Whatever You Want to Call It Is OK With Me (But it really wasn’t a concentration camp)


(First published in
The Rafu Shimpo on July 20, 2011.)


I received the equivalent of a glove slap to the cheek:  the genteel French custom signifying the challenge to a duel. Thankfully it was a verbal one. Hopefully, in the end, there will be no bloodshed. (If at ten paces I’m sure my aim would waver, thus is the slight chance I might fudge and turn at nine. Not kosher or gentlemanly, I submit, but survival-wise.)

Not surprisingly, the point of dispute is the ongoing discussion regarding Relocation Center versus Concentration Camp. CR2S has been taken to task for its constant recognition of Poston as a relocation site rather than an American replica of the dreaded German original.

If nothing else, I have been consistent in this debate. Forgetting semantics and Daniel Webster, the United States version of imprisonment is a far cry from the Nazi version. Attempting to correlate Poston with Auschwitz or Gila River with Belsen doesn’t even qualify for an apple/pomegranate comparison.

But momento, señor, I neither deride nor ridicule. I find the comparisons worthy of argument and pointed. A verbal joust, okay, but certainly not worthy of a pistol confrontation. I mean, geez, I can think of dozens of contentious disagreements with greater impact than what to call Poston. (Examples?  Well, how about what James Murdoch knew and when? Did Elvis have a greater impact than Frank?)

Roget’s International Thesaurus indeed defines a concentration camp (191.29) as a place of detention, ironically using the German translation, Konzentrationslager. But there is pointedly a second reference (409.12) under the heading of killing site: place of slaughter, field of blood or bloodshed. In opposition, the World Book Encyclopedia dictionary definition is “a camp where political enemies, prisoners of war, and interned foreigners are held.”  (Hi ho, hi ho, that’s where we were, eh wot Grumpy?)

I don’t see much to gain walking the worn path already traversed by savants and scholars who are better qualified than CR2S to discuss the semantics of it all.

Maybe some of you remember the feisty San Francisco State professor who burst onto the political scene by pulling the plug on a microphone held by a ranting war protestor. Before you could say Sam Hayakawa, he was the Republican junior senator from California.  I mention him in passing because he was a Nisei who didn’t believe the word deserved a capital “N”; being from Chicago, he was never incarcerated. And he admitted not being familiar with JAs and their long history of west coast prejudice. [I admit, with a touch of blush, not being aware of such an animal as a semanticist until Sleepy Sam came along.]

For the longest time I was an advocate of the “Been There, Done That” School of Belief; if you weren’t at an event, how could you possibly know anything about it? Ted Williams better than Babe Ruth? JFK the equal of FDR? Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren’s  beliefs compared to those he held as governor?

In said state of challenge, how can a fireball Sansei/Yonsei put me into a concentration camp when the only gas I ever took in Poston was swiping it from an idle tractor in the dark of night? (Which was NOT a juvenile highlight of mine:  What in the hey to do with stolen fuel when no one had a car?)

Of course, reading everything from Daniel Defoe to Helen Kearns Goodwin over the years convinced me of the folly of my bias; one did not have to live a concurrent life to write its history.  Examples abound.  If a knowledgeable white man (James Fennemore Cooper) can write about American Indians (“The Last of the Mohicans”), I am free to pen a tome on Henry Ford the racist, or a screed on Charles Lindbergh’s dalliance with Nazism.

Those who toe the concentration camp line have a plausible argument. Sorta. The lines are no longer parallel when the Holocaust becomes a part of the discussion.  When the Anti-Defamation League lobbies [the JACL]to retain sole possession of the term “concentration camps,” I would relent. It’s a toss-up matching “money-grubbing Jew” to “slant-eyed Jap” disparagements,  but no contest when matching Poston to Treblenka.  Likewise, my 13-year-old diary writings bemoaning camp woes do not put me in the same category as Anne Frank.

That being said, I wish there was a guaranteed way to inform and educate ensuing generations (of all stripes) of what the Nisei went through to survive The War years.

A minor personal irritation is that we lived in an “apartment!” Lemme bore you with the truth: A barrack had four rooms, each a spacious 20’x25’ with walls of 1x8s  covered with black tarpaper, a floor not meant to be so airy (no linoleum or throw rugs), an innovative “double” roof with space in between, which meant only the top one would fly away in a violent windstorm, two light sockets, no running water, this luxury “apartment” housing a family of six.

And don’t let me get started on the public latrines. Depending upon which barrack (14 in a block but don’t visualize a city block) you were assigned, the toilets/showers could be 30 yards away.

But I digress, which CR2S is wont to do these days.  Meanwhile, Peace.


W.T. Wimpy Hiroto can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.


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