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 The Asian Reporter's

From The Asian Reporter, V13, #36 (September 2-8, 2003), page 13 and 16.

Lesson unlearned

Tule Lake

By E.T. Miyakawa

House by the Sea Publishing LLC, in cooperation with Trafford Publishing, Victoria, B.C. Canada, 1979, Reprinted 2002

Paperback, 331 pages, $20.00


By Douglas Spangle

1965: Watts was burning. The streets of East L.A. were filled with looters smashing shop windows, carrying off Hi-Fis and TV sets. Ed Miyakawa’s co-workers were making broad generalizations about blacks. "I just started thinking about what people had said about the Japanese during the War," he says. As a boy, he had been interned along with his family and over 120,000 other Japanese Americans during World War II.

His feelings began to overwhelm him. He started to write down his memories to keep himself from exploding. Eventually, his written thoughts began to gain direction: the barracks at Tule Lake, the barbed wire, the bad food, the guns, the guards. He questioned his parents about the camp — all he got, he says, were "funny stories."

The Department of War had circulated a questionnaire in the camps including two items: Questions 27 and 28 asked whether the respondent would be willing to serve in the American armed forces, and whether he would forswear allegiance to all but the United States. Those who answered both questions in the negative were called "No-Nos." They were transferred to desolate Tule Lake with special precautions. Unrest resulted — not only civil disobedience, but also strife within the community of internees.

When Miyakawa phoned former "No-Nos," receivers were slammed in his ear.

He decided that a novel would be a better approach than a testimony. He looked around for previous writings about the camps, and found that little had been published. In the library of UC Berkeley, he came across a couple of studies published right after the War. Sociology professor Dorothy Swaine Thomas had charged some of her Japanese-American students, at times covertly, to treat the camps as a fieldwork assignment. What resulted were two controversial studies: The Salvage, a look at families who accommodated themselves to internment, the confiscation of their property, and disruption of their lives. Another study, The Spoilage, examined the lives that were ruined and the "disloyals" who were imprisoned at Tule Lake. Miyakawa says he used testimony from The Spoilage extensively for his book.

He took William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner and the novels of John Steinbeck as models of what he wanted in terms of his writing style. The effects of this can be seen in his lyrical descriptions of rural central California. For someone who had "never written anything more than cribbing term papers," this novel had turned into a serious literary project.

And when he finished, it proved a tough sell. Both Japanese and Caucasian communities were, in their different ways, in denial about the camps, and nobody of either party was in a hurry to dredge up shameful events of the past. But stating unpleasant truths has never been a popular occupation. Eventually, a group of Vietnamese put Tule Lake through their press, and it was released in 1979, the first Japanese-American novel to deal with the Relocation.

Tule Lake’s publication coincided with the dawning of third- and fourth-generation Japanese awareness of the wartime internment; it sold modestly well and was reviewed sympathetically in many media outlets. It also coincided with a number of lawsuits and reparations — which brought the mass internment for the first time (25 years later) onto the front page and into the general public consciousness. There would come a day when the misrepresentations and hysteria behind the internment were recognized and apologized for.

Though it will probably never qualify as summer beach-blanket reading, Tule Lake is a well turned realist novel as well as an act of bravery and personal witness. Miyakawa’s protagonist, Ben Senzaki, a law student, is sent along with his family from their central California home to the Tule Lake Relocation Center. Ben’s brother Gordie enlists in the Army and is killed in combat on the Italian Front. The novel follows the family’s dispossession and imprisonment and traces Ben’s decision to register as a "No-No," and the further difficulties that ensue.

Far from being a self-righteous or rabble-rousing piece of writing, Tule Lake is thoughtful, exploring the complexities of three-dimensional characters who react to their situation with a wide variety of responses. That the characters are all well drawn and speak with distinct and individual voices keeps them from being mere vehicles for exposition or opinion; the narrative also illustrates how much Japanese American citizens had differentiated by the 1940s — in all their shadings, as Miyakawa notes, "there were no Good Guys or Bad Guys."

"Native American genocide, African American enslavement, and the internment of Japanese Americans: these are three great evils of American history," declared Marnie Mueller, author of the 1999 novel The Climate of the Country, and two years before 9/11 it seemed possible to hope that America might have become more tolerant, that we had learned a lasting lesson from the Japanese Relocation.

September 11 changed all that. In the spasm of ethnic paranoia following the World Trade Center disaster, the novel seemed newly relevant, and Miyakawa was persuaded to reissue Tule Lake in cooperation with the Canadian print-on-demand publisher Trafford. As the Patriot Act threatens to expand forever, we need to reread books like The Spoilage and Tule Lake and remember what we are doing. We seem not to have learned the lesson.


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