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An incarceree reflects on the Tule Lake Segregation Center, 80 years after the order creating it

The interior of barracks where Japanese-Americans were held at the Tule Lake Segregation Center.
Precious Yamaguchi
Interior of barracks where Japanese-Americans were held at the Tule Lake Segregation Center.

This month marks the 80th anniversary of the presidential order that led to the internment of nearly 120,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II. One of those camps was just south of the Oregon border in Newell, California. It was called the Tule Lake Segregation Center. JPR’s Erik Neumann spoke with Hiroshi Shimizu who was interned there with his family.

Hiroshi Shimizu: We got there in September of 1943. I was six months old at that time. We left Tule Lake the day after I turned three. Tule Lake started out as one of the so-called “relocation centers” that the War Relocation Authority established. Of course, we've all come to realize that usage of that term “relocation center” was a euphemism for what was in actuality concentration camps that the U.S. government had set up for the Japanese in America.

Erik Neumann: One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you was this month marks 80 years since President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. What did that do?

A watch tower at Tule Lake Segregation Center
Precious Yamaguchi
A watch tower at Tule Lake Segregation Center

HS: That gave all power over to the military for determining what military zones the Japanese should be excluded from. They determined that the entire West Coast was the exclusion zone. At Tule Lake, I think the treatment was proactively meaner and more punitive than they were at other camps. The government, of course, didn't admit to this but, the food that they [incarcerees] were given, the conditions that they were forced to live in, the military scrutiny that they were subjected to was harsher than at any of the other locations.

EN: You've obviously visited Tule Lake. What is this historic site mean to you personally?

HS: The site, Tule Lake is the most complex and complicated history of any of the camps. The protests that happened while the camp existed, the treatment of the incarcerees, all of that comes up for me when I visit the site. In that sense, it's a heavy load that I experience when I when I go there. I go there a couple of times a year, generally.

The exterior of barracks where Japanese-Americans were held at the Tule Lake Segregation Center.
Precious Yamaguchi
The exterior of barracks where Japanese-Americans were held at the Tule Lake Segregation Center.

EN: Are there any lessons that you think are important to keep in mind because of the history of Tule Lake and these other internment camps for right now?

HS: For America, we – meaning the Japanese community – feels that we have this legacy of mass incarceration without trial, without charges. We are determined not to ever let that happen again. There were a couple of instances where that seemed to be getting close to that kind of situation since 9/11. And there were also a lot of echoes about that during the immigration crisis of the last couple of years.

EN: Hiroshi. Thank you very much for talking with me today. I really appreciate it.

HS: My pleasure.

Hiroshi Shimizu was interned at the Tule Lake Segregation Center as a child. Prior to being held at Tule Lake, Shimizu and his family were held at internment camps on Ellis Island and in Rohwer, Arkansas. After Tule Lake they were sent to another internment camp in Crystal City, Texas where they were held until 1947, two years after World War II ended.

Today Shimizu is the president of the Tule Lake Committee, where he works to tell the story of the internment camp and to preserve its historic site in Newell, California.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.