LETTERS TO THE EDITOR: An Informed Rebuttal


Dear Editor,

Contrary to what George Yoshinaga claims in his column of Sept. 8, no inmate was able to leave Manzanar as they pleased during World War II. The same applied to Tule Lake and the eight other camps. Prior approval had to be obtained from camp administration for any leave.
The 10 camps were surrounded by barbed wire fences and guard towers, manned with armed sentries. Manzanar and Tule Lake were within the restricted Military Zone, where stricter policies were enforced. This loss of freedom is documented in a number of videos and books about the incarceration, including the documentary, “Conscience and the Constitution,” and in Michi Weglyn’s book, “Years of Infamy, the Untold Story of America’s Concentration Camps.”
After December 1944, inmates were able to leave camp with the minimum of restrictions, due to the United States Supreme Court decision.

According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the term “concentration camp” refers to a camp in which people are detained or confined, usually under harsh conditions and without regard to legal norms of arrest and imprisonment that are acceptable in a constitutional democracy.

There should be no question that this loss of freedom clearly fell within this definition. Karen Ishizuka, former Senior Curator at the Japanese American National Museum, made clear that, “…[we]need to call them what they were. They were concentration camps.”

The term, “concentration camp” replaces euphemistic terms, such as “relocation” or “internment,” which were used to cover-up the truth by officials of the U.S. Government, not to mention some historians at that time. In the mid-1970’s, Japanese American authors Michi Weglyn and Sue Kunitomi Embrey knew that those words were euphemistic and the true descriptive term was “concentration camp.” Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga is a champion for correct terminology and her views were printed in the Rafu Shimpo’s Vox Populi column on Sept. 9.

Japanese Americans were forced to leave their homes, businesses, jobs and colleges, incurring huge monetary losses, and move to a future that was unknown and in question. They arrived at these primitively set up camps with tar paper barracks in desert areas with the accompanying heat and windstorms, put into one room of a barrack with eight people to a room.

Metal cots with mattresses filled with straw were for sleeping and there was no running water or toilet facilities in the room. One had to line up and eat in the mess hall three times a day, go to the latrine in a separate building for showers and toilets.

Depending on where one lived, sometimes families split up into different camps. There was the constant threat of being killed by guards for not following orders, protesting harsh treatment, and getting too close to the barbed wire fence. At Tule Lake, inmates were beaten and thrown into the stockade for minor infractions.

The government’s intent was to put Americans of Japanese descent into concentration camps. Only a week after Pearl Harbor, Congressman John Rankin starkly proclaimed, “I’m for catching every Japanese in America, Alaska and Hawaii now and putting them in concentration camps and shipping them back to Asia as soon as possible.”

As we place this experience into historical context, it is important to accurately describe this chapter in American History. Although Executive Order 9066 was justified as a “military necessity” to protect against domestic espionage and sabotage, it was later shown that no Japanese American had engaged in espionage or sabotage. Instead, this concentration of Japanese Americans was motivated, according to Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership. This information was discovered by Herzig-Yoshinaga, as a Library of Congress Archive researcher for the Commission.

Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower, along with Cabinet officers and members of the U.S. Supreme Court, all referred to the camps as “concentration camps.” Justice Tom Clark, who regretted at his retirement in 1966, “We picked them up and put them in concentration camps.” Roosevelt’s Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes described the Japanese American wartime experience this way: “Crowded into cars like cattle, these hapless people were hurried away to hastily constructed and thoroughly inadequate concentration camps, with soldiers with nervous muskets on guard, in the great American desert. We gave the fancy name of ‘relocation centers’ to these dust bowls, but they were concentration camps nonetheless.”

President Roosevelt after re-election in 1944, stated in an interview, “…it is felt by a great many lawyers that under the Constitution they can’t be kept locked up in concentration camps,” referring to the Japanese American citizens (Weglyn: Years of Infamy).

The California State Historic Landmark plaque at Manzanar states, in part, “Manzanar, the first of ten such concentration camps, was bounded by barbed wire and guard towers, confining 10,000 persons, the majority being American citizens.”

Appropriately, the Japanese American National Museum’s exhibit, “Common Ground,” uses the words, concentration camp, in all of the captions and text.

Roger Daniels, Charles Phelps Taft Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Cincinnati, has emphatically stated, “As we are in the seventh decade after…Executive Order 9066, it is high time that scholars begin to call things by their right names. Let us hear no more about “internment of the Japanese Americans.”

There is going to be a panel discussion at the Japanese American National Museum on Sept. 24, to discuss euphemistic language with Herzig-Yoshinaga, and Mako Nakagawa, retired educator from Seattle who authored the recent JACL adopted “Power of Words” rule, “to expunge euphemisms and support the use of accurate terminology regarding the incarceration of Nikkei people into American concentration camps during World War II.”

Joyce Okazaki
Seal Beach. CA



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  5. Don’t forget: During the WW-Two US Gov. seized my father’s two bank accounts……….he had enough saved to retire. NO, he never saw it again. He died young of age of 53.

    I was drafted in US Army in November 1950 during Korean War. After only six weeks basic Training I was sent to Aberdeen Proving Ground in Aberdeen, Maryland to Explosive Ordinance Disposal school. This course involves confidential and classified materiels. For my security clearance, I wrote that I was in “Concentration Camp”. After six week of this clasidied stuff they pulled me out of this class and locked me up in a stockade! Yes, stockade! (after six weeks of all these security informations). This officer asked me where were you from 1942-1945? I said “I was a prisoner”. Officer “What were you charged for”? I said “I don’t know”. The second time he asked me “what were you charged for” and I said ” I don’t know”. He said “Soldier, you don’t say, I don’t know to an officer”. And I just kept saying “I don’t know”. After many “go rounds”. He asked, where was this? I said Arkansas. He asked , Arkansas Penetantry? I said, no, it was an American Concentration Camp”. Oh, he got mad saying “Soldier we have no such thing”. I said, you call it what ever you like, sir.During all these questions he would always come back to “What were you charged for”? So, I feel he already believed that I was convicted for some crime in order to be in Concentration Camp For 3-1/2 years. So, there was no due proccess. After placing me back into the stockade, he said you stay here and I will be back. I told him “where can I go…….you got me locked up”?. I don’t know where he went. When He returned he had a little different personelity and talked a little softer saying come on out and change this word into Relocation Center”. I asked him “Is that an order”? and he said “yes, thats an order, soldier”. So, I said “Yes, Sir” and wrote Relocation Center.

    Now, he ordered me back to my class room. I asked him, “Well, what about the other stuff”? He said “Well, that don’t count”. I asked him.” Are you telling me that 3-1/2 years of my life don’t count”? And he said” I thought I ordered you back to your class”.

  6. This is an interesting letter about the proper term to describe the places of incarceration. Proponents of the term “concentration camp” include Joyce Okazaki and Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, chiefly on the basis that the experience meets the technical definition of the term. For example, Ms. Okazaki quotes the Holocaust Museum’s description. I too agree that the experience meets the threshold of the literal definition.

    Advocates also rely on an appeal to authority for support, noting use of the term by presidents, academics, and other public figures; Ms. Okazaki even provides a delicious quote by Congressman John Rankin.

    Still, this line of reasoning is not persuasive. Even if the experience qualifies for the “concentration camp” definition, it also qualifies for the “internment camp” definition: a place where people are interred. Either term would seem to be acceptable, so there is nothing wrong with using “internment camp.”

    On the other hand, Dillon Myer, Director of the War Relocation Authority, stated, “…internment camps are for enemy aliens found after hearings to be dangerous to the national security.” So this definition would exclude the vast majority of those interred; most were US citizens, not enemy aliens, and most enemy aliens never had a hearing.

    But Dillon Myer preferred yet a third term, “relocation center.” Relocation was indeed a purpose of the camps, and in fact over 30,000 were relocated inland within the first two years. So “relocation center” would also seem to have a legitimate claim to describe the places of incarceration.

    And then the appeal to authority is also a dubious platform on which to make the case. For example, President Roosevelt may have used the term “concentration camp”, but clearly he was comfortable with “relocation center” as well. After all, the WRA was part of the Executive Branch, established by E.O. 9102. But here is a question: if someone can produce a quote by Roosevelt where he described the camps using “internment” or “relocation”, wouldn’t that undercut using him to support use of “concentration”? I would be wary about using Roosevelt as a reference, since he was a product of his times and described African Americans as “Negroes” or “colored people.”

    And the same is true of Congressman Rankin, who was an unapologetic racist and in one infamous incident used the N word on the floor of the House. If anything he weakens the case for using “concentration camp”.

    And then there is the reference to the Japanese American National Museum’s use of “concentration camp” as support for this term. But, the Smithsonian Institute of American History has an exhibit entitled: “Life in a WWII Japanese American Internment Camp”.

    So why are people so adamant about how to describe the camps? In my view it’s not the denotation of the terms, but the connotation. When most Americans hear the term “concentration camp”, they think of the revolting Nazi camps – “the Death camps”, gas chambers, piles of incinerator bones, internees with numbers tattooed on their arms, cruel sadistic guards, gestapo tortures, and survivors who had withered to just flesh and bones. Yes, the term “concentration camp” conjures up the gruesome scenes from “Life is Beautiful” and “Schindler’s List”.

    When Americans hear the terms “internment camp” and “relocation center”, they think of a somewhat harsh, spartan, rustic desert camp, but something that does not come close to approaching the Nazi concentration camps. And this connotation is entirely accurate. The camps had schools with classes through high school, hospitals, recreation centers, etc. The loss of freedom and some pre-war assets was bad enough; but the truth is the standard of living in the camps exceeded that of many Americans outside the camps, and in fact provoked complaints. I recall a letter from a teacher to then Senator Harry Truman complaining that internees had art and fine arts classes, but many public schools outside the camps could not afford these courses.

    Ms. Okazaki calls “internment camp” and “relocation center” euphemisms, but they do accurately describe the camps, as noted above.

    So it all boils down to a matter of opinion – anyone can make a case for “concentration camp”, “internment camp”, or “relocation center”. But from what I observe, those who prefer “concentration camp” do so because of its sordid negative connotation with the Nazis. They want Americans to think the worst about what happened in the US by trying to put the camp experience here on a par with that of the Nazi camps. This approach does not elevate the victimhood status of Japanese and Japanese Americans; if anything, it just softens the perception that people have of the Nazi camps and makes people like Ms. Okazaki come across as whiners.

    In my opinion, Eunice Sato and George Yoshinaga are right – “concentration camp” is not the right way to describe the camp experience. “Relocation center” or “internment camp” are more accurate.

  7. Pingback: Sue Kunitomi Embrey: Concentration Camps, Not Relocation Centers « Manzanar Committee

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