By STANLEY N. KANZAKI
(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on July 28, 2011.)
I read with interest in the Rafu Shimpo the excellent articles written by George Toshio Johnston (7/7/2011) and J.K. Yamamoto (7/12/2011) on euphemism and the draft Power of Words Handbook. I would like to add to this and give an insider’s view.
I am a New York Chapter JACLer and the lone non-National Education Committee member on the now-defunct JACL ad hoc Power of Words Committee. When the first draft of the handbook came out we were asked to comment on it. I submitted a five-page comment and will discuss the part on the concentration camp issue. It seems also my comments were somewhat ignored and I do not know if the other members also submitted their comments.
To begin with, what is a concentration camp? A concentration camp is a concentration camp. It is built in a remote part of a country. Barbed-wire fences, guard towers with armed guards and search lights, guards on foot and motorized patrols of the outer perimeter. Armed guards posted at the gates. Barracks are built for maximum control of those imprisoned. Sound familiar to some of you out there?
Past history reveals their existence. They existed during the Spanish-American War, the Boer War in South Africa, and the Philippine insurrection; in Cambodia and Bosnia; and during World War II, when 10 concentration camps imprisoned 120,313 Japanese ethnics, of which two-thirds were American citizens. This happened based on President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s infamous Executive Order 9066.
In 1998, the term “concentration camp” became controversial when the Japanese American National Museum was invited by the National Park Service to exhibit at the historic Ellis Island in New York. The title of the exhibit was “America’s Concentration Camps: Remembering the Japanese American Experience.”
This title was objected to by some Jewish groups who claimed that the term conflicted with what happened to the Jewish people under the Nazi regime during WWII. A meeting was called and officials from JANM and Jewish groups led by the American Jewish Committee met. It resulted in a joint statement to differentiate the two types of camps, ending with the JANM keeping the original exhibit title.
Thereafter, then-AJC Executive Director David A. Harris stated in a New York Times editorial, “We have not claimed Jewish exclusivity for the term ‘concentration camps.”
This is another statement from a Densho oral history interview: “And then we did get into bringing an understanding of why we call our camp experience a concentration camp experience. We said we understand the Jews went to death camps, and we really should not use that terminology, because we were not in death camps. But I said, ‘What they suffered was done by a despot and the government was fascist, and ours here in the United States has a Constitution as the background of how we are to operate. And so for a nation to set aside the fundamental laws, and lock us up without due process of law, by golly, it is a concentration camp when you see it in the context of a democracy.’ ” — JACL Legislative Education Committee Executive Director Grayce Uyehara
A precedent was set. After over 13 years, why was it necessary for the JACL and AJC to meet again over this same issue? Were they not aware of what happened in 1998? Was it the self-serving action of someone? Can anyone tell us why this meeting was necessary?
And then JACL received a letter from the AJC objecting to the use of the term “concentration camp” and asking to meet. This was accomplished at the convention via a speakerphone set up during the National JACL Board meeting. The two AJC officials seemed to talk on repetitiously as if in a tactic to wear everyone out.
But then Andy Noguchi of the Florin Chapter JACL spoke out. He stood alone and did it intelligently and with dignity to rebut what they stated. In the end they seemed to be less aggressive. During the presentation of the emergency resolution before the National Council he spoke in the same manner as the lead writer.
It ended big time in its passage: 55 for, 17 against, 1 split and 3 abstentions. I wonder what the 17, ½ and 3 were thinking. Did they read the draft handbook? Was it jet lag, partying the night before, etc?
The point again: Why was it necessary for the JACL to go to the AJC as if to ask permission to use the term “concentration camp”? Isn’t JACL an independent organization? It is our thing. We know what happened to 120,313 of us.
In the past, too, JACL has used this term on historical landmarks and to repeal Title II of the Internal Security Act. The organization needs to get out of the shikataganai and enryo syndromes. And to some Nikkei, get out of still being “brainwashed” in using all the euphemisms perpetrated by the racist WWII U.S. government bureaucrats. Face the truth and be free.
And the handbook draft as such was fortunately not proposed as a resolution. It had good writing but was incomplete. In due respect and fairness to the writer, it seems like a last-minute assignment. It took over six months before a committee was formed. The writer may not have had the background of the subject and had to do it in less than six months. No time for research and consulting.
Now a new committee is to be formed. Both Mr. Noguchi and Ms. Dawn Rego of the Seattle Chapter have volunteered to undertake this task. A decision must be made soon, without waiting for over six months as in the past.
As for the dissenter in J.K.’s article, I was also at the informal meeting in Chicago last year. What that individual objected to did not appear in the final POW resolution. He said that FDR used the term “concentration camp” before knowing what happened to the Jewish people in Europe during WWII. But did he know that Harry S. Truman, a WWII president, in an interview with Merle Miller in 1961 stated, “They were concentration camps. They called it relocation but they put them in concentration camps, and I was against it. We were in a period of emergency, but it was still the wrong thing to do.”
So this in effect makes ineffective his reasoning. And he undermines the youth in their thinking about differentiating in use of the term. Did he know that the members both in the ad hoc POW Committee and those against the handbook were younger than he? When one intellectualizes too much it seems to get away from reality.
And there was the legal mind who seemed to split hairs on the emergency resolution. All it did was to delay the final outcome, with the emergency resolution still passing big time.
Many years ago I took a tour of Dachau in Germany. Seeing the wooden barracks, one could almost see men whose skeleton-like bodies were crowded in their three-tiered bunk beds. I saw in horror the gas chamber and the crematoriums. I told myself, “This is not a concentration camp but a death camp.”
Going out of the death camp’s huge gate, I wondered how many survived to do so. I then questioned with sadness and anger, “Why did God permit this?” And then it came to me that it was not God, but it was men.
In the handbook, the term “concentration camp” was not defined as opposed to the euphemism “relocation center.” It was mentioned four times squeezed into two short, consecutive paragraphs. So what then is it?
“A concentration camp is a place where people are imprisoned not because of any crimes they have committed, but simply because of who they are … All had one thing in common: the people in power removed a minority group from the general population and the rest of society let it happen.” This says it all.
And where did it come from? It came from the JANM-AJC statement, 1998. Sound right? It is. For 120,313 of us in America were imprisoned in them during World War II.
Stanley Kanzaki, who was incarcerated at Tanforan near San Francisco and at Topaz in Utah during World War II, writes from New York. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.