VOX POPULI: Yes, They Were Concentration Camps

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By AIKO HERZIG YOSHINAGA
(In response to Eunice Sato’s piece run in
Horse’s Mouth on Tuesday, Aug 31, 2010).

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The purpose of AB 1775, which creates Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution, is “to encourage schools across the state of California to teach students about Fred Korematsu’s story and its relevance in today’s post-9/11 environment.” This day would be celebrated annually, beginning on Jan. 30, 2011.

It was very alarming to learn that Eunice Sato, former mayor of Long Beach, California, has written to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger advising him to veto the bill because it includes the term “concentration camps,” which apparently she finds offensive. The research of primary documents I did at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. (as Senior Researcher for the congressional commission that investigated the circumstances surrounding the World War II exile and incarceration of Japanese Americans who lived on the West Coast) revealed that among top government officials, even President Franklin D. Roosevelt, had identified those U.S. facilities as “concentration camps.” The commission’s recommendations for remedial action were approved by Congress and by then-president Ronald Reagan, who signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, authorizing the nation’s apology to the victims and appropriating token compensation to survivors of the camps.

Those of us who spent time in the World War II U.S.-style concentration camps administered by the War Relocation Authority (WRA), a federal civil agency, know that there is no comparison between the WRA concentration camps and those that were indeed extermination or death camps operated during that period in Germany and other European nations under the auspices of the Nazi regime. There is no argument on this point.  Nonetheless, American citizens of Japanese descent were evicted from their homes on the Pacific coastal states, placed behind barbed wire fences with American armed military police in watchtowers overlooking the barracks (with divided units described as apartments), and kept imprisoned for years under conditions that are repugnant to the principles of our democracy.

The term “concentration camp” is the appropriate terminology for those ten WRA sites that were created in regions away from the Pacific coast because of what we now know to be wartime hysteria, racial intolerance and “lack of political leadership” to unjustly constrain persons of Japanese ancestry for years.

It is, therefore, imponderable and more than just puzzling to have Ms. Sato voice opposition to a term that accurately reflects the historical truth behind the mass exclusion and incarceration tragedy that befell the Japanese American community whose constitutionally-guaranteed civil liberties were denied them simply due to their ethnicity.

The subject of euphemistic terminology has been addressed by notable scholars. I’m not sure whether I mentioned to you the opposite views expressed between antithetical groups over the title of the exhibit called “America’s Concentration Camps: Remembering the Japanese American Experience” that was being prepared for display at the Ellis Island Museum in New York. A detailed, succinct recounting of the controversy is presented in a chapter of the book entitled “Lost and Found: Reclaiming the Japanese American Experience,” written by Karen Ishizuka (Chicago, IL:  University of Illinois Press, 2006). Many debates between concerned individuals and organizations over the issue took place. The matter was resolved after prolonged discussions which showed that a thorough understanding of the real meaning of “concentration camp” can lead to a meeting of the minds.

Over lunch the other day a few Nikkei who had heard of Ms. Sato’s letter to Governor Schwarzenegger voiced concern as to what we, as survivors of American concentration camps, can do to encourage Governor Schwarzenegger to sign AB 1775. His signing it into law can designate Korematsu Day as a significant symbol of this nation’s greatness and willingness to admit having committed a grievous wrong against an innocent ethnic minority.

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Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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