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United to End Racism at Tule Lake

From 1942 to 1946, the U.S. government interned a hundred and twenty thousand U.S. residents of Japanese ancestry in ten concentration camps. Tule Lake Camp was where some of the Japanese Americans considered “most dangerous” were sent. They may have spoken fluent Japanese and been leaders in their communities or worked as fishermen in a coastal location considered particularly strategic to the U.S. Navy.

In 1943, all incarcerated Japanese Americans over seventeen years of age were asked to fill out a “loyalty questionnaire.” It asked two crucial questions: (1) whether they would be completely obedient to serving in U.S. combat duty, and (2) whether they would swear allegiance to the United States and renounce the Japanese emperor or any other foreign government. Any heads of households, and often their whole families, who answered inadequately (with anything other than a simple “yes”), or refused to answer a question, were proclaimed “disloyal” and put on trains to Tule Lake. They were often referred to as “no-no” families.

Tule Lake was transformed into a camp run by the armed forces. There were guard towers, soldiers, and tanks. It became the camp of “segregation” and was the largest of all of the concentration camps—a total of twenty-nine thousand people lived there at some point during World War II. The Tule Lake detainees resisted their incarceration in numerous ways, including with labor strikes, riots, and other uprisings. Some families renounced their U.S. citizenship as a form of protest and were used in prisoner-of-war exchanges with Japan—until Japan realized that the United States was exchanging U.S. citizens (Japanese Americans) for U.S. citizens (U.S. soldiers and diplomats).

Tule Lake is where some of the worst wartime abuses of Japanese Americans occurred. It has also symbolized division in the Japanese American community.


The Pilgrimage to Tule Lake began in the 1970s. Students pushing for Asian Studies and other “minority studies” programs in colleges and universities gathered at Tule Lake as part of their protest movement. They camped out near the site of the original concentration camp and cooked over campfires. After a few years, a handful of Japanese American former incarcerees came to tell stories of their time at Tule Lake. These were the first of the intergenerational dialogues. When Redress and Reparations—a formal apology by the U.S. government for the incarceration in World War II—were granted in the late 1980s to all Japanese Americans, many of those interned began to talk about their experience for the first time, and some returned to the sites of their internment. Now the Tule Lake Pilgrimage takes place every other year, with three hundred and fifty to four hundred participants each time. Registration always fills up in a matter of days.


This year we are doing the fourth United to End Racism (UER) project connected to the pilgrimage. Some of our UER team had been connected to the pilgrimage for many years before our projects began. Also, the work of the team goes beyond what we do in the four days of the pilgrimage. In particular, Jan Yoshiwara and Lois Yoshishige1 are in relationship with the pilgrimage throughout the two years between pilgrimages. They develop and strengthen our work by contributing to the planning and organizing of the pilgrimages.


Months before each pilgrimage, the UER team, led by Jan, begins discharging and organizing.

Team members call all the elders over eighty years of age who are coming on the pilgrimage. We listen to them and remind them that their stories are at the heart of the pilgrimage and that every memory is important to us and to each participant. Their stories are often still difficult to tell to families and friends, so the pilgrimage can be the moment of a lifetime to remember, recount, and heal with our assistance. We ask all the elders who were incarcerated to be resource people in the Intergenerational Discussion Groups during the pilgrimage, to share the stories they got a chance to think about with us.

The UER team meets in conference calls, led by Jan, once or twice a month. This is important for remembering our connection, discharging on the effects of the internment, and getting ready for our work as a team. We also build support in our local Co-Counseling Communities for getting ready for the pilgrimage and doing report-backs afterward. This year, several team members organized local fundraising events for the work of the UER team.


On our first day of the project, we ride buses either up or down the west coast of the United States with three hundred and fifty to four hundred other Tule Lake participants. We get to know people, listen to them, and work to think well about them—especially the elders, for whom the eight- to ten-hour bus ride can be a long journey. Our relationships over the years grow and grow!

When we arrive at Tule Lake, we begin what will be a daily listening project. We listen to people about their experience at the pilgrimage and answer questions they have about UER and Re-evaluation Counseling as tools to heal from racism and war.

That evening everyone assembles for the opening events. At the request of the committee that organizes the pilgrimage, Jan teaches everyone how to do a mini-session.

The next morning, everyone boards the buses again to go to the site of the former camp, now managed by the National Park Service.

At the first stop is a view of a broad, dry landscape in front of a towering stone formation, named Castle Rock, and distant mountains. After the camp was closed, local authorities authorized the excavation of the cemetery. Left behind is a large bowl, covered in sagebrush, where the bodies of the deceased were interred. Within fifty yards of this sacred site, the county has established a dumping site where people bring refuse, including old refrigerators, scrap metal, and rusted water heaters.

We gather in front of a small altar set up in front of several hundred chairs. Behind it is the former cemetery. The pilgrimage remembers, mourns, and pays respects. Everyone is given a flower and folded paper cranes to bring to the altar, and people wait in long lines to bow and pay respects. The Buddhist priest chants a sutra2 into the wind. He chants for compassion in the face of sorrow and injustice. No one speaks, many silently weep. United to End Racism team members gather a small group to place cranes and flowers in the shallow pit from which the remains were removed. People stand in a circle and cry openly and pray for the souls of the lost. It is an important beginning of our day.

That afternoon we tour what remains of the former camp. The sun is intense and conditions are harsh, so the UER team thinks especially about the elders and the young people. We walk with them, bring them water, and listen and talk as we go. Our attention opens spaces for people’s stories.

We stop at a plaque naming Tule Lake as a National Landmark. It’s at a former Civilian Work Camp that employed Japanese Americans as strike-breakers during the war. We also stop at the foundations of a latrine and shower building and at the Tule Lake jail. This year at the jail, one of the former incarcerees told of having to build the jail for his own people.

In the evening, Lois Yoshishige leads a training for those who will facilitate the next morning’s Intergenerational Discussion Groups, which our UER team organizes for the whole pilgrimage. We need about twenty-five groups of ten to fifteen people each, so all the UER team members are facilitators along with other pilgrimage participants we have recruited (a few of whom are Co-Counselors who have come on the pilgrimage on their own). Lois teaches people about mini-sessions, games to get people laughing and ready to share difficult memories, openness to feelings, and the importance of listening well.

The next day is our busiest. In the morning everyone participates in the Intergenerational Discussion Groups that are the culmination of the pilgrimage. People are both reluctant and eager to tell of their experiences in the camps. There is laughter, anger, and tears. Everyone listens. Everyone feels. Sometimes it is the first time family members have really talked since being separated by the internment.

After the groups, all the facilitators meet to debrief. Then later in the afternoon Jan leads, and team members support, an “Introduction to Re-evaluation Counseling” workshop. People we have connected with during the pilgrimage come to learn more about RC.

Throughout these first three days, UER team members also spend time with young people, lead discharge groups for Co-Counselors who are not on the UER team, run the listening and literature tables, write posts to the global RC Community, and do lots and lots of listening and building relationships with people. A women’s taiko group,3 founded and led by Karen Young,4 performs, leads workshops, works with young adults and young people, and inspires all the generations with its music, spirit, and zest. Each night and morning, the UER team meets to discharge, reflect, and organize ourselves. This is a precious time to laugh, talk, cry, and think together.

On day four, we board the buses amidst hugs, waves, and words of farewell and staying in touch. We continue to connect and listen on our long rides back north and south. Often at this point we talk to people we have built relationships with about their interest in Co-Counseling and how they can get involved in RC. We return to our homes and local RC Communities with all the ways we have pushed our re-emergence forward.

Alix Mariko Webb
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
and Mike Ishii
Sunnyside, New York, USA
Reprinted from the e-mail discussion
list for RC Community members

1 Jan Yoshiwara is the International Liberation Reference Person for Japanese-Heritage People. Lois Yoshishige is the Area Reference Person for South Eugene and Springfield, Oregon, USA.
2 A sutra is one of the discourses of the Buddha that constitute the basic text of Buddhist scripture.
3 A taiko group is a group that plays Japanese taiko drums.
4 Karen Young is an RC leader in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, USA.


Last modified: 2021-06-01 12:29:59+00