These survivors — most of whom are now in their 80s and 90s — were gathered as part of the biennial Tule Lake Pilgrimage to the site of the concentration camp that housed more than 18,000 Japanese Americans during WWII. The largest and most militarized camp, Tule Lake was a maximum-security segregation center that held those who used the infamous Loyalty Questionnaire to protest the injustice of their incarceration. This year’s pilgrimage helped shine a positive light on the camp’s radical acts of resistance and presented opportunities to use that history as a platform for speaking out against contemporary injustices.
The jail-site protest was paired with other actions and panels that allowed participants to engage more deeply in these narratives of resistance, and to apply them to injustices unfolding across our country today.
In a session on this very subject, New York-based activist and organizer Mike Ishii encouraged people to get involved, even if activism doesn’t come naturally to them. “No one is born an activist,” he said, “you come to it out of necessity.” What followed was the creation of the Japanese American Action Network and radical conversation about forms of resistance — both direct and indirect — that we can all learn from.
1. Find common ground.
“We have to remember that right now in this country there’s a deep polarization. It’s an ‘us versus them’ mentality and….what that means is that we have to do a lot of listening to each other. We have to see each other as human beings and we have to find the commonality of our experience. I bet you almost no Japanese American would agree that a camp should be built on Rohwer. So maybe you start in those places and then start figuring out how to build a relationship with somebody. You have to come willing to open your heart and stretch beyond where you’re comfortable, and I think we have to start giving up our dogma and look more towards connection.” – Mike Ishii, Co-Chair of the New York Day of Remembrance Committee
“I like what you said about finding common ground. Maybe it’s about your kids or your cat, not necessarily THE issue, but you find common ground to establish a relationship. Then when you’re talking about your issue that you feel very passionate about, don’t expect them in one conversation to go from absolute no to absolute yes. You have to think about incrementally moving the needle. You move it a little in one conversation and then the next time you might move it a little more.” – Tony Okada, Densho volunteer
2. Pick Your Battles.
Session attendees agreed that finding common ground is important, but you’ve also got to recognize that you’ve got a limited amount of time and energy. As Carl Takei, Senior Attorney with the National ACLU, put it:
“I think it’s important to collect our family members who might stand up and interrupt us when we’re talking about political things and to try to bring them in, but also it’s ok if there are some people where you say ‘I’m not going to focus my energy on you, I’m going to focus my energy on direct action to assist the people who are being targeted.’”
“We have to vote, we have to get everyone in our lives to vote, we have to get young people, we have to get old people — help drive them to the polls. Every little gesture that we can make, no matter how small, to get people to vote this fall. That’s the most important thing right now.” – Audience comment
Karen Korematsu of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute reminded us just how easy it can be for people to engage in this way: “There is even voting by mail,” she said. “If I can do that, anyone can.”
4. Raise your voice.
“Channel those little acts of bravery in our own lives, those small gestures that make us feel powerful. Things as simple as calling representatives, calling senators — you don’t have to just call the one that represents you. Or wear a t-shirt that says something provocative — that act might embolden someone else to step forward and say “I agree. I agree with you and I don’t agree with what’s going on around me.’” – Audience comment
“When you call legislators, they have to keep a record of each call, of what you’re saying, of what your protest is, of what your issue is. These people represent us and hearing from us helps them to know where their efforts need to go.” – Karen Korematsu
5. Small acts of solidarity and kindness matter.
“One of my favorite stories that Satsuki [Ina] tells and that she gave me permission to retell is that when her mother was dying she wrapped herself in this old blanket and Satsuki went to her and said, ‘Mom why are you wrapped in this blanket? It’s threadbare, it’s barely giving you any warmth, it smells kind of bad.’ And her mother told her that when they were in the Tanforan assembly center her mother was pregnant with Satsuki. There was a group of Quakers who threw packages over the fence and one of the quaker women saw that Satsuki’s mother was pregnant and said ‘this is for you’ and threw the blanket over the fence and the fact that when she was dying this is the object that she chose to hold close to her, I think is SO powerful and right now there are people in detention who need that voice of support. There are women who have gone on hunger strikes inside detention facilities. There are people who are organizing resistance in all kinds of ways while they are locked up in detention facilities. And if we are able to go and visit them and say ‘I’m Japanese American, this is my family history. I support you,’ they’ll remember.” – Carl Takei
Kathy Masaoka, a longtime activist with the Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress (NCRR), recalled an elderly man talking about the fact that, decades later, he still had a copy of The Little Engine That Could that Quakers had given him as a child in camp. She went on to say:
“All the actions that people did to support another group of people who felt very abandoned — ALL those actions were important and I think you’re right, but I wish that there was a collective action that we as Japanese Americans could do too, and I kind of feel like can we change the image of Japanese Americans? I mean, redress made us SO strong…so can we change the image to the image that Tule Lake has — an image of resistance?”
6. Build coalitions with other communities of color.
“We need deep inclusion and solidarity work at this time. It’s been huge for us to make these connections in our youth organizing work. What would it mean for our community to back redress and reparations for Native Americans and Black folks in this country? We know it was such a huge fight for us to get to win, and to understand what that visibility and that acknowledgement meant for our community and then saying, “that’s not enough” and we will actually go out on the front lines for other communities who have faced the same injustices from the same systems of oppression, racism, capitalism that our communities faced.
“In order to do that we need to build really strong relationships with communities, letting them lead, and backing them as allies. As Japanese Americans we need to remember that Japan was a colonizing country in Asia, and we need to think about that when we show up to organizing spaces.” – Ashley Uyeda, a youth organizer in LA, and member of Tule Lake’s United to End Racism committee
7. You don’t need to have all the answers.
Carl Takei named several organizations that support immigrants — including RAICES, Freedom for Immigrants, and Mijente — and urged people to connect with them. “All you have to do is reach out to them and say, ‘What can I do to help?’”
(Please feel free to add other groups and organizations in the comments section!)
In closing, Mike Ishii reminded the audience that doing nothing is not an option. “We need to use the moral authority we have as Japanese Americans and to activate it in this time.”
Panelists and audience members agreed to organize a national direct action network predominantly led by Yonsei and Gosei activists that would bring together different groups around shared strategies and actions. This effort brings together individuals and a variety of organizations from across the country. If you would like to get involved, sign up for the newly formed Japanese American Action Network Slack group and join us in a digital day of action tomorrow, August 10th.
[Header photo: Protest at Tule Lake, photo by Daryn Wakasa]
All quotes sourced from a recording of the panel, “#StopRepeatingHistory! Japanese American Community Activists on the Front Lines of Resistance and Defense of Civil Liberties” at the 2018 Tule Lake Pilgrimage. Some comments were edited for brevity and clarity.