Misread, Illegible, Invisible: Searching for a Vocabulary for Tule Lake

A Descendant of a Japanese American Concentration Camp Survivor Reckons With Wartime Incarceration

Misread, Illegible, Invisible: Searching for a Vocabulary for Tule Lake | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

As a society, the U.S. is still developing the vocabulary to recognize the damage of Japanese American wartime incarceration. Public historian and author Tamiko Nimura writes about language, public education, memory, and healing. View from the 2014 community pilgrimage to Tule Lake, courtesy of author.

Out the front windows of our bus, we could see acres of sun-dried grasses in a hot and arid Northern California summer. On either side of the road: barbed wire fences, like the ones many of our family members spent years behind, surrounded by armed guards and guard towers, living in crowded tar paper barracks with little to no privacy.  

“How many of you have been here before, or were here during World War II?” our tour guide asked. A few Japanese Americans—in their 70s and 80s, or even older—raised their hands. Many of us were stunned by what the tour guide said next, almost in passing. 

“Welcome back.” 

Did the guide just welcome our elders back to the site of their wartime imprisonment? Dismayed murmurs arose among us. 

I think what the guide—a park ranger partnering with the Tule Lake Committee for this community pilgrimage—meant was, we are honored you have returned. This is just one of the strange rhetorical situations I find myself in, as a direct descendant of a Japanese American concentration camp survivor. 

As a society, we are still developing the right vocabulary for recognizing the damage of Japanese American wartime incarceration. Because we do not have the right descriptors or labels, community pilgrimages like the one I embarked on in 2014 are misread, illegible, or invisible. And indeed, the wrong language can prevent survivors and descendants from visiting former sites of Japanese American incarceration to honor our history—and to heal. 

My father (who died when I was 10) and his family members were among the thousands of incarcerated people at Tule Lake, California for close to four years during World War II. In total, the U.S. government imprisoned more than 120,000 “persons of Japanese descent,” most living on the West Coast during the war years. Over two-thirds of them were American citizens held without due process. The nonprofit Densho has mapped close to 100 sites of Japanese American incarceration across the country—from jails and citizen isolation centers to concentration camps and federal prison sites owned and operated by the military. 

Today, most of these sites have faded into the landscape without visible historical markers; those that remain are at risk of closing off access to community pilgrimages.  One of the more publicized battles is taking place at the Minidoka concentration camp site in Idaho, where a proposed Lava Ridge wind farm threatens to put hundreds of 720-foot-tall wind turbines on the same desert land that once held over 13,000 Japanese Americans prisoners. The National Trust for Historic Preservation named Minidoka one of the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2022. Most of the camp buildings are gone, but currently, the site is open to visitors daily, with guided tours on summer weekends. 

The wind farm would undo its potential for public education and forever disrupt the remote and desolate viewshed that Minidoka visitors experience now. Adding insult to injury, in the Bureau of Land Management’s 2023 draft environmental impact statement, officials listed Minidoka as a “tourist spot.” In response, Japanese American survivors, descendants, and allies from the Friends of Minidoka mounted a powerful campaign against this terminology. “I am not a tourist,” read one poster by protester Paul Tomita, which showed a photo of him as a young child at Minidoka. “I am a survivor.” 

As a society, we are still developing the right vocabulary for recognizing the damage of Japanese American wartime incarceration.

What’s happening in Minidoka is happening across the country. Six years ago, I joined other Japanese American activists organizing a community protest to stop the construction of a 3-mile long, 8-foot high, barbed wire-topped fence around the Tule Lake airfield that would have effectively closed off public access to the site. The indignity of another barbed wire fence on this historic site brought protests from far and wide, garnering more than 50,000 letters and signatures from individuals and organizations. “We lived with the fence all our lives,” wrote my uncle, Tule Lake survivor and poet Hiroshi Kashiwagi, in a 2017 poem protesting that construction. He knew the power of fences—which has stayed with him and other survivors throughout their lives.

At Tule Lake, the airfield fence is just one problem. Battles between different entities have occupied stewards of the site and its history for close to five years now. These entities include the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Park Service, the City of Tulelake, Modoc County, the Modoc Nation, local farmers and ranchers, and the all-volunteer Tule Lake Committee (of which I’m a board member), which organizes biennial community pilgrimages of survivors and descendants. Each of these organizations has different degrees of protection, access, interest, and control of portions of the full thousand-plus-acre site where the camp originally sat, of which only 37 acres are protected as a national monument. Currently, some 359 acres of a public airfield sit in the middle of the original concentration camp footprint, where many of the barracks would have been. Though the barracks were removed after the war (many of them repurposed nearby for homesteaders who won land grants), this is one of the main places Japanese American survivors and descendants want and need to visit. 

Language won’t solve this tangle but it can help clarify the stakes. Tule Lake is perhaps the most infamous of the World War II concentration camps. Its population eventually swelled close to 18,000 after the government administered a poorly-worded questionnaire to determine supposed loyalty. Tule became known as the camp for troublemakers in 1943, a segregation center for the “disloyals.”  Many former Tuleans did not want to admit that they were incarcerated there for decades after the war. Even within the Japanese American community, those who resisted in any way like the “No-No’s,” including my Uncle Hiroshi, were shunned and ostracized.  This history is still being reckoned with, as is its telling. 

How we recognize these sites matters; how we name the site visitors matters. During the war, government euphemisms transformed indefinite detention into “for the duration of the war” and “temporary detention centers” into “assembly centers.” Just 10 years ago, I came to understand that “internment,” the most commonly used term, masks the reality of mass imprisonment and concentration camps. Only in the last 25 years or so has the community itself begun to apply the word “trauma” to the incarceration, and the word “survivor” to the incarcerated—the number of whom diminishes with each passing year. As Manzanar survivor and researcher Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga once wrote, “Words can lie or clarify.”  Let’s take that further: Words have lied about this history—so they should clarify how we remember it.

On that pilgrimage bus at Tule Lake, I learned that freedom looks different when seen from within a dusty jail constructed by inmates, or from the base of a wooden tower once used by armed guards, or next to a barbed wire fence constructed to maim anyone that crosses its path. Later, the name that jumped out to me to describe what we were doing on that journey surprised me. We were not at Tule Lake for religious reasons. Nor were we there in any traditional pilgrimage sense: to receive blessings, or to see places where miracles happened. But I can say the reasons for our journey were transcendent, spiritual. So much so that I’d use, hesitantly, a different word with religious overtones to describe my time there now: communion. 


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