Recently, there was a New York Times article about the stigma surrounding the Japanese Americans who were unlawfully incarcerated in the Tule Lake concentration camp (after it became segregated). Even though more than 70 years have passed, the Tule Lake stigma (especially from within the Japanese American community) is still there. The NYT story is important to me because my grandfather and his family were imprisoned there. I wanted to write a letter to my son to make sure he understands why his great grandfather made the decisions that he did and why he shouldn’t feel ashamed. This is the letter:
Close your eyes for a moment. It’s the afternoon of December 7, 1941. You are a nisei, a second generation Japanese American. The world as you knew it is over. The mass hysteria following the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan has already swept the country. Soon you and your family will lose everything (home, job, belongings, etc.) and you will be forced to move to a dusty and barren land out in the middle of a desert or swamp.
While in one of the 10 “camps,” your government will give you a questionnaire to figure out who among your friends and family are loyal to the United States and who are not. Your freedom and maybe your life will depend on how you answer two questions:
Question No. 27. Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty wherever ordered?
Question No. 28. Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese Emperor, to any other foreign government, power or organization.
There are only two possible answers: Yes Yes and No No. Answering one of the questions with a no automatically meant no to the other. Not answering a question was considered a No No answer.
For some, answering Yes Yes was the only way to prove their loyalty, their family’s loyalty, and their people’s loyalty to the United States. For others, a No, No answer (or not answering at all) was a moral protest by a people who had lost everything. Many argued that if you take them out of the “camps” and returned everything they had lost, they would be more than happy to answer both questions positively. But until that point, many felt that they were being asked these questions under duress.
Many of the young men who answered Yes Yes volunteered or were soon drafted. Some were sent to the Pacific to serve in the Military intelligence as translators and interrogators. Others went to fight on the European front as part of the all Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team: man for man the most highly decorated unit in American military history.
Those that answered No No became known as “No Nos.” They were often seen as traitors to both Americans and many Japanese Americans as well. The No Nos were sent to Tule Lake, which was turned into a segregated camp for “bad” Japanese/Japanese Americans. Because the No Nos didn’t fit nicely into the heroic narrative of the loyal Japanese American soldier dying for America , they were openly shunned and derided.
Your great grandfather was a No No. But this doesn’t mean he was disloyal or that he was a coward. He was a smart man. He knew that since he was over 40 years old there was little chance of him actually being drafted. So why did he answer the way he did? I never got to talk to him so I will never know for sure. But I’ve spent a lot of time researching this question. At first, I thought it was a moral decision but now I see it as his way of protecting the family. He believed (which only in hindsight seems foolish) that all Japanese Americans were going to be sent back to Japan – sooner than later. And he feared that if the Japanese government heard that he had pledged his loyalty to the United States, then it would make it even tougher for him and his family in his new home.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying he made the right decision. Or that the people who said Yes Yes were wrong. No one was right. No one was a coward. What I want you to understand is that it was a crazy time and everyone made the best decision for themselves (and their loved ones) – Including your great grandfather. Your job is to tell his story to make sure it never happens again to anyone.