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“War Did Not Break This Family”: Nancy Kyoko Oda and the Tule Lake Stockade Diary

In 2014, I was training to be a discussion leader for the intergenerational dialogues that are an integral part of the Tule Lake pilgrimage. In the training session with 20+ participants, we were given three minutes to introduce ourselves to each other, in pairs. I was sitting next to a Sansei woman with kind brown eyes and a warm smile. As my partner introduced herself, I started nodding with excitement—we were supposed to listen, not speak, for those three minutes. But I could hardly wait to speak, because we shared so much in common. Both of us have artistic sisters; both of us had worked in education. Perhaps most meaningfully, both of us had writings from our fathers, which we were trying to publish. 

Those minutes created a shared bond which has lasted, and in the years since that meeting, Nancy Kyoko Oda has transcribed and published her father Tatsuo Inouye’s diary of his three months in the Tule Lake stockade. Part of the diary lives online at the UCLA Suyama Project, but it also lives now, and vividly, in a beautifully designed print book, Tule Lake Stockade Diary.

The stockade is one of the most misunderstood and least known portions of one of the most misunderstood and stigmatized camps, Tule Lake. In bringing her father’s diary to a larger audience, Oda and her family are giving all of us a valuable primary source document, a crucial part of the Tule Lake story, and evidence of a shared love that is palpable through the decades. (Frank Abe consulted it in writing the Tule Lake portion of our co-written graphic novel We Hereby Refuse.) Translated by Professor Masumi Izumi and edited by Martha Nakagawa, the Stockade Diary represents a crucial part of understanding Tule Lake, just as Tule Lake represents a crucial part of understanding the history of the incarceration. 

Over e-mail, Oda graciously shared her thoughts with me and her journey to publishing this book. Our conversation appears here, lightly edited. 

* * * * *

Tamiko Nimura: In Tule Lake Stockade Diary, your Preface captures a special moment when you were beginning to transcribe the diary in the 1970's. Can you back up a bit, and tell us more about what led to this moment? What led you and your father to this moment, and what was the transcription process like?

Nancy Kyoko Oda: I wanted to learn my family’s camp history, so I invited my dad to the Manzanar Pilgrimage on the San Fernando bus [and] then to Poston Pilgrimage with my nephew, Terry. [My dad] did not want to be interviewed by Japanese TV, but I wore him down. He would only go to Tule Lake if I went, too. He did not want this shameful period of his life exposed. He resisted telling the local ELA paper called the Belvedere Citizen how he felt about Pearl Harbor Day. But I was at the house and he relented. 

So when I asked to start the translation, he agreed with some reticence because some people behaved poorly and it would bring shame to their family. I wrote on lined paper night after night in a smoke filled kitchen while my active two little boys slept. He was a night owl, so I pushed on. I [started work] on November 13th and ended on January 2nd. Then I borrowed my neighbor’s typewriter and used onion paper that is erasable. I turned it in to Professor Moriyama (who has since passed away).

Thank heavens, we met Masumi Izumi in 2013 in an elevator at the JANM conference in Seattle. She came to our hotel room when I gave her copies of the letters between my parents. She met and interviewed Hiroshi [Shimizu] the next morning, then flew to Kyoto that day. I learned how to scan and send copies of the diary that was in Japanese. She and her students began typing it, then translated [the diary entries] from January 3rd to February 14, 1944.

Tamiko: What did you notice the most when you were reading and transcribing your father’s diary? Any themes or aspects or entries that stood out vividly? Why those?

Terry Brian Ryusuke Takeda and Tatsuo Ryusei Inouye, Los Angeles, California 1960.

Kyoko: Themes include judo principles of mutual welfare and benefit. He thought about those inside and outside the stockade. He wanted the best for all. He was puzzled with the cruelty of the soldiers since there was no evidence of disloyalty or crime. He was confident that he was innocent and should be released. That happened three months and 1 day later.

Entries that stood out:

I was shocked to learn about the president of the yudanshakai and the principal of the Japanese school peeing in a can. I guess men play those games.

I couldn’t understand the cruelty of the soldiers who poked him with a bayonet while on the pot. I was going between languages to clarify his thoughts. His vocabulary and sarcasm impressed me, but it has taken a long time for me to comprehend the significance of real time diaries. 

The daily grind of writing about food gained meaning when the hunger strike became imminent. 

His description made it easy for me to visualize what he was going through from the “gachan” when the stockade gate first closed. It was loud in my ears. 

I couldn’t comprehend why the WRA treated him like the enemy. 

When he was talking to the FBI, he said, “East is East. West is West.”

The part where one shows pride by using a toothpick, although he had no food to eat. 

The poems were typical of my father’s world, so it was natural to see it here and there.

He was a Meiji style man. He told my mother what he wanted, not asked. But [you can see] he dearly loved her, as you read the letters between them.

Tamiko: In an e-mail message to me, you mentioned that you were able to speak with your dad, in a way, while creating this book. Could you say more about that form of conversation? 

Kyoko: When asked what I called my father, I honestly answered, 'Otousan'. But really I mostly said, 'Daddy'. 

I whispered, "thank you" to him on his death bed. I hoped that I didn’t disappoint him. 

I wish that he could see me now. So much has happened. I think of how much he endured all through his life clearing the path for me.

One time I invited him for tea under my wisteria portico . He wondered what it was for. I said, "it’s for you, Daddy." Well, this book is for you, Daddy.

Tamiko: Wonderful. The book is beautifully designed, almost as an art object. There are family photos (as well as photos of your sister’s artwork) that are sprinkled throughout the book, some from your family’s collection and some from university or history collections. They seem to appear as a form of speaking to your father’s text. Can you tell us about deciding which photos would go where?

Kyoko: I credit John Crummay and Robin Rout (JCRR) for designing the book. They also put the Tuna Canyon exhibit together. I wanted the reader to get a sense of who the people were, from my grandparents in Poston and the reunion in ELA. We don’t have many pictures, so I selected the photos that were part of the story development. 

The Inouye family in Poston Concentration Camp reunited with Katsutaro Sugimoto (maternal parent) after the war ended. From left to right: Tatsuo, Yuriko, Katsutaro Sugimoto, Masako (near her mother), unidentified friend, Sayuri, and another unidentified friend. Poston Camp 1, Block 19-11-A, Poston, California, 1943.

Before the war, my father taught Japanese language school and judo to the Nisei farmers. It brought them pride and safety. He stressed the spiritual side of judo as much as the physical training. That’s what got him through the stockade, in my opinion. My father’s mother was a teacher who influenced his moral compass. She insisted that he love both countries. He left Japan at 17 with the name of his dojo in hand. Senshin means 'clean heart'. Thus, he valued being true to his principles above all.

The ceramic art was born out of my sister’s first pilgrimage in 2009. That is 70 years of carrying this trauma and sadness.  She would pretend to be happy, but she was permanently hurt by the separation during the Tule Lake stockade period of her young life.

Tamiko: What are some of the lessons that you hope readers can take with them from your father’s diary, and from your own process of making this book? 

Kyoko: Lessons learned are: 

  • My sisters and I adored our father, but my mother was a strong Nisei woman. I overlooked that and now appreciate her more and more.

  • My father said that he was 'fighting with his pen'. The Olympian, Sakura Kokumai, was accosted at a park in Orange [County] by Asian hate just recently. She did not use her high level skills. It is the code of ethics for martial arts.

  • The nonviolent hunger strike was the stockade residents’ resistance to the treatment that they were experiencing way before the grape strikes [from] 1965-1970. Perhaps they modeled Mahatma Gandhi, whose fasts occurred [from] 1913 on. My father believed that the American government would not let the men die.

  • Using my voice after being so passive. I use Traci Kato Kiriyama's 'Call to Action': "I give myself permission to use my voice. I give myself permission to be a little bit louder. I give myself permission to show up for others now." My heart hurt when the children were separated from their parents, and I could no longer stay home but join the protest at JANM. This book is my father's voice and now it is mine [too].

  • The power of the mind. My father, who was thirty three at the time, read, wrote, and thought about his conditions. He knew that he was part of history.  With that energy from him, I survived stage 4 ovarian cancer despite the projections. It was mind over matter and very good doctors.

Home again: Tatsuo, Sayuri, Yuriko with baby Kyoko, and Masako with Skippy, the family dog, on the front lawn. East Los Angeles, California, 1946.

Tamiko: Any concluding thoughts?

Kyoko: I tried to get the book published for many years but was unsuccessful. I promised my sister, Masako, that I would complete it. Finally after several refusals, I decided to ask JCRR designs to help me put it together. If there is a will, there is a way. 

I wanted the book to reflect our family's struggle and triumph. Not so dramatically, but actually, to see the Sugimotos at the house after the war tells me that the war did not break this family. My father stayed true to his beliefs when he said, "no, no". As a Meiji man his word was his bond, no matter the hate and disappointment it may have caused. He wanted me to be strong, using three chikara kanji in my name often used for boys. 

As a Sansei born after the war, my perspective on America was as an American. As an elementary school teacher and principal, I said the pledge of allegiance loud and clear daily with the students. Then my mother said that she cried when she said it in camp. Now I understand. She was betrayed by her own country. Now as I evolved, I have become Japanese American. That means that I better understand that frailty of democracy and its ideals. We have a lot of work to do still.

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On December 11, 2021, JANM is sponsoring a conversation with Nancy Kyoko Oda, Masumi Izumi, Hiroshi Shimizu, and Duncan Ryuken Williams, moderated by Karen Umemoto. Registration is free for virtual and in-person attendance. Books are available for purchase through the JANM store.

For more information >>


© 2021 Tamiko Nimura

California concentration camps Nancy Kyoko Oda prisons stockades Suyama Project Tule Lake concentration camp Tule Lake Stockade Diary (book) UCLA Asian American Studies Center United States University of California, Los Angeles World War II camps
About the Author

Tamiko Nimura is an Asian American writer living in Tacoma, Washington. Her training in literature and American ethnic studies (MA, PhD, University of Washington) prepared her to research, document, and tell the stories of people of color. She has been writing for Discover Nikkei since 2008.

Tamiko just published her first book, Rosa Franklin: A Life in Health Care, Public Service, and Social Justice (Washington State Legislature Oral History Program, 2020). Her second book is a co-written graphic novel, titled We Hereby Refuse: Japanese American Resistance to Wartime Incarceration (Chin Music Press/Wing Luke Asian Museum). She is working on a memoir called PILGRIMAGE.

Updated November 2020

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