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Wednesday, June 30, 2004 - Page updated at 12:08 P.M.
WWII brought hard choice for some Japanese-Americans internees
By Lornet Turnbull
Theirs is a story that's not widely told because the people who can tell it best have been too ashamed to talk about it.
It's the story of 5,589 Japanese Americans who, during the waning years of the war, renounced their U.S. citizenship. "It's a pretty bad thing that happened to us," said Jean Miyoko Aoyama Tanaka, who gave up her birthright in 1944. "And it's something we were made to feel embarrassed about."
The untold story of the renunciants, most of whom were interned at Tule Lake Relocation Camp in Northern California, has remained a dirty little secret in American history.
Some of what happened there 60 years ago is unclear because so few renunciants are willing to talk about it, and researchers didn't have access to government files until 2000.
The events leading up to the desperate act, and what happened afterward, are the focus of a four-day pilgrimage to Tule Lake that begins Friday.
"I don't think many of us were educated enough to understand our civil rights," said Tanaka, now 80 and living in Spokane. "No one spoke up for us. We were pretty ignorant about what happened, what it all meant."
Some of those who gave up their birthright all those years ago did so out of anger with a government they felt had betrayed them; they were branded troublemakers and condemned even by fellow Japanese Americans.
Some renounced, thinking Japan would be kinder than the hostile American communities they believed awaited them outside the camp.
Still others, like Tanaka and her three brothers, felt pressured by aggressive pro-Japan groups within the camp and renounced, fearing noncitizen family members might eventually be expelled from the United States.
Most believed it would all be undone once the war was over.
After the war
Left to pick up shattered lives once the war ended and the camps closed, most of the renunciants remained in the U.S. as Native American aliens stripped of the basic rights enjoyed by other American-born citizens, such as voting.
Some, like Tanaka and her family, went to Japan, a country foreign to them, wretchedly torn apart by war.
It would take at least 14 years and thousands of court cases for all but about 50 renunciants who wanted their citizenship back to reclaim it.
Tanaka believes this week's pilgrimage, which organizers say will attract more than 300 former internees, will fill the gaps in her memory of a time that shaped so much of her young life.
"An unbearable place"
By now, most Americans know the story of these camps established after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in February 1942, branding Japanese nationals as enemy aliens. It allowed the government to round up 110,000 people of Japanese descent living in California, Arizona, Oregon and Washington.
Two-thirds were U.S. citizens, evacuated from their homes and taken to 10 internment camps scattered across the interior of the country.
Tule Lake, in the Klamath Falls Basin just south of the Oregon border, was the biggest of the camps the first to open, in 1942, and the last to close, in 1946.
Those years would represent the darkest chapter in Tanaka's life, which she divides into segments before and after the war.
Her father initially came to the United States in 1907, recruited by the government to work on the railroad opening up the west. He settled in Auburn to work the farm fields, and in 1919 returned to Japan to bring back a wife.
Tanaka was at school the day in February 1942 when the FBI came to take her dad away.
For much of her internment, her father was held in different camps, separated from the rest of the family.
She recalls her mother's worries as the remaining family prepared to leave home for good: "I don't know what will happen to us," her mother said. "Maybe we'll all be lined up and shot."
"I said, 'No, Mom, America doesn't do things like that.' "
The family was taken to a temporary camp near Fresno, Calif., then to Tule Lake.
In July 1943, Tule Lake became a segregation camp, where the government transferred Japanese Americans considered disloyal those who answered "no" to two questions about loyalty and military service on a government questionnaire, or simply refused to answer the questions.
Japanese immigrants and their American-born children who sought repatriation or expatriation to Japan also were sent to Tule Lake.
Caught in this mix were people like Tanaka and her family, who had arrived at the camp before the transferees.
"It became an unbearable place to live," she said.
Tule Lake, which held 18,789 people at its peak, grew progressively more volatile, Tanaka remembers. The U.S. Army entered the camp in November 1943 and martial law was declared.
In July 1944, Congress passed and the president signed Public Law 405, which allowed Americans to renounce their citizenship during wartime.
There's speculation about what was behind its passage: Some say many in the Japanese-American community demanded it. Others believe the renunciation law specifically targeted the dissidents at Tule Lake and allowed the government, for the purpose of expulsion, to classify the disloyals as enemy aliens, like their parents.
Only 117 internees initially applied.
But soon, inside Tule Lake, pressure mounted.
Many believed, based on news from contraband shortwave radios, that Japan was winning the war, Tanaka remembers.
And there were the threats: "People were saying, 'You better renounce or someone in your family could get hurt,' " she said.
"They told us, 'You have to renounce to stay together,' " Tanaka said. "We had no place to go. We were poor."
Of the 5,589 Japanese Americans who eventually renounced, 97 percent were from Tule Lake. Most of them sought to have their birthright restored once the war ended, including the 1,327 who moved to Japan after the war, according to research documents.
San Francisco attorney Wayne Collins battled the Department of Justice relentlessly on the renunciants' behalf, historians say. Unable to pursue a class-action suit, Collins ultimately filed thousands of individual suits.
"It was amazing what this man was doing," said Barbara Takei, a Northern California writer who received a grant to study the renunciants. "I can't imagine how he supported a law practice. Everyone was expected to kick in $100. Most had nothing; they got out of camp with $25."
By 1959, all but 50 or so of those who wanted their citizenship back had regained it.
"To remove 110,000 people using the threat of disloyalty and then to only find 50 you could label disloyal might suggest the government lacked grounds to begin with," Takei said.
No haven in Japan
Tanaka cannot recall going to the official hearing or signing the document that stripped her of her citizenship.
"I guess we'd just assumed we'd be able to take care of it," she said of the renunciation.
Her mother desperately wanted to return to Japan.
"I knew it was going to be terrible," Tanaka said of the seven years she spent there. "It's a big mistake to go to a country that lost the war."
Japan not only didn't want these countryless people, it couldn't afford them.
"They didn't fit in; they weren't Japanese," Takei said. "They were looked upon as scavengers coming back to a country where already there wasn't enough food or housing."
Tanaka, who was 21 when she set sail for Japan, eventually renounced her Japanese citizenship because, she said, "I figured they had gotten us into trouble in the first place."
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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