What ‘Concentration Camp’ Means to Japanese Americans

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George Takei, Karen Ishizuka address controversial topic.

Karen Ishizuka and George Takei answer questions from the audience during a July 11 program at JANM. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

In recent weeks, the term “concentration camp” has come up frequently in the mainstream news media, with some using it to describe government facilities where migrants seeking asylum are being held, and others saying it is inappropriate.

With current events in mind, a program titled “What Is a Concentration Camp?” was held July 11 at the Japanese American National Museum. The speakers were Karen Ishizuka, author and chief curator at JANM, and actor/activist George Takei, a long-time member of the JANM Board of Trustees.

JANM President and CEO Ann Burroughs stressed, “It’s a discussion about why JANM chose to use the term ‘concentration camp.’ So for us, it’s not a debate because when you have a debate, you have opposing sides and you have opposing opinions. But because of … the current controversy around the use of the term ‘concentration camp,’ the term in a sense has become couched in the public eye as a debate. And it’s also referred to in all sorts of different euphemistic ways.

“We felt that because it was so important to JANM in the way that we use the term and why we use it and how we came to use it that we felt we would take the opportunity to have a conversation that we hope that will be educational, that will be inspiring.”

Exhibition at Ellis Island

Ishizuka, a Sansei whose parents and grandparents were incarcerated during World War II, was the curator of an exhibition titled “America’s Concentration Camps: Remembering the Japanese American Experience” in 1994 at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. She recalled, “I had already spent what I felt like was a lifetime trying to get myself come to grips with that … Even though I wasn’t in camp, I inherited camp. The legacy of camp was always with me … I was asked to curate an introductory exhibit to the camps for people who didn’t know very much about it.”

To illustrate her family history, Ishizuka showed photos — her grandfather as a distinguished gentleman before the war and in a government mugshot during the war; her grandmother and other relatives at Manzanar and Rohwer; two uncles who served in the Army, one of whom was killed the day after he helped rescue the Lost Battalion in France.

Given that background, she said, “I came to the conclusion that only by presenting the experience from the point of view of those whose history it was … can a broad audience really grasp the understanding of it … So we thought long and hard about what words to use.”

One of her advisors, historian Roger Daniels, told Ishizuka about the distinction between “internment” and “incarceration.” “Internment was under the Geneva Convention and applied to aliens ineligible for citizenship. Our Issei grandparents and parents were not able to become naturalized citizens … so they necessarily had to be made enemy aliens … Both my grandparents were picked up on Dec. 7 [1941] and sent to internment camps …

“Incarceration came a little bit later. It was under the War Relocation Authority … There were 120,000 who were incarcerated … So the advisors from the very beginning, including [archival researcher]Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga … advised us to use the terms ‘incarceration’ versus ‘internment,’ ‘forced removal’ instead of ‘evacuation,’ and ‘concentration camp’ instead of ‘relocation center.’”

Ishizuka pointed out that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and other government officials used “concentration camp” in reference to Japanese Americans as early as 1936. The term was also used in the 1967 book “America’s Concentration Camps” by Allan Bosworth, and on plaques designating Manzanar and Tule Lake as state historical landmarks in 1973 and 1979, respectively.

“America’s Concentration Camps,” a 1994-95 JANM exhibit featuring a barrack from Heart Mountain, included quotes using “concentration camp” by FDR, President Harry Truman, Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark, and Mississippi Congressman John Rankin.

Three months before the Ellis Island exhibition opened, “we got a message from the Ellis Island directors saying that unless the term the words ‘concentration camp’ were removed from the title, we could not proceed,” Ishizuka said. “Given this mandate, Irene Hirano, who was our CEO at the time, and the board talked with the Jewish leaders that we had originally consulted four years earlier.”

Tom Freudenheim, executive director of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, responded, “My first reaction is one of deep embarrassment as a Jew born in Hitler’s Germany who lost various relatives in the Holocaust. I am deeply disturbed by the notion that Jewish Americans appear to be telling Japanese Americans about sensitivity. The internment of Japanese Americans may not be comparable to the decimation of my people, but I certainly don’t feel that should prevent us from recognizing and naming America’s concentration camps as precisely what they were.”

Ishizuka contacted colleagues in the community and academia, and the majority told her to “stay the course.” Museum board members, including former incarcerees Takei, Norman Mineta and Bruce Kaji, felt the same way — that “we should not let anybody else tell us how to tell our own experience.”

“Six weeks before we were set to open, Sen. Dan Inouye personally appealed to Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt. He was in charge of the National Park Service, which Ellis Island is under … Eight days later, we received a message from the Ellis Island director, who suddenly reversed her earlier decision … So the U.S. government can work very quickly when it is prodded in the right way and by the right people.”

The disagreement was leaked to the press and received international coverage, but a meeting with the American Jewish Committee in New York was amicable. Ishizuka quoted Inouye as saying that “we should be working together, American Jews and Japanese Americans, and together we could prevent the question of who might be next.”

She added, “I always kind of choke up at that, thinking that it just breaks my heart about what’s happening today — and how the senator would feel about that.”

“After much discussion, Benjamin Meed, who was the president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, offered a pragmatic solution,” Ishizuka said. “He proposed that we write an explanation to distinguish the Nazi camps from American camps and that it be placed at the beginning of the exhibition so that the public would be further educated and it would be clear that there was no equivalency intended.”

The joint statement reads, “A concentration camp is a place where people are imprisoned, not because of the crimes they committed, but simply because of who they are. During World War II, America’s concentration camps were clearly distinguishable from Nazi Germany’s. Despite the difference, all had one thing in common: that people in power removed a minority group from the general population and the rest of society let it happen.”

A quarter of a century later, Ishizuka was heartened to see Japanese Americans and American Jews protesting together against the government’s treatment of asylum-seekers at the border.

“We Are Operating Such Camps Again”

Last month, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) characterized the detention centers for migrants as concentration camps. Takei was among the first to support her position, stating, “I know what concentration camps are. I was inside two of them in America [Rohwer and Tule Lake]. And yes, we are operating such camps again.”

That tweet was retweeted almost 70,000 times and received more than 233,000 likes.

“I think it would be useful to know the dictionary definition of the words ‘concentration camp,’” Takei told the audience. “It says that it is where people of a common heritage, race, faith or culture are imprisoned together for political purposes. That’s a very accurate and precise definition of the camps that we were in.”

He recalled hearing a first-hand account from a survivor of Auschwitz at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Bloomfield, Mich. Sophie Tajch Klisman, 89, lost her entire family — her parents, two brothers and a sister.

“They were camps that were intentionally created with a plan, a systematic plan, to eradicate a whole people,” Takei said. “They were extermination camps. They were death camps … The word ‘concentration camp’ sounds like a euphemism when applied to what 6 million Jews went through.”

Turning to his own experience as a 5-year-old, he recalled accompanying his family to Little Tokyo in 1942. “My father gave my brother and me little packages to carry and he had two heavy suitcases … My mother … had our baby sister in one arm and a huge duffel bag in the other, and tears were streaming down her face. I will never forget that terrifying morning …

“We were taken from our home, brought up right in front of the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple … taken by bus to Santa Anita Racetrack, and herded over to the stables. Each family was assigned a horse stall to sleep in.”

At Rohwer, Takei said, “it became normal for me to line up three times a day to eat lousy food in a noisy mess hall … to go with my father and my brother to bathe in the mass shower … to go to school in a black tarpaper barrack and begin the school day with the Pledge of Allegiance … I could see the barbed-wire fence and the sentry tower right outside my schoolhouse window as I recited the words ‘with liberty and justice for all.’”

At the time, he didn’t know how “catastrophic” the aftermath of Pearl Harbor was for his parents. “Suddenly there was a curfew. We had to be home by 8 o’clock at night and stay home until 6 a.m. … When my father went to the bank the next day to get some money, he learned that the bank account was frozen … We couldn’t even get a few dollars to meet daily living expenses …

“My parents’ lives were stripped clean of everything that they had worked for. And then they were imprisoned … no charges, no trial, no due process … It was only because of our ancestry … At times of war hysteria, absolutely irrational things can be done by a whole nation.”

Takei shared what he learned about democracy from his father. “Ours is a people’s democracy, and the people have the capacity to do great things … but people are also fallible human beings and people make mistakes. Our people’s democracy is existentially dependent on people who cherish those noble ideals and actively engage in the process of our democracy.”

In the early 1960s, Takei performed in a civil rights musical called “Fly Blackbird,” which led to participation in civil rights rallies. “The biggest one of them was at the L.A. Convention Center, where Dr. Martin Luther King was to be the keynote speaker. We were privileged to march in together with Dr. King into the sports arena … The most thrilling part of that evening was that after the rally, the cast of ‘Fly Blackbird’ was invited to come downstairs to Dr. King’s dressing room. We met him, we got a chance to shake his hand and share a few words of conversation with him …

“That is how I got involved in the arena of making our government and our country better than what it was, and since that time I felt it was my personal mission to raise the awareness of the internment of Japanese Americans.”

Takei has used his celebrity status to educate the public about the camps through speaking engagements, TV interviews, his autobiography, YouTube videos, the Broadway musical “Allegiance,” and most recently a graphic novel, “They Called Us Enemy.” He is a cast member and consultant for an upcoming TV series set in the camps, “The Terror.” He now finds his message more relevant than ever.

“Today we have other, newer concentration camps that have reached a new low,” he said. “We as children … were not torn away from our parents. What is happening now on the southern border is grotesque. It’s unimaginable.

The New York Times a few weeks ago had a front-page story on a four-week-old infant torn away from his father and then not kept on the Texas border … Children are scattered to the farthest reaches of the United States — Minnesota, Wisconsin, New Jersey. And when the courts ordered them to bring them together, the child and the parents, this government is so incompetent that they can’t find each other.

“These children incarcerated in these cages, almost one on top of the other with only aluminum foil blankets to keep them warm, is an outrage … And if we allow this to continue, then the imagination just takes us to a horrifically chilling place.”

Takei told the audience, which included many young people, “We as Americans … must oppose what’s happening today. It is constitutional to seek asylum. It is not illegal. The so-called president talks about how they came in illegally … He is a totally ignorant person who has no idea of history or of decency or humanity.

“When we talk about concentration camps, we have to think of the humans that are involved in those words. We have a responsibility, particularly Japanese Americans who have this heritage, to take a stand, an active stand, against this kind of horror continuing.”

The presentation was followed by Q&A with the audience. To see a video of the entire program, as well as other JANM events, visit JANM’s YouTube channel.

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