Author/curator/filmmaker Karen Ishizuka will discuss the development and opening of the Japanese American National Museum’s landmark exhibition “America’s Concentration Camps: Remembering the Japanese American Experience,” as well as read from her book on the subject, “Lost & Found: Reclaiming the Japanese American Incarceration,” at a public program set for Saturday, April 9, at 2 p.m. at JANM, 1st and Central in Little Tokyo.
Ishizuka was the museum curator for “America’s Concentration Camps,” and its title was among the subjects open to discussion when the exhibition premiered in 1994.
She and her scholarly advisors had all discovered numerous examples of government officials planning to imprison people of Japanese ancestry, including American citizens, in “concentration camps.” President Franklin Roosevelt in 1936 suggested that a list be compiled of those individuals “who would be the first to be placed in a concentration camp in the event of trouble.”
The challenge with including “concentration camps” in the title stemmed from the Holocaust, in which the Nazis committed genocide against 6 million Jews and others. The death camps where the prisoners were held were euphemistically called “concentration camps” by the Nazis.
Because of the deadly connotation that developed from this horror, the definition of “concentration camp” had changed for many people. But the museum’s position was that the pre-World War II definition still applied to the camps run by the U.S. government to unconstitutionally incarcerate people of Japanese ancestry.
More important to the exhibition was Ishizuka’s desire to allow the former inmates to truly come to terms with their experiences. There were several opportunities for visitors to interact and even provide their own personal information and thoughts.
“By engaging the audience in the presentation of its own history within the context of the exhibition,” Ishizuka wrote, “the show enabled visitors not only to recover history, but to recover from it as well.”
The museum’s desire to highlight the first-person accounts of the people who lived through the history brought a realization about the American-born Nisei generation: “As a group they knew the most about the incarceration — and the least. They were the ones who had to make the best of a bad situation,” said Ishizuka. “And yet, many of these same people were still separated from the facts and historical analyses that would allow them finally to understand the history they were a part of but not privy to.”
Because the humiliation many still felt and their sense of shame, many of the former inmates did not read any of the books or articles about the mass incarceration. Coupled with the government’s use of euphemism to disguise the illegality of its action while presenting a false notion that everything was being done for the good of Japanese Americans (terms like “evacuation” and “relocation”), the Nisei did not have the facts that would make sense of their experiences. “America’s Concentration Camps” provided the historical context as well as the opportunity for former inmates to finally discuss their experiences with their children and grandchildren.
Ishizuka is an award-winning producer and filmmaker, who along with Robert Nakamura founded the museum’s Watase Media Arts Center. She and Nakamura pioneered the use of home movies as historic documents in their works “Moving Memories” and “Something Strong Within.”
For more information, call (213) 625-0414 or visit www.janm.org.