Internment camp bill's message: Don't
Supporters want to preserve remnants of
the WWII centers around the nation.
By David Whitney -- Bee Washington Bureau
Published 2:15 am PDT Sunday, September 18,
Story appeared on Page A3 of The Bee
WASHINGTON - On the wall of the weathered
jail at the World War II Japanese American
internment camp known as the Tule Lake War
Relocation Center, an inmate wrote these
words: "Show me the way to go home."
Between 1942 and 1946, this desolate area
in Modoc County, 10 miles from the town of
Tulelake, was home to tens of thousands of
They were uprooted from their homes, yanked
with few possessions from their communities
and held as virtual prisoners by the U.S.
government because of what Congress later
declared a post-Pearl Harbor hysteria.
Now there is an effort under way in Congress
to preserve these fading remnants of a dark
chapter in U.S. history by establishing $38
million in grants to help local communities
and preservation groups use these artifacts to
establish centers of remembrance and
In 1988, Congress passed legislation
calling for a formal apology to Japanese
Americans and to provide compensation for
their treatment. The apology was delivered a
year later by President George H.W. Bush.
The new legislation is intended to keep
alive the memory of the 10 internment camps
and numerous gathering centers around the
It is sponsored by Rep. William Thomas,
R-Bakersfield, and Democratic Reps. Michael
Honda of San Jose and Doris Matsui of
Sacramento. It has drawn more than 110
co-sponsors, been cleared by the House
Resources Committee for approval by the full
House and soon will be introduced in the
"This legislation is designed to help
ensure the United States and, more
importantly, its citizens never forget the
lessons learned from this mistake," Thomas
said. "It is a modest recognition of a period
in our history that needs to be remembered,
particularly as many of the sites and people
are being overtaken by time."
The legislation was the idea of the
Japanese American Citizens League, and Thomas'
involvement was no accident. He is a close
friend of former California Assemblyman Floyd
Mori, who is now the organization's public
policy chief in Washington.
Mori said that when he dropped by Thomas'
office last year for a casual visit, he
mentioned JACL's concept, and Thomas latched
"He is very aware of what happened, and
that it was very wrong," said Mori, who once
roomed with Thomas in Sacramento when they
served in the Legislature.
At the time, Thomas and Mori thought they
would be working with Rep. Robert Matsui,
D-Sacramento, on the bill. Matsui lived in the
Tule Lake center, an episode that scarred him
deeply and inflamed his passions as he led the
battle for the act that delivered the federal
But the congressman died Jan. 1, and his
widow, Doris, was elected to fill his seat.
Born in the Poston camp in Arizona, she
doesn't have the vivid memories that her
husband had but grew up under the shadow of
"My parents never wanted to burden me with
this so that we could grow up as 'American' as
possible," she said.
For many Japanese Americans, the experience
was humiliating because of the public doubt
about their loyalty, even though most were
"We want to make sure this doesn't fade
from anyone's memory," Doris Matsui said.
Honda said his experience spending the
first three years of his life in a Colorado
relocation center drifted back in dreams -
bits and pieces of memories about life in
confinement as a toddler - shooting vividly up
through his consciousness. His parents
affirmed their accuracy.
"I didn't show anger until I was a little
older," he said. "Then I began to understand
why it was important to remember these things,
work toward that apology and now to try to
make sure these confinement sites are
There were two confinement centers in
California. The Manzanar War Relocation Center
in the Owens Valley, in what used to be
Thomas' district, was made a national historic
site in 1985 and has a National Park Service
Tule Lake, which may have had the darkest
history of all the centers, stands to benefit
most in California from the Thomas bill.
Declared a state historic site in 1975,
most of what remains is part of a state
highway maintenance yard, although the U.S.
Bureau of Reclamation owns roughly 23 acres of
the old camp and a few of its buildings.
Jimi Yamaichi, 83, is the president of the
Tule Lake preservation committee, and his
story is part of the sad history of the camp,
which at its peak housed 18,750 Japanese
Yamaichi lives with the distinction of
being the person who built the jail.
Of all the camps, Tule Lake in 1943 became
the site where difficult detainees were sent.
Maybe it was because they were too angry to
sign loyalty oaths, Yamaichi said. Maybe it
was because they had defied an order. Or maybe
it was because they were youthful
Whatever the reason, Yamaichi said, even
among Japanese American detainees who still
have a hard time talking about their
experience, those assigned to Tule Lake live
under an even more burdensome stigma.
"People don't want to talk about that they
were at Tule Lake," he said. "Even in our
community today, if we say we were in Tule
Lake, it's, 'Oh, you were bad guys' right off
the bat. Even among our own people. We were
labeled - disloyal."
Now Yamaichi lives with the fact that his
hands helped build the jail where inscriptions
carved or written on the wall tell of the
misery of those for whom it was home.
One inscription in Japanese reads, "Down
with the United States."
Another, more poignant, says curiously:
"Please he a second when I commit Harakiri."
"I was the builder," Yamaichi said. "I was
in charge" of building it.
"That's my monument to incarceration," he
For Yamaichi, for Matsui and Honda and for
others whom the camps remain a dark symbol of
ethnic stereotyping and persecution, the
legislation has become an act of national
"We'd like to do an interpretive center at
Tule Lake and to tell people what happened,
how it happened and how we were treated - and
how we survived," Yamaichi said.