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Kenge Kobayashi Recalls the Loyalty Questionnaires and Conditions at Tule Lake Segregation Center

Kenge Kobayashi is a Nisei (second generation) Japanese American born in 1926 in Imperial Valley, California. With his family, he was incarcerated at Tulare Assembly Center, California, and then at the Gila River, Arizona, and Tule Lake, California, incarceration camps. A traumatic episode in the years of incarceration was the imposition of a loyalty questionnaire in early 1943. The government attempted to separate those they considered disloyal so that Japanese Americans designated as loyal could serve in the military or be released to communities away from the West Coast. The poorly worded and badly administered loyalty registration caused anger and turmoil in the camps and divided families. Questions 27 and 28 in particular put the detainees in untenable positions: the first asked if respondents were willing to serve in the armed forces, and the second asked respondents to swear unqualified allegiance to the United States and to forswear any loyalty to Japan. Issei parents feared their sons would be drafted; the American-born Nisei resented the assumption that they were loyal to Japan. Those who answered “no” to questions 27 and 28 or qualified their answers in any way—such as, “I will serve in the military when my rights are restored”—were labeled disloyal and sent to Tule Lake. Designated as a segregation center, Tule Lake experienced the worst violence and repression of all the camps, as War Relocation Authority (WRA) authorities imposed harsh security measures and jailed protestors in a stockade. In the interview excerpt, Kobayashi tells how he was a relatively carefree teenager before the loyalty registration changed life at Tule Lake.

Listen to Audio:

KK: But we were having fun and it was kind of enjoyable until the questionnaires came out.

AI: And that was in 1943?

KK: Yeah.

AI: And can you tell me what happened then?

KK: Well, of course, my folks and my older brothers — I was a little young so I didn’t have to answer those questions, but they all answered no because they were bitter. My father felt insulted being asked those questions ‘cause he had no intention of going back to Japan or anything or he had no allegiance to Japan and here they asking them questions after they take all the property away and everything so he was bitter. And the other thing was he didn’t know if — where to go home to ’cause there was nothing left so the alternative was maybe Japan. We should go back to Japan 'cause there is nothing here. So that’s why he answered no. I don’t think it was any loyalty to Japan or anything.

AI: So he made that decision, but then how about your older brothers?

KK: Well, they felt, whatever they do, we should do it, too. We should stick together.

AI: So their decision was mainly based on, sounds like, wanting to stay together as a family.

KK: Yeah, uh-huh.

AI: Did you have any family discussion about that that you recall?

KK: Yeah, but I wasn’t in on that discussion. I think my older brothers and sister was, but I stayed out of it.

AI: And did you have any sense, had you heard any rumors, or did you have any idea of what might happen because of their decisions?

KK: No. Well, I didn’t know what was gonna happen. I didn’t know why they asked the questions from the first place, but it kind of tore a lot of us apart because it separated families, it separated friends. I made good friends there and all of a sudden we had to part when the decision was made that we had to go to Tule Lake. There was a lot of divisions and things like that.

KK: But you want me to tell about Okamoto?

AI: Yeah. Who was Mr. Okamoto?

KK: He was, their family was from Heart Mountain, I think, and we knew them, my family knew them. And he was working, he was a truck driver working outside the fence, and when you go out through the gates, you have to show your pass to the guard. But he has been going in and out, in and out every day so this guard knew him so he just waves him on. But, this one day it was a new guard there who just came back from the Pacific war, and he told him to halt. So he halted and he told him to get out of the truck so he got out, and he said, “Show me your pass” or something, give me... so he — this driver was kind of cocky, I guess, he just threw the pass on the ground. And this guy told him to pick it up and they started to argue and all of a sudden he shot him, the guard shot this guy. And this is what I heard 'cause I wasn’t there to see it. I didn’t see it, from their family story, but they said that they called the medics and everything, but this guard kept everybody away with the gun and so he bleed to death right on the ground. So we had a camp-wide funeral and one of those fire breaks they had, and there were thousands of people there at the funeral. And it was after that, even during the funeral, somebody was talking about how this guy murdered this guy. Anyway, it started, I think that was the catalyst to the riot that happened because people start talking and everything. And I’m not saying that was the only reason, but there’s other reasons too, but everybody start talking, pretty soon everybody got all hepped up and started walking towards the administration building.

AI: And what happened next?

KK: Well, one of the thing that they found out was the WRA was stealing some food like meat and selling on the black market, which we were supposed to get. So I, as a kid, I said, “Well, we’re going to go in there and steal the meat back.” So we went in the cold storage, and we lug out all these meat and took it back to our mess hall, and we had steaks for a whole week. [Laughs] But in the meantime they were throwing tear gas at us and everything and pretty soon there was martial law. And then the army came in with their tanks and started shooting the guns and everything.

AI: Were you there during the shooting?

KK: Yeah. But they didn’t shoot at anything, they were shooting at people’s, up high, so they didn’t shoot anybody, but they were scaring the hell out of everybody. And they were coming between our barracks, the tanks, and shake. Our whole barrack was shaking.

AI: What did you do?

KK: We were hiding under the bed scared. [Laughs] Anyway, we didn’t know what was gonna happen. We thought they going to start killing everybody. Who knows.

AI: So people were really afraid for their lives?

KK: Yeah. So everybody stayed in and they wouldn’t come out, but then the military start — the other thing was the military start delivering the food to the mess hall. And we were watching 'em and they just drive up and threw the — all the food down from the truck and a lot of the things broke, eggs broke and everything. They didn’t care. They just drop everything and they just went. That’s how they were delivering the food. And I thought at that time, “Well, what is this anyway.”

AI: So during martial law lots of the normal operations were stopped and operations that were normally carried out by the internees, internees were not allowed to do that so the Army had taken over some of these, such as delivering and so forth.

KK: Yeah, and they closed the school and all that stuff and we were under curfew. But it was kind of a bad time for us.

AI: And do you recall what else happened during that time of martial law?

KK: Well, I heard — this is from hearing — that they arrested a lot of people through the FBI, and they arrested a lot of people and they put them in the stockade.

AI: Did you know anyone who was put in there?

KK: No, uh-uh. No, but then that kind of subsided.

Source: Kenge Kobayashi, interview, July 4, 1998, Klamath Falls, Oregon. From Densho Digital Archive, http://www.densho.org/. Interviewer: Alice Ito, segments 7, 10, 11, denshovh-kkenge-01 (accessed October 14, 2009).