From the Archive

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Over the last ten years, Densho has collected hundreds of hours of video testimony and tens of thousands of historical images. From the Archive is a monthly feature that highlights primary sources from the Densho Digital Archive to illustrate themes in Japanese American history. We hope that it will give you a sense of the rich depth of materials in the Archive. To access the entire collection, simply register for a free user account.


January 2010 - Beyond the Divide: Japanese American Responses to the "Loyalty Questionnaire"

Tule Lake segregation center, 1945, denshopd-i37-00198
"The government is asking... a father and a son who have different situations, the same question, and on the basis of your answer your family might be broken up."
   -- Frank Isamu Kikuchi

One of the most divisive legacies of the World War II incarceration remains the issue of loyalty. The loyal/disloyal divide continues to haunt the memory and interpretation of Japanese American history, as many in the community still grapple with what has become such a stigmatized and controversial label. This article examines what scholar Eric Muller calls the "loyalty bureaucracy" -- the registration and segregation program implemented within the camps to measure the "loyalty" of the imprisoned population.1 While Muller and other scholars have done important work in highlighting the absurdity of this premise, less explored are the varying ways in which Japanese Americans reacted to the government's efforts.2 This article looks at the wrenching decisions Japanese Americans were forced to make during this time, understanding that these decisions were not expressions of "loyalty" or "disloyalty," but measured responses to difficult and often extreme circumstances.

The "loyalty questionnaire" emerged as a compromise among government officials who disagreed on how to proceed with the detention process. Some wanted to keep all Japanese Americans imprisoned during the war, while others thought a select few should be allowed to leave the camps to fill labor shortages or serve in the military. By mid-1942, the need for Japanese American labor and military service overrode any arguments for total confinement. The War Department and War Relocation Authority (WRA), the governing body of the incarceration camp system, developed a process called "registration" in which a questionnaire would be administered to all the internees to assess who would and would not be allowed to leave camp. This became known as the "loyalty questionnaire" or the "loyalty oath." Ironically, the registration process contradicted the government's initial justification for mass removal and internment, which was rooted in the racist presumption of Japanese American disloyalty. Now, in the eyes of the WRA, Japanese Americans could "prove" their loyalty (or disloyalty) by answering a series of questions on a form.

The "loyalty questionnaire" immediately sparked confusion and anger among the detainees, who remained uninformed by camp administrators about the purpose of the questionnaire or how it would be used. Tensions surfaced among friends and families.

Controversy centered around the final two questions, numbers 27 and 28. They asked: "Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States?" and "Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America…and forswear any allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or any other foreign government, power, or organization?" The last question proved particularly troublesome for the Issei who would be rendered stateless by forswearing the Japanese emperor, as laws of the United States prohibited them from becoming naturalized American citizens. The Nisei similarly encountered difficulties answering the question, which compelled them to relinquish a formal relationship with Japan that never existed.

Question 27 concerned the all-Japanese American regimental combat team, for which the War Department was soliciting volunteers. The creation of the Nisei combat team reversed a government policy that had prevented persons of Japanese ancestry from serving in the military. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Japanese Americans already in service were reclassified 4-C, the status of enemy alien, while local draft boards prohibited further enlistment.

Question 27 angered some Nisei who felt that the U.S. government had no right to ask for volunteers from a population incarcerated behind barbed wire. Others viewed volunteering as a way to help their families or as the only opportunity to leave the confines of camp. The War Department expected 5,000 volunteers, but perhaps unsurprisingly, fewer than 1,200 signed up.

Detainees responded to the questionnaire in various ways and for a wide variety of reasons. Many Japanese Americans answered "yes" to both questions, while others answered "no." Some, like Chizuko Norton, answered yes-no or with qualified answers. Incarcerated with her family in California, Chizuko's mother became terminally ill, which forced her to make the difficult decision between leaving camp to go to college and staying with her parents in Tule Lake.

The results of the questionnaire became institutionalized, as the government used the answers to pursue a policy of segregation. Government officials designated Tule Lake incarceration camp in California a segregation center for Japanese Americans they considered "disloyal," including those who answered negatively on the "loyalty questionnaire," detainees requesting repatriation to Japan, and others deemed "troublemakers" by camp authorities. Beginning in 1943, camp administrators transferred the "disloyals" into Tule Lake and dispersed the "loyal" Tuleans into other camps. Peggy Tanemura's family moved from Minidoka to Tule Lake in 1943 at the request of her mother, who wished to reunite with family members in Japan. As a young child, Peggy remembers the traumatic impact of this decision.

Sarah Sato and her family also qualified their answers on the "loyalty questionnaire" and were sent to Tule Lake as part of the segregation process. In fall of 1944, when the Department of Justice announced that Japanese Americans could renounce their U.S. citizenship, Sarah and her mother both sent in applications. They made the decision to renounce in order to keep the family together: Sarah's father felt compelled to return to Japan to care for his ailing father, who lived alone. As Sarah's story illustrates, renunciation often involved practical concerns about family, not political affiliations or coercion by extremists. After a thirteen-year legal battle spearheaded by Wayne Collins of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), many people like Sarah Sato had their U.S. citizenship restored.

The flawed and poorly administered questionnaire provides one example of how the government attempted to measure the loyalty of the Japanese American population during World War II. Detainees responded to the questionnaire in various ways for reasons that defied the categories of "loyal" and "disloyal" the government sought to impose. The narrative of loyalty remains a potent one in Japanese American history. However, as these oral history interviews illuminate, it does not and cannot capture the complexities of individual experience.


1. Eric Muller, American Inquisition: The Hunt for Japanese American Disloyalty in World War II (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 2.

2. For recent works on registration, see Muller, American Inquisition and Mae Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).


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