Skip to Main Content

NCC News: News

Japanese Studies Spotlight: Uncovering Interdisciplinary Histories: The Tule Lake Japanese Language Library & the Checkout Card Accessibility Project

by Paula Curtis on 2024-04-17T11:02:59-04:00 | 0 Comments

The NCC is collaborating with institutions and scholars to release a monthly series on our blog entitled Japanese Studies Spotlight. These features showcase exciting online collections available to researchers and students in Japanese Studies, introducing the archive or project, describing their contents, and demonstrating how they can be usefully engaged in research or in the classroom. If you are interested in submitting something to the series, please contact Paula R. Curtis, NCC’s Digital Media Manager, at

Kim Mc Nelly, Project Manager, UCLA East Asian Library

The Tule Lake Japanese Language Library (Tsūri Rēki Nihongo Toshokan ツーリレーキ日本語圖書館) was conceptualized, created, and administered during WWII by wrongfully incarcerated Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants at the Tule Lake Segregation Center in Newell, California (Block 46, Barracks 8) between November 26, 1943 and November 30, 1945. It housed roughly 7,000 volumes, at its peak had a circulation of over 17,000 volumes loaned per month, and fostered intellectual activity and social engagement while serving as a quiet space for reflection within the camp. The majority of the Tule Lake collection was donated by those who had come to Tule Lake with only what they could carry. It was privately established and run by a subgroup of the Tule Lake Young Men and Women’s Association (Tsūri Rēki Danjo Seinendan 鶴嶺湖男女青年團), a social organization formed at Tule Lake, and can be contextualized as a heritage, diaspora, and/or prison collection.

Donated by the Japanese Language School Unified System (Nihongo Gakuen Kyōdō, 日本語学園協同システム, or Kyodo System for short) in 1999, UCLA has the only known archive of materials from this historic library, currently holding 1,947 volumes. The material culture of these texts can tell us much about the paths the books traveled before their arrival at Tule Lake, logistics of the systems that the incarcerated volunteer librarians developed, innovative wartime preservation methods of well-loved materials, and U.S. governmental monitoring and censorship of Japanese language texts. Many of the volumes also contain the original checkout cards with borrowers’ signatures and barracks addresses; the UCLA collection includes 1,205 of these cards.

By highlighting this important collection, I aim to not only share its historical significance with a broader audience, but also ask the Japan Studies community for assistance in making the information on these cards accessible to the descendants of those held at Tule Lake and the larger Japanese American Studies community.

Uncovering a Hidden Collection

The Tule Lake volumes came to UCLA’s East Asian Library hidden within a larger donation from the local Japanese language school, who was disbanding their entire library. In part because of its interdisciplinary position between Japanese and Japanese American Studies, the Tule Lake volumes were not immediately recognized as a distinct and historically important collection.

Figure 1: An official Tule Lake Japanese Language Library stamp

The Tule Lake volumes bear many traces of former ownership and marks of belonging to other prewar collections, all prior to coming together as a single collection at Tule Lake. While the plethora of stamps usefully show the wide range of volume circulation prior to entering the Tule Lake collection, they also initially obscured indications that the volumes belonged to the same collection. Some but not all of them contain the official Tule Lake Japanese Language Library stamp, shown to the right. Without the necessary background in Japanese incarceration camp history, however, “Tsūri Rēki” (ツーリレーキ) wasn’t identified as being an important designation, any more other markers showing some of the volumes had been part of prewar collections in Santa Maria language schools or in a Limoneira company agricultural workers’ Japanese language library.

Figure 2: A stamp showing this volume, 容貌と人格, was the 1,796th volume to be added to a prewar Japanese language library associated with the agricultural Limoneira company in Santa Paula, CA

The volumes thus entered general circulation at UCLA with the other gifted volumes from the local language school. It wasn’t until Asian American Studies scholars started asking why the Tule Lake volumes were circulating that we realized the collection needed to be identified, separated, and preserved.

I began working with this collection as a graduate student worker in 2022 while finishing a Ph.D. dissertation on medieval Japanese women’s poetic wartime accounts. As a Japanese Studies scholar, I began with the language skills necessary to work with the collection but a rudimentary understanding of its historical and cultural context.

Working under the direction of UCLA Japanese Studies Librarian Tomoko Bialock, my first task was to help identify characteristics of the collection so that we could determine which volumes had come from it. We knew at some point after being processed, the volumes from this donation had been sent to climate-controlled storage in the University of California’s Southern Regional Library Facility (SRLF). We also knew they were modern texts, published between 1868 and the closure of the Tule Lake library in 1945. Tomoko compiled a list of all the volumes sent to SRLF between 1999 and 2009 that fit the publication date criteria, and I spent seven months checking each item individually.

We developed three main identifying criteria for inclusion in the collection: the official Tule Lake Japanese Language Library stamp (Fig 1); mimeographed handle-with-care labels (Fig 3), which included the classification number system that volunteer librarians at Tule Lake developed and had handwriting matching mimeographed date due sheets; and/or evidence of date due slips or a checkout card. The earlier mimeographed date due sheets sometimes included the year (1943), and the checkout cards include Tule Lake barracks addresses.

Figure 3: Example of a mimeographed care label from 容貌と人格

Very few of the Tule Lake volumes had evidence of being used in the language school and seem to have been kept in boxes there after being donated to them in the 1950s by Ikuo Maruyama (b. 1922), who was head of the Tule Lake Young Men and Women’s Association when Tule Lake closed. Using this and evidence we found through researching Japanese language publications from Tule Lake, we were eventually able to determine that all aspects of the library system–the unique classification numbering system, the rebinding of most of the volumes, and the taping of the spines–had occurred at Tule Lake and not the language school.

While sorting through all of these volumes, I noticed a number of other historically important material culture traces, such as notes showing the paths that the books (and their owners) traced through the WWII Japanese incarceration system, from an initial “assembly center” to a more long-term incarceration center and sometimes another transfer after that to Tule Lake.

Figure 4: This note in 四季の瓶華挿し方 shows how this volume and its owner, Teruye Takahashi, moved through the incarceration system from Tanforan Assembly Center to Topaz to Tule Lake. The family number was an assigned carceral designation.

In the summer of 1943, an infamous “loyalty questionnaire” designed in part to gather recruits for the war effort resulted in the reclassification of the Tule Lake facility as a site for those “disloyal” to the U.S. There were thus many transfers in and out of Tule Lake between July and November of 1943, after which the Tule Lake Japanese Language Library opened. Many volumes contain traces from other facilities, making the Tule Lake collection a cross-representative repository of the systemic injustice of the wartime Japanese and Japanese American incarceration system.

Figure 5: This volume of 欧米より故国を was initially part of the Manzanar Library before arriving at Tule Lake. Within the Tule Lake collection, there are also examples of volumes from the Minidoka Library and the Topaz Library.

Given the historical importance of these and other material culture traces, UCLA has begun a digitization project for preservation and increased accessibility of the Tule Lake Japanese Language Library. As most of the volumes still fall under copyright protection, however, the digitization is solely of these material culture traces and not the content of the books themselves. More details about these types of wartime traces, U.S. government censorship, Tule Lake library systems and preservation methods, and indications of prewar Japanese language communities are explained in this digital exhibit that I created using IIIF images of Tule Lake volumes which have already been digitized.

At the Intersection of Japanese and Japanese American Studies

The Tule Lake Japanese Language Library collection consists entirely of Japanese language volumes. It was developed and administered by those held at Tule Lake, including Japanese immigrants and their Japanese American descendants. The collection is therefore of interest to both Japanese Studies scholars (as a diaspora collection) and Japanese American Studies scholars (as a heritage collection). Examined through different lenses, these two communities can glean rich insights into cultural, historical, political, social, and other dimensions of this collection.

In practice, though, Japanese language materials relevant to Japanese American Studies remain significantly underutilized. Arising from the civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s and with a community focus, there has been a historic trend of shying away from materials related to first-generation Japanese immigrants (Issei) or second-generation Japanese Americans who were born in the U.S. but educated at least partially in Japan (Kibei). Individuals from these groups predominantly created and used this collection in Tule Lake.

At the same time, while scholars primarily trained in Japanese Studies–myself included–are linguistically able to work with the materials, our perceptions and interpretations are colored by a very different disciplinary lens of area studies. While we can thus do valuable work in contextualizing this as a diaspora collection, such as analyzing what types of volumes were circulating in the U.S. just prior to WWII, examine publishing company trends and identify any U.S. publishing houses, etc., we don’t immediately have the necessary analytic lens or the historical background to contextualize its importance within Japanese American Studies. We can, however, use our linguistic knowledge to help make more of this collection accessible to those who can and collaborate across disciplinary boundaries.

Checkout Card Accessibility Project

The over 1,200 checkout cards that are still tucked into the Tule Lake volumes are of particular community and scholarly interest as they include signatures of borrowers matched with their barracks addresses. These addresses were compiled for some other WWII incarceration facilities, allowing for the creation of online research and learning tools such as Densho’s Manzanar CloseUp, an interactive map of the Manzanar incarceration facility barracks, but such comprehensive records don’t exist for Tule Lake. The checkout cards thus hold information that is not available through any other source.

Figure 6: A Tule Lake Japanese Language Library checkout card for 少女倶楽部 v. 19 no. 07 (1941). The first column lists dates due, the second column includes borrowers’ signatures, and the final column has the borrowers’ barracks addresses.

As the checkout cards are primarily signed in Japanese, however, they are not readily accessible to the descendants of those incarcerated at Tule Lake or the majority of the Asian American Studies scholarly community in North America. Due to the often hurried and messy Japanese handwriting as well as the hefty amount of transcription/transliteration required to make this information more widely available, I am seeking volunteers to aid in transcribing and transliterating the information on the checkout cards.

You can find more information about this accessibility project and contribute by offering transcription/transliteration assistance within a Google doc located here.

More checkout cards will be added as the digitization project progresses, and the information gathered will be freely accessible as it is compiled. Upon completion of this transcription/transliteration project, I plan to collaborate with Densho, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation and perpetuation of knowledge about the unjust WWII incarceration experience of Japanese Americans, to incorporate the information into their Densho Digital Repository Names Registry.

I sincerely hope that with the help of the broader community we can make this information available to the descendants of those listed on these cards and encourage more robust engagement with this collection and its resources within and beyond Japanese American Studies.

 Add a Comment



Enter your e-mail address to receive notifications of new posts by e-mail.


  Follow Us

  Return to Blog
This post is closed for further discussion.

North American Coordinating Council on Japanese Library Resources
Copyright 2017
Contact the Webmaster