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Barbed Wire, Guard Tower, Tar Paper Barracks, Roll Call

Photo credit Theo Bickel

The Tule Lake-Butte Valley Fairgrounds Museum is miles from the Tule Lake camp site. It’s a small one-story building that feels almost like a portable classroom. When I walk in there’s a tall counter on the left, a wall of leaning shelves on the right with a few books, and, just past the shelves, a display about the camp. It’s a modest room with utility carpet and fluorescent lights overhead.

Like other descendants that are here on the pilgrimage with me, I am hungry for traces of camp, things that I can hold on to, glimpses into that past. I have spent so much of my writing life in service to the camp story, and I have told it through many formats. I’ve told it so much that some of its main features risk becoming lifeless cliches. Barbed wire. Guard towers. Tar paper barracks. Only what they could carry.

Each one of these elements is so familiar, a litany I have repeated so many times that I want to not have to repeat it over again. My husband Josh who is a composer tells me that at a certain point, repetition stops emphasizing meaning and begins to empty the space of meaning. The more you repeat it, the less each repetition adds to what is meaningful or true. 

This pilgrimage insists on my physical and emotional presence.

1. Barbed wire

The exhibits wind their way through the building, a set of cubicle walls with exhibits tacked up. A lot of foam core mounted poster boards for exhibits, pictures of settler pioneers. I take pictures of the tule reeds that the area is named for. 

There’s also—the irony—a small peg board exhibit showing the different kinds of barbed wire used for different purposes: homesteading, agriculture. Barbed wire: it’s one of the several features that appear in camp narratives repeatedly. I can’t help but wonder if this is the kind of barbed wire that surrounded Tule Lake as a concentration camp.

Here, barbed wire is its own nerve. I still don’t touch it, though it’s within reach, not behind any kind of protective casing. The knots are not just knots, contained, but knots with sharp spikes that jut out at awkward angles. It reminds me that barbed wire has been used in agriculture, to prevent animals from intruding or escaping.

Barbed wire is meant to encircle, contain, imprison—and, if necessary, maim.

2. Guard tower

What I’d missed on entering, though, is an open door that’s directly across from the front door. It opens onto a courtyard of sorts, an open-air exhibit. This, I discover, is where most of the pilgrimage attendees have gone, and I soon see why. 

In the middle of the courtyard, there’s a wooden guard tower, stretching up higher than the museum itself. I have to pause a minute to take it in. A square roof, a small wooden shack not much bigger than a closet, each wall with 3 green-rimmed windows. A walkway with a railing surrounding all sides of the shack. All the windows without coverings, built for surveillance. As I walk around the tower, there’s a maroon red sign informing me that the guard tower is indeed from the camp, not a replica. The tower, the sign says, was originally on a 23-foot high tower, while the railing is a reproduction. Wait—is that a person up there? No, the museum has placed an armed mannequin near one of the windows—perhaps to show scale or recreate accuracy, but I can feel my heart beating just a little faster when I see that human form. 

I take several pictures of the tower, more than anything else at the museum. From a distance, to capture the full scale, ground to rooftop. From directly beneath the walkway, looking up at the tower. My playground-loving young daughters would have wanted to climb it, not knowing what it was.

This is the kind of encounter I have come for, the view of actual historic buildings. But the aura of “museum” feels too removed from the site. The guard tower is just a few yards from a display of rusting wagons and agricultural equipment. That guard tower represents a hierarchy reinforced through space, surveillance, height, a constant threat of violence. The guards were armed, and (as community memory puts it), the guards pointed their guns inwards.

This is not a place where my 11-year old dad and his friends would have hoped to play. 

3. Tar paper barrack

Just across the courtyard, I can see a tar paper barrack, weathered and graying almost charcoal in the Northern California heat. I see visitors peeking into the windows and walk over to catch a glimpse. 

What I expect to find is another window into camp life, perhaps the closest I can see, a building from that time. Metal cots with Army blankets, a black coal-burning stove, bedsheets strung on ropes across the room for makeshift privacy. What I find is something of a shock: whitewashed interior walls, a wooden dresser with a glass oil lamp, a corner with dishes on the shelves. A homespun rug on the floor, a wooden kitchen table with another unnerving faceless mannequin seated at the table, as if getting ready to eat dinner. 

The dissonance between the two purposes of the same building feels so clear to me. Concentration camp barrack, a place meant to imprison. Homestead, a place intended for a family, for settling, for creating a home.

The clash in these layers of history feels seismic. There’s a tectonic plate in my mind called camp, and it grinds against the tectonic plate called homestead. The result of that friction is something like a mental earthquake. It jars and jolts and then I am left trying to sort through the rubble.

Still. I take a close-up picture of the dusty glass window panes on the barrack. There, again: a reflection of the guard tower. 

Photo credit Linda Ando

4. Roll call

Towards the end of our time at the museum, I walk back to the front counter, where there is a simple blue-black hardbound book lying face up on the left. Tule Lake Directory and Camp News by H. Inukai is stamped in gilt on the cover, along with a line sketch of a row of barracks and Castle Rock rising behind them. I flip through smooth white pages to the middle of the book. As I scan the names it’s still a bit of a shock to see my sister Teruko’s name, or my own, attached to other family names. Other Teruko’s, other Tamiko’s. If we had been alive in 1942, it really would have been us. 

And there they are, my family, starting with my grandfather, grandmother, and their six children in birth order. Block and barrack—or barracks, since they were such a large family. Then their hometown.

NIMURA,          Junichi                   4515AB Newcastle, CA








My fingers run over the names I have known my whole life. I pause at my dad’s name, Taku, in the middle of the list.

When I touch my family’s names something tightens in me, something tenses. Somehow this moment feels like another encounter that I have come for, without even knowing that I had wanted it before I left Tacoma. Mass incarceration is an act of mass dehumanization. In this case, family names become 5-digit numbers, family home addresses become block and barrack. To see my family called by their names is an electrifying act of healing. I am here because they were here. I become a living bridge between past and present.

The famous American architect Maya Lin, in describing her now-iconic design for the Vietnam Veterans memorial in Washington DC, had a similar motive in creating a wall of names. It would “provide a focus on the individual,” she thought, while the full list of the 58,000 veterans would demonstrate the sheer scale of those impacted.

Touching my family names I feel called in somehow, as if the directory were a roll call and it is up to me to answer. Roll call makes your spine sit up straighter, your ears more prepared for listening, your eyes looking for the source that is calling your name.

Called by name. Here.

In this moment I am the present touching the past. I am the future these names hoped and wished for.  I was born because they returned from this place of dust. I am returning here even though I have never been. I am returning for my dad who never got to come back before he died. I am helping him to complete this circuit filled with pain and energy and love. 

I touch my family names once more before it’s time to leave. And in this moment, we are reunited in a strange way, at last. I feel as though I have been activated. And perhaps I am. 

Called by name.


*This is a piece from my memoir-in-progress, Pilgrimage, which I was honored to read at the Day of Remembrance on February 18, 2023. Thanks to the Minidoka PIligrimage Planning Committee, Puyallup Valley JACL, and Seattle JACL for inviting me to speak. 


© 2023 Tamiko Nimura

California concentration camps imprisonment incarceration pilgrimages Tulelake-Butte Valley Fairgrounds Museum Tule Lake concentration camp United States 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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