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Writing In the Shadows of Tule Lake: A Conversation with Akemi Johnson


Author Akemi Johnson is writing about her family's incarceration at Tule Lake concentration camp. (Courtesy of Akemi Johnson)

Akemi Johnson is a mixed-race Yonsei writer and author of Night in the American Village: Women in the Shadow of the U.S. Military Bases in Okinawa. She’s currently at work on a second book about her family history and Tule Lake concentration camp.

I “met” Yonsei writer Akemi Johnson through that social-media-site-which-shall-not-be-named (except with the letter X), and we moved our conversation to e-mail and social media. Generously, Akemi invited me, Diana Emiko Tsuchida, and Kyoko Oda to participate in a 2023 panel for Tadaima about all of our projects about Tule Lake. Knowing that Akemi and I were both Tule Lake descendants and in the process of writing or publishing our books, I wanted to learn more about her project and get to know her, too. The result is this dialogue, which we conducted over e-mail in June 2024. Be on the lookout for Akemi’s book, which is under contract! —Tamiko

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Tamiko Nimura: Thanks for participating in this conversation with me! Could you maybe start by talking about how you got into writing, a short(ish) account of your journey as a writer?

Akemi Johnson: I wanted to be a writer since I was a kid, when I wrote and illustrated my own “books” about bunnies and horses. In high school I was very into journalism and the school newspaper, and then in college I branched out into creative writing. I did an MFA in fiction writing before realizing I wanted to focus on nonfiction. Early on, probably since college, I knew I wanted to write about my family history and the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans, but it has taken a couple of decades to feel like I might finally be ready to approach the topic. It always felt too big—or, as I heard writer Kimiko Guthrie once say, as if there was a wall blocking me.

What about you—when did you start writing about this history? Did you ever feel those kinds of obstacles?

Tamiko: I was a kid writer wannabe too! I had journals and 5-year diaries with tiny spaces for entries and beautiful empty notebooks that I was scared to write in. I wrote haiku and other kinds of poetry in elementary school through high school. I took summer creative writing classes in junior high, high school, and then more writing classes in college.

My creative writing dreams took a detour when I went to grad school. I think I was too scared to pursue that writer dream then. I thought I might become an editor, but then I met with an editor for a short informational interview at a college career night and decided it felt too much like a business. So I thought I might teach, and came up to UW Seattle for a Master’s, not quite realizing that the program was really geared towards a PhD! (I know.)

After grad school I got a teaching job, and then had a bad breakup with academia. Only then did I come back to creative writing through blogging and then freelancing and then personal essay, memoir, and public history.

Tamiko's father Taku Nimura (right) at Tule Lake. 

I think I started writing about camp history when I was in college, really. My honors thesis was about Sansei women writers who wrote about silence and camp—Janice Mirikitani and Ruth Sasaki. But I was still avoiding writing about the personal connections to camp.

My dad and his whole family (6 kids, plus my grandparents) were eventually imprisoned at Tule Lake. I think I had to come out of the academic remove and the analytical to really dive into what this history has meant to me.

I should have asked you this, too—what are your family connections to camp? And what made you decide that you were ready to write about this family history?

Akemi: My mom’s parents were both incarcerated—my grandmother and her family at Gila River, and my grandfather and his family at Tule Lake. I think a couple of things made me finally feel ready. One was becoming a parent, and feeling some sense of urgency and responsibility to address the intergenerational trauma and be able to pass down this history that had been buried.

Another catalyst was when I re-discovered my grandfather’s alien registration card in 2020. He had received the card at Tule Lake, and on it, next to his signature, he wrote, “I am signing this under protest because I consider myself an American citizen.” That card blew open the narrative I thought I knew about my grandparents, raising questions about why he had renounced his U.S. citizenship, and if he had protested in other ways, too. It gave me a tangible and focused way into the story, a goal of wanting to answer these questions—though I’m accepting there is so much I’ll never know, since my grandparents didn’t talk about their experiences and didn’t leave much behind.

Akemi's grandfather George Narita at Tule Lake. (Courtesy of Akemi Johnson)

I know it’s so different for you, since you have a manuscript of your dad’s about camp. How has reading and working with that manuscript shaped your own work and what the history means to you?

Tamiko: What a powerful way to find out about your grandfather’s renunciation! Such an undervalued and lesser-known story.

Oooh, that’s such a great question. My understanding of his book (Daruma: The Indomitable Spirit) has changed over the years since I first read it when I was about eight or nine years old. When he gave it to me to read, I really didn’t understand its significance, even though I had read Yoshiko Uchida’s camp novels for kids (Journey to Topaz and Journey Home).

And then he died when I was 10. The book then became linked with incalculable loss, and I didn’t open it again until I was denied tenure as an English professor, and wanted to hear his voice again.

Even in the ten years since that happened, it’s hard for me to read the book start to finish. There are so many questions still, start to finish, that pop up. I appreciate it so much more now as an intimate first-person adolescent look at Tule, and I’m able to place it within a broader context of what I know about Tule history and especially about segregation, martial law, resistance, and renunciation. Working on We Hereby Refuse and the Resisters exhibit for the Wing Luke Museum also helped me fill in so many holes in my knowledge, and I thought I knew a fair amount about camp history already!

As far as how that book has shaped my own work—it is a good part of my third book, a memoir, called A Place for What We Lose: A Daughter’s Return to Tule Lake. I respect the work of other Nikkei descendants who have included their relatives’ work in their own books, such as Shirley Higuchi’s book and Satsuki Ina’s book. In my own memoir, I really wanted to include a response to my dad’s work rather than just a retelling of his story or reproduction of his book. And by response I mean a (sort of) conversation, and even a literary form of experimentation with the language.

In working with your grandparents’ stories, and especially your grandfather’s, are there questions or issues that keep you awake, that really bother you, that animate or energize your work?

Akemi: It’s such a gift to have that manuscript of your dad’s! And it’s so interesting to think about, that even having this intimate, first-person account, there are still so many questions. I love your approach of crafting a conversation with his work, and maybe addressing some of the questions that way (I can’t wait to read it!). I recently read Satsuki Ina’s The Poet and the Silk Girl, and I also loved her inclusion of letters and diary entries from her parents. That book gave me one of the best insights into the psychological and emotional experiences of the incarceration.

A core question that has always driven my interest in this history is about the psychological and emotional experience—how, exactly, did the incarceration affect my grandparents, and by extension my mother, and by extension me? It’s fairly easy to learn the facts now, but the lived human experience still feels elusive. I recently discovered color footage of my grandfather at Tule Lake—just a few seconds—and that has been an incredible, unexpected window into the past. But still, like you said, it raises so many questions. I’m left trying to read his expressions and body language in those few precious seconds.

I’m wondering about how you think about audience for your third book, as someone who has done so much work in this subject matter. Who do you write for, and what gaps do you think still need to be filled in terms of the literature on the incarceration?

Tamiko: Audience—ooh, that’s such a good question. I think about layers of an onion as a metaphor for my different audiences.

At the core are my family and members of the Japanese American community, especially descendants (Sansei and onward) of those who were incarcerated. My kids. Like you, I am still thinking about the ways that camp history continues to resonate so powerfully for those of us in later generations.

From there, other Asian American communities and then other BIPOC communities affected by intergenerational trauma and empowered by intergenerational resilience and resistance.

And then from there, maybe people who are interested in WWII history, people who are interested in community and healing, people who might know camp history just tangentially from a “paragraph version” and want to know more.

As far as gaps go—I still think that there are so many gaps! And maybe that’s because of those decades of near-silence before redress, those who were left by the wayside of the redress campaign for whatever reason. The more time I spend learning more about the incarceration, the more I learn that there’s more I need to know.

I do have an essay collection brewing after this third book (the memoir), and I think it will be about public memory, private memory, and archives.

How about you? What is the silence you’re trying to address with your next book? Who are you writing for, past and present and future?

Akemi: That’s exciting to hear about your essay collection! I’ve been thinking about archives a lot lately, since I’ve been spending time immersed in them. I once heard someone make the point that a positive aspect of the incarceration was all this government paperwork—we descendants and researchers have such a wealth of information to dig through. But, of course, going through these archives raises all kinds of questions (more questions!) about truth, intent, audience, power, what is left out.

I’ve been thinking about audience in a very similar way as you (I love the onion metaphor), and when I start writing this book it will be a challenge to figure out how to navigate those different audiences. I don’t think I’ve said yet: right now I’m researching a narrative nonfiction book about Tule Lake—my family’s story and others’ as well. One of my focuses is the renunciants, telling the story of what led to the mass renunciation of U.S. citizenship at Tule Lake, and what happened in the aftermath. In my family, that story was buried so deep very few people even knew it happened. No one in my family ended up being expatriated/repatriated to Japan, but that’s an under-known piece of the history I want to tell as well.

I’ll be heading to Tule Lake on the pilgrimage soon, and I know you’ve done a lot of writing and thinking around that topic. What advice do you have for descendants going on these pilgrimages? What role do you see the pilgrimage playing in public and private memory?

Tamiko: If this is your first pilgrimage, I can just say this—prepare to be open, and opened.

I don’t know if I could have adequately prepared myself for how moving and transformative it would be, how the physical space and the presence of an abundant, welcoming community would crack me right open in the best ways. It’s a pivotal part of my memoir. It was incredible to be there, and to be there with my family. And everyone was so welcoming and ready to listen and share the whole time, from the bus rides to the sessions to the workshops and the meals.

In 2014 I went in with a sort of “well, this is important, so I’ll observe” sort of academic mode. I don’t know why I thought I would stay in that mode, except maybe that I’d never experienced that kind of alchemy before, of community + place + (re)memory. But it was essential for my understanding of my family, my past, and my activism now.

Moving forward, I do think that the pilgrimages will continue to play a pivotal role in public and private memory. Even as the survivor generations are passing (and I’m lucky to have so many survivors in my family with me still), it feels even more important that the descendant generations have a chance to experience the spaces physically.

Oh, and this is kind of important: Stay hydrated. And bring good snacks to share on the pilgrimage bus ride.


© 2024 Tamiko Nimura

Arizona biographies California concentration camps Gila River (Ariz.) Gila River concentration camp memoirs renunciation Tule Lake concentration camp United States World War II camps writing
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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