The Japanese Internment of World War II, Part 10: Life at Tule Lake

April 16, 2015 8:38 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

Tule Lake Plaque_Densho_10Apr15

As depicted in the above photograph (courtesy of Densho; see note below) of a plaque set in May of 1979, the Tule Lake interment camp was operational from May of 1942 until March of 1946. It had the capability to house over 18,000 Japanese Americans.

Life at Tule Lake was trying. Basic accommodations and monotonous lives, together with fences and guard towers, left no doubt in anyone’s mind that they were in prison–a large open one, but a prison nonetheless. Their homes were nothing more than barracks, divided into sections, each heated by a coal-fired, pot-bellied stove. Surprising to most outsiders, internees supplied most of the labor and administration. The War Relocation Authority defined three classes of wages: unskilled labor, $12/month; skilled labor, $16/month; and professionals, $19/month.


Tule Lake_Classroom_NARA_10Apr15

The above photo and the one following are courtesy of NARA, the National Archives and Records Administration

As with the other internment camps, Tule Lake was a fully functioning community, with a hospital and schools for the children. There were four levels of education: nursery school, elementary, high school, and adult education. There were no chairs initially, and the children had to sit on the floor. Books and teachers were scarce too, but conditions improved with time.

Facilities were meager. For example, modest by nature, Japanese women resented open toilets and showers. No one became more popular that men who acquired scrap wood and installed partitions between toilets in the washrooms.

Tule Lake_Flower Garden_NARA_10Apr15

A recreation department, with over 100 volunteers, worked hard to keep internees’ interests satisfied. Sporting events were popular, as well as adult education courses that afforded everyone a chance to learn new hobbies. Women, particularly, used their imaginations to make their humble surroundings homey, including planting flower gardens and participating in various craft projects. Women were challenged to produce stylish versions of the dull, government-issue navy blue peacoats. Acting in plays, singing in choirs, making jewelry, and playing ping pong were among dozens of activities offered. Those who had experience or an interest in publishing worked on the staff of the Tulean Dispatch, a three-column mimeographed newspaper.

Sadly, for various reasons, families often got separated within the camp. Demeaned and discouraged by the humiliation of their situation, many Issei (Japanese immigrant to the U.S.) fathers lost control of their children, who ran wild and found friends in other blocks, spending time there and eating separately from their parents.

Wartime shortages that affected the country in general made their way to the camps. Mess halls declared that meals on Tuesdays and Fridays would be meatless. Sugar, butter, and coffee were other food items impacted. But no one went hungry because fish, eggs, and cheese were plentiful.

Up next: The Japanese Internment of World War II, Part 11: Internal Resistance and the JACL

Previous: The Japanese Internment of World War II, Part 9: The Tule Lake War Relocation Center

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Note: Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project is a digital archive of videotaped interviews, photographs, documents, and other materials relating to the Japanese American experience. Additional information on the project is available at

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This post was written by paulmarktag