By MARTHA NAKAGAWA, Rafu Contributor
Mamoru “Mori” Tanimoto, one of about 35 men from Block 42 at the Tule Lake War Relocation Center who had been arrested for refusing to register for the controversial loyalty questionnaire, passed away peacefully surrounded by his family on Nov. 3. He was 95.
During the past decade, both Mori and younger brother, Jim, became fixtures at the biennial Tule Lake Pilgrimage, where they shared their World War II experiences before a multigenerational and multiethnic crowd.
The Tule Lake Committee (TLC) issued the following the statement:
“The Tule Lake Committee extends condolences to the family and friends of Mori Tanimoto. Mr. Tanimoto was someone with an innate sense of justice, and he helped tell the story of civil rights resistance at Tule Lake, for which we are so grateful. He was an important voice in the Tule Lake Pilgrimage and his presence will be very much missed.”
Mori Tanimoto at the 2009 Tule Lake Pilgrimage.
Barbara Takei, a TLC member who is working on a Tule Lake book with Roger Daniels, a pioneering scholar on Nikkei history, credited Mori for resurrecting the history of Block 42.
“The Block 42 protest, in response to the government’s loyalty questionnaire, was a little-known event in Tule Lake’s history until Mori Tanimoto decided, in 2008, to come forward and talk about his experience,” wrote Takei via email. “As a survivor of those events, he helped illuminate the civil rights protest of dozens of his friends and neighbors in Block 42, who peacefully protested the loyalty questionnaire.
“Once an almost unknown story, Block 42’s resistance became a familiar part of the Tule Lake Pilgrimage experience thanks to Mori’s willingness, as a survivor, to share his memories. The Camp Tulelake site, once in danger of demolition, was added to the Tule Lake Unit of the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, ensuring this site and the Block 42 story of civil rights dissent will be preserved in our nation’s historical narrative.”
Bill Nishimura, who was transferred from the Poston (Colorado River) WRA camp to Tule Lake after answering “no-blank” to Questions 27 and 28, said he had not heard of the Block 42 protest while in either camp.
“Until I heard Mori and Jim speak at the Tule Lake Pilgrimage, I didn’t know anything about them,” said Nishimura. “I was really surprised to hear what had happened to them. I wonder how much of this was because the government suppressed that part of our history. I’m glad Mori and Jim spoke up because it’s really important to educate the younger generation so we don’t repeat what happened to us.”
Tanimoto was active until the day he passed, and earlier this year, in March, he made one of his last public appearances at a program in San Francisco co-sponsored by the UCLA Asian American Studies Center Eji Suyama Project and the National Japanese American Historical Society.
David K. Yoo, director of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center and Department, was saddened to hear of Tanimoto’s death.
“Although we, at UCLA, only got to know him earlier this year, his can-do spirit and his desire to educate as many people as possible became very obvious when he insisted on making the long trip from Yuba City to San Francisco to participate in a Suyama co-sponsored program in San Francisco, despite a health setback,” said Yoo. “Thanks to Mori’s willingness to speak out, the Suyama Project can help preserve the civil rights story of Tule Lake’s Block 42 protest.”
Prof. Lane Hirabayashi, a Suyama Project advisor, UCLA professor of Asian American studies and the George and Sakaye Aratani Professor of the Japanese American Incarceration, Redress and Community, was thankful for Tanimoto’s contributions.
“I am grateful to the Tanimoto brothers, especially Mori, because he was fearless in sharing his stories about resistance, regardless of what other people said,” said Hirabayashi via email. “’Grateful’ because how else are subsequent generations going to know about what really went on in camp?”
Filmmaker Konrad Aderer regretted that Tanimoto had not lived long enough to be able to view a finished documentary on Tule Lake, which Tanimoto appears in. Aderer’s documentary is set to premiere in 2016.
“At my first Tule Lake Pilgrimage in 2010, I had the luck to be in a small intergenerational group with both Mori and his brother Jimi,” said Aderer through email. “Though he could seem at first meeting to have a gruff exterior, by the end of the session I saw what a gracious and sweet man he really was. I knew I had to have his story in the documentary I was making about Tule Lake. I was struck by the directness and simplicity of his reasons for maintaining his refusal to sign the ‘loyalty oath’ even with the barrels of soldiers’ rifles pointed at him in the dead of night.
“‘We’re not enemy aliens, we’re American citizens’ was how he summed up his principled stance against the questionnaire. His no-nonsense style of resisting injustice was quintessentially American, and his upright and forthright personality was unforgettable. I’m honored that he entrusted me to tell his story in the documentary I’m completing on Tule Lake Segregation Center, and eager to share his example with the viewing public.”
* * *
Tanimoto was one of seven siblings born to Hikoichi “Tony” and Riwa Tanimoto, and the family had been farming peaches in Gridley, Calif., before World War II.
When the U.S. government issued Executive Order 9066 that placed people of Japanese ancestry, living on the West Coast, into U.S. concentration camps, the Tanimoto family took a huge financial loss since they were forced to leave just before the peach crop was ready to be harvested.
Tanimoto left for camp on his 22nd birthday, July 9, 1942. But once at Tule Lake, he notified his draft board about his change of address. To his surprise, he received a letter telling him he was now classified 4-C, not acceptable for service because of ancestry.
In 1943, the government issued a poorly worded loyalty questionnaire, and three Tanimoto brothers — Masashi “Mike,” Mori and Jim — independently came to the conclusion not to register for the loyalty questionnaire on grounds that they felt their constitutional rights had been violated.
Meanwhile, the Tule Lake administration announced through The Tulean Dispatch, the camp newspaper, that anyone who interfered with the registration process would be fined up to $10,000 and imprisoned for up to 20 years under the Espionage Act.
The Tule Lake administration, then made an example of the Block 42 men, who were refusing to register for the loyalty questionnaire, by arresting them on Feb. 21, at the mess hall after dinner.
One group of men, which included Mori and Jim, were sent to the Klamath Falls, Ore. jail, while another group that included Masashi was shipped to the Alturas, Calif. jail. The men were held in jail for about seven days without charge or a trial.
About a week later, Mori and Jim were among the group that was transferred to the old Civilian Conservation Corp camp called Camp Tulelake, located about 10 miles from the Tule Lake WRA camp.
Oldest brother Masashi and a few others who were considered leaders were shipped to the Moab Citizen Isolation Center in Utah.
The Block 42 men were held at Camp Tulelake for about a month, and during that time, there was one incident that remained vividly in Tanimoto’s memory.
Around midnight one night, soldiers came charging into the men’s barrack and roused them from their sleep. The men were ordered to line up outside in the dark, whereupon a blinding floodlight was pointed at them.
Tanimoto recalled seeing about eight or ten soldiers standing on either side of the floodlight with rifles in their hands. He thought he was facing a firing squad.
Although that evening ended with no injuries or deaths, Tanimoto thought the soldiers had staged the action in an effort to scare the men into answering the loyalty questionnaire because shortly after this, informal hearings were held.
Soon after the informal hearings, the Block 42 men were returned to Tule Lake. Mori never answered the loyalty questionnaire.
When Tule Lake was converted into a segregation center, the Tanimoto family decided to remain.
It was decades before Tanimoto learned through declassified documents that the Tule Lake administration had no legal authority to arrest the Block 42 men; nor was refusing to answer the loyalty questionnaire a violation of the Selective Service Act and it did not carry a $10,000 fine and/or 20 years in jail.
However, the Tule Lake administration’s hard-line approach to the loyalty questionnaire registration process resulted in having the lowest number of inmates register.
Once the war was over and the Tanimoto family was released, they returned to their peach orchard in Gridley.
During the 1960s, three Tanimoto brothers — Mori, Jim and George — took a gamble and started experimenting with growing a then little-known fruit in the U.S. called the kiwi from seedlings. As a result, the Tanimoto brothers pioneered the kiwi business in the U.S. and Japan.