Proposed Airport Fence at Tule Lake Will Cut Off Access to WW2-era Incarceration Camp History

A quote from Toru Saito, a survivor of the Topaz camp, on why he returns to the camp site to reconnect with incarceration camp history, as reproduced at the Japanese American National Museum. (Photo credit: Reappropriate)

During World War II, 120,000 Japanese and Japanese American civilians — many American citizens by birth — were forcibly imprisoned in hastily-erected American concentration camps (JACL’s Power of Words) located in some of the harshest, most austere, and most isolated parts of the Midwest and West Coast. Enacted through Executive Order 9066, Japanese Americans living on the West Coast were targeted based purely on suspicion that they were disloyal to the US government and posed an existential threat to national security: those suspicions were later shown to be entirely unfounded and predicated primarily on racist stereotypes. WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans remains a major blemish on American history as one of the most prominent violations of American citizens’ constitutional rights, and the government’s rationale for the camps continues to be used to justify anti-Muslim efforts today.

One of the largest and most prominent of the WWII incarceration camps is Tule Lake, a site located in Northern California and currently designated as National Historic Landmark. At its peak, nearly 19,000 Japanese American citizens were forcibly imprisoned at Tule Lake overseen by unusually stringent military guard: the camp had particularly high fences topped with barbed wire and over twenty-five armed guard towers. Tule Lake also became known as a site of particular Japanese American unrest and resistance, and those deemed to be “disloyal” at other camps were removed to Tule Lake for segregation from the rest of the Japanese American community. On November 4, 1943, Tule Lake incarcerees staged one of the few open uprisings against the camps, and on May 24, 1944, Shoichi James Okamoto was shot and killed by a camp guard, who was later fined a dollar for the shooting — a fine for unauthorized use of government property: the bullet. When Tule Lake closed in 1946, thousands of Japanese Americans were once again displaced, with no homes to return to and nowhere else to go.

To remember the painful history of WWII incarceration camps requires that we commemorate the Tule Lake incarceration camp as a site of significant Japanese American WWII-era political and civil resistance. Indeed, the Japanese American community has worked tirelessly to preserve incarceration camp sites across the West Coast and the Midwest, helping to found museums and education centers to teach incarceration history and ensure that the memory of World War II-era camps do not fade with time. Camp survivors also stage annual pilgrimages to camp sites in order to remember this painful episode in our nation’s history.

That is why the Japanese American community is outraged this week at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)’s proposed plans to erect an 8-foot tall perimeter fence around the Tulelake Municipal Airport, which would cut through the Tule Lake incarceration camp site and render two-thirds of the Tule Lake camp land inaccessible to camp survivors and students of history.

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