattle-based Densho organization to preserve the stories of people who placed in camps, said disagreements over how to deal with internment that began in the camps still divide Japanese Americans today.
He also told me a story about one of his teachers, Frank Fujii, who taught art and coached basketball at Franklin High School. Fujii, who passed away last month, was held with his family at Tule Lake, except for his father, who was taken by the FBI and held in a separate facility because he had been a community leader in Seattle. When the father saw him after three years, he asked, “Who is this boy”? Ikeda said he saw the pain of the internment in his teacher’s face when he told that story.
People lost homes and their livelihoods, families were separated, and they were changed irrevocably. More people need to hear their stories to come close to understanding.
But until recently, Tule Lake had no dedicated staff; instead, rangers from another site spent some of their time there. Taylor said tours have been mostly limited to summers, once a week, arranged in advance. People who take the tours usually have some connection to the camp and know some of the history already.
Now the Park Service wants to make Tule Lake’s story accessible to a broader public year-round. The best of three proposals calls for fixing up the buildings, adding staff and making stories available online.
The Washington state meeting, partly arranged by the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, will be in Seattle on Tuesday, Dec. 13, at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Washington, 1414 S. Weller St.
In times of fear and uncertainty, when some want to jettison the deepest principles of democracy in a flailing grasp at security, we should embrace them all the more.