Place: New York

The Unknown Resistance

Art Categories:  Film, Movie

In 2015, during the heated US presidential campaign, and a time when the lack of Asian-Americans in entertainment became a topic of discussion, the Broadway musical “Allegiance” opened in New York City. The story of the production was inspired by actor George Takei‘s early life in a Japanese Internment Camp during World War II. Gaman, which means “patience” and “endurance” was a theme of the production: making the best of it even in the worst circumstances. That’s an important survival skill. However, not all of those incarcerated Japanese-Americans were merely patient. Filmmaker Konrad Aderer’s documentary feature “Resistance at Tule Lake,” a sold out screening at this year’s JAPAN CUTS! in New York, focuses on the incarcerees’ acts of resistance, many of which are revealed for the first time. It’s a story of both unheard and disappearing voices.


What are the Japanese Internment Camps? During World War II, triggered by Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, 120,000 Japanese Americans were forced to relocate to isolated, desert areas in the interior of the country, where they were incarcerated in camps by the American government. Two-thirds of the camps’ populations were American citizens. But being a citizen didn’t matter; they were labeled an enemy element by discriminatory American media propaganda with slogans like “Watch Those Japs!” The Tule Lake War Relocation Center was one of several internment camps, however it stands out for becoming a militarized Segregation Camp for “disloyals,” Japanese Americans who when questioned were deemed not to be loyal to the American government. Through historical materials and personal interviews with survivors and experts, the film explores what happened to the people who were imprisoned at Tule Lake.


Since 9/11, discrimination towards Muslims has been escalating in the world, and earlier this year the new US administration enacted the Muslim travel ban. And not only Muslims, but also hatred towards Black, Latino, Asian, White, and all the races grows in the air. Even though the Holocaust in Europe and the Japanese Internment Camps in the USA happened in the 20th century, they are not so far removed from today in human history. Do we think the same thing can’t happen again because now we have learned? For humanity to survive it’s crucial to realize that it could happen again because we haven’t changed. Ultimately “Resistance at Tule Lake” isn’t about what happened to Japanese-Americans, it’s about the lives of people who lost their freedom by someone else’s hand. Such a thing could happen to any of us. We are in a pivotal moment.



COOL sat with Konrad Aderer to discuss “Resistance at Tule Lake” during JAPAN CUTS!



“These people who had everything taken away from them,

many of whom ended up giving up their citizenship,

still resisted”



Could you tell me your background?

My mom’s side of the family is Japanese American. I’m a yonsei (4th generation), or a hapa yonsei (half-Asian 4th generation). My father’s side of the family came from Austria and England. Most of them came about the turn of the 20th century. So my grandparents on my mom’s side were born here. They both had spent some time in Japan, but they ended up staying in the United States.


What led you to make a documentary film about Tule Lake now?

I got into documentary filmmaking after 9/11 because I saw what was happening to immigrant and especially Muslim communities, and it just felt so wrong to me because I’d grown up knowing about my grandparents’ incarceration during World War II. I made a film called “Enemy Alien,” about a Palestinian immigrant detainee and resistor, that is told from my point of view, so it gets into my family history as well. That’s when I rediscovered Tule Lake, which I barely knew about. It seemed like this very inside, secret thing that happened in the community. It has so many parallels to what’s been happening more recently, more than just the general incarceration.


The word “internment” is used to refer to the whole mass incarceration, but it’s not properly applied because “internment” is what you do to non-citizens whose national origin is from a country with which you are at war. Tule Lake was a fascinating because it was the bleeding edge between citizen and alien. It was the only camp located inside the exclusion zone, so the laws that applied in this exclusion zone could be applied to the people in Tule Lake. Then there was the renunciation. As soon as people renounced their citizenship they could be interned, actually interned within the internment camp.


Why did it take so many decades for the Japanese Internment Camps to be discussed openly?

© Resistance at Tule Lake

For a long time, the people who went through it didn’t want to discuss it. It was the redress movement, which a lot of people in the older generation objected to, that brought it out into the open. Really, the nisei (2nd generation), who were less connected to the camp experience, led the charge. But at least from the ‘80s on, if you seek them out, there are documentaries about internment, but not about Tule Lake. I believe this is the first documentary that focuses on Tule Lake as a story.


Why did you want to focus on the resistance aspect of the story?

If you’re at all socially conscious or political, you would project yourself back in time and try to think about what you would have done: would I have just gone along with this, or would I have resisted in some way? It was a heroic struggle that I thought could inspire other people today. We have a really difficult situation for a lot of communities in the United States now: like a thousand people a day are subject to immigrant detention. So, the idea that these people who had everything taken away from them, many of whom ended up giving up their citizenship, still resisted is inspiring.


And they’re making money by putting people into detention.

You can always find an economic motive that racism helps out. The whole removal of the Japanese from the West Coast was largely because of economic competition, and now people are making money off of the privatized detention system.




“…a minority can have such an effect on so many people,

as they did with wartime incarceration”



Donald Trump spoke about the Internment Camps at the end of 2015, and with the travel ban this year, there has been an increase in hate towards non-white and Middle Eastern people. Can you talk about how the film links with the times we are experiencing now?

If you look at the rhetoric of the time, what happened to Japanese Americans was part of a much broader anti-Asian movement in the United States that was essentially white supremacy. It was both racist and economic, as well as a major political movement that got many people elected at that time. So Congress was very active in the incarceration, and with Tule Lake.


If you look at today, it’s really a continuity of the same movement. You have people who have a certain wish list that fulfills really racist objectives. It’s hard for me to explain how this has happened so long after 9/11.


I can’t quite explain why it’s happened—there’s many interesting theories—but Islamophobia has revived, and right now it’s really got a seat at the table in our government that it didn’t even back at 9/11. That’s why people have to pay attention to how these general, irrational, racist movements get turned into rational policy, like banning refugees from certain countries that happen to be Muslim.


Knowing that there was a campaign called “Keep California White” makes me realize that we haven’t changed at all, even though we think we are better and wiser than people in the past. Do you have any thoughts on this?

Of course we had some progress. Slavery doesn’t exist here anymore, but on the other hand, you have so many people who express the most outrageous things and people in positions of power listen who to them and count on their votes. It’s part of the demographic change, and a majority of radical elements feel on the defensive because they see their hegemony slipping away. Hopefully, this is the last time white supremacy can have such an impact on national politics—hopefully. But I would have thought that before, and would have been wrong. We need to listen to how a minority can have such an effect on so many people, as they did with wartime incarceration.


Of course Germany and Italy didn’t attack Pearl Harbor, but when I think of the Japanese Interment Camps, I also think, “What about Germans and Italians?” Do you know what happened to those camps?

Two of the subjects, Junichi Yamamoto and Bill Nishimura, told me fascinating stories about what happened to them after they had renounced their citizenship and were put in internment camps. Unfortunately there wasn’t time for that in the film, but Junichi Yamamoto talked about how they would have swim meets with the Germans and Italians; they were just all there together. They kind of hung out and got along. It was a much different environment too because inside the internment camps within the larger incarceration camp they were protected by the Geneva Convention, whereas Tule Lake and many other camps did things which violated the Geneva Convention.


You took time on the Renunciation aspect. Could you talk about the importance of that part?

Barbara Takei visits Tule Lake © Resistance at Tule Lake

From the time of registration, people had expressed the desire to renounce their citizenship and repatriate to Japan. But it wasn’t until Congress passed this law that there was an actual path to renounce their citizenship. That was how the United States thought they were going to get rid of people they considered disloyal; once they renounced their citizenship, they could deport them.


Barbara Takei, who’s probably the most knowledgeable person about Tule Lake alive today, says this was a deliberate campaign by the government to make people self-deport, to make life so miserable for people that they would renounce their citizenship. But what happened was, the Hoshi Dan, a pro-Japan faction in the camp, started to emerge around the time, and instead of suppressing them, the administration actively supported them.


The Hoshi Dan took a pro-Japan stance, had a militant attitude, and could be violent; they were taking over the camp, pressuring people to renounce. But very few people actually renounced until the government announced they were closing the camps. Although it’s a paradox that this horrible incarceration was something people wanted to stay in, at that time, they were facing so much danger and uncertainty on the outside. Everything had been taken away.


When the government announced that people essentially were going to be forced out within a certain amount of time, that was when they had to think about what’s the next step. The army offered it as a choice: “Do you want to renounce, or do you want to stay here?” According to Barbara Takei, the timing was pretty persuasive, and that was what sparked the flood of 5000 people renouncing.




“The madness of war has a different form now”



By including Tokio Yamane’s testimony, “Today I am who I am because of the past. I never considered myself unfortunate,” the film touches upon self-esteem. Why did you want to conclude this way?

Tokio Yamane has this almost spiritual view of everything. He’s not angry, he no longer resents the United States, he looks at the good side of everything that happened even though he suffered worse than anyone else in the film. He was beaten to within an inch of his life and his teeth were knocked out. So I don’t know exactly what it means, but it’s so important for human nature to look at where he has arrived after that.


Mr. Yamane also says, “War makes people crazy. It should never happen again.” As someone from a generation that has never experienced a war that shakes the entire world, what kind of thoughts do you have towards war?

© Resistance at Tule Lake

There have been several wars in my lifetime, but none of them have affected me the way that people were affected at that time. The madness of war has a different form now. It makes it harder to grasp what the impact on the world really is because we don’t participate together. As Americans, people are atomized; they’re isolated from each other. If you look at a Tule Lake and realize the impact of war on different groups of people, you find parallels and links to the experiences of different communities. And in a sense, we’re in a state of constant war; just like “1984”, it’s a never-ending war. That’s a different kind of madness we really need to come to grips with.


I was listening to this Japanese journalist who said, “When the media reports on war, they sell more.” What do you think we are looking for?

Certainly Korea is being sold as a war. The idea of military intervention in Syria has been sold. It just depends on whose ends it serves at any particular time. It’s still true that money drives it. We’re the biggest arms producer in the world. We always have to be selling and perfecting more weapons. Weapons are being tested in Israel against the Palestinians. War is advertising for these companies, and they have gigantic influence and a huge budget that we pay for. I think a lot of people enjoy the idea of war. Because otherwise, the problems of the world are really frustrating and seem to have no solution.


What hope do you see in America now?

Konrad Aderer at JAPAN CUTS! Q&A © Geroege Hirose

My hope is that the groups that are in ascendance now demographically will overcome divisions. Including the movement to reparations in this film was important because it shows how, after the war, this community was able to organize and completely turn the United States’ point of view around, essentially. But of course, it took forty years. So I hope it’s inspirational, and can make people think about how to do things faster. I hope I’ve showed a little bit of just how dangerous it was to even say anything about being Japanese back then. And for these guys to shave their heads and take this on is astounding to me. For people to speak up and say anything in defense of their rights is just amazing to me, given where they were in this camp with tanks around them. That should be an inspiration. There’s always something that can be done.



Text & Interview by Taiyo Okamoto

Production Photo © Resistance at Tule Lake

Photos of Konrad Aderer © George Hirose


“Resistance at Tule Lake” Official Website

JAPAN CUTS! Official Website



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