By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
(First of two parts)
GARDENA — The terminology used to describe the Japanese American World War II experience was the focus of this year’s Day of Remembrance program on Feb. 27 at the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute.
“To this day, our community is divided when it comes to what terms we should use to describe the experiences that the Nikkei of the past faced,” said Dr. Carrie Lew, who served as emcee. “… Our theme, ‘The Power of Words,’ aims to address these terms and clarify their meanings. Our goal today is not to argue or persuade folks to change the words they use, but rather to hear different experiences and continue this discussion …”
The keynote speaker was Karen Ishizuka, a former documentary film producer and museum curator and author of “Lost and Found: Reclaiming the Japanese American Incarceration” and the just-released “Serve the People: Making Asian America in the Sixties.”
“The saying ‘A rose by any other name is still a rose’ may be true in theory but not in practice,” she told the packed room. “What you call things matters. They make a difference. Words shape our reality.”
In 1994, Ishizuka curated an exhibition, “America’s Concentration Camps,” at the Japanese American National Museum, where it ran for a couple of years before touring the country. In 1995, JANM was invited to take the exhibition to the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in New York.
“We were really excited because it was such a portal to national and international visitors that we would have an opportunity to teach part of our history to so many people,” she recalled. “It was to open three years later, but just three months before the scheduled opening, even though they always knew that the title of the exhibition was ‘America’s Concentration Camps,’ the museum director told us that unless we took the term out, we would no longer be able to display it there.”
The reason given: New York’s large Jewish community could be offended by the title.
“After a fast and furious effort that involved hundreds of people, including a U.S. senator as well as the secretary of the interior, we eventually succeeded in stopping the exhibition from being censured,” Ishizuka said. “But it turned into a national debate that was not only about terminology but really the larger questions of historical accuracy … and also how to talk about a difficult moment in history.”
Her initial response to the ultimatum: “I summarized that we had discussed the title with many organizations, including American Jews, and that the exhibit ran for several years in L.A. without incident. I added that we fully respected the unique horror of the Holocaust and that throughout history there have been many injustices, none of which mitigate or draw equivalency to the other.
“Furthermore, JANM felt it was critical to address the semantics of oppression to underscore the broader lesson that when innocent Americans were herded into what the government itself called concentration camps, it was a failure of democracy that affected all Americans.”
The Ellis Island Museum director was unmoved. JANM CEO Irene Hirano and the board talked with leaders of American Jewish organizations while Ishizuka contacted the exhibit’s advisory committee as well as her colleagues in the community, academia and the museum field.
“Within 48 hours, we heard from over 100 people,” said Ishizuka. “Over the next few weeks, we heard from many more. Some felt that terminology should bow to the larger goal of educating others about the camp experience. The majority, however, urged us to keep the original title and not bow too quickly to pressure. There were many reasons.”
Archival researcher and redress advocate Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga wrote, “Is our empowerment so weak that we must capitulate and surrender our right to say our own history in our own words?”
Similar sentiments were expressed by actor George Takei and former Rep. Norman Mineta (D-San Jose).
Tom Freudenheim, the director of YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, wrote that the incarceration 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.”
Because the museum is part of the National Park Service, Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) made a direct appeal to Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt.
“Irene Hirano received a call from the Ellis Island director, who suddenly reversed her earlier decision and said that there would be no restriction on the title of the show … She really didn’t give much of an explanation,” Ishizuka said. “It seemed like an eternity, but in only a week, we showed that with the right people in the right places, you can fight Big City Hall in Washington, D.C.”
Just when it seemed that the fight was over, about a dozen Jewish newspapers across the country ran articles with such headlines as “Jews, Japanese Clash Over Holocaust Language.” Mainstream newspapers, including The New York Times, then picked up the story.
In this atmosphere of heightened tension, seven Jewish organizations held a meeting with JANM and JACL. Inouye noted that Nisei soldiers of the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion liberated one of the satellite camps of Dachau, Ishizuka said. “He ended by saying that we … should be working together, and that together we could prevent the question of who might be next …
“Everyone agreed that it was important for future generations to learn from history, to remember the past. The only point of contention was over the term ‘concentration camp.’ After some discussion, Benjamin Meed, president of American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors … proposed that an explanation to distinguish the Nazi death camps from American concentration camps be placed at beginning of the exhibition. In this way the public would be further educated and it would be clear that no equivalency was intended.”
Working with two members of the American Jewish Committee, Ishizuka crafted a statement that read, in part: “A concentration camp is a place where people are imprisoned not because of any 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 – the people in power removed a minority group from the general population and the rest of society let it happen.”
FDR’s Own Words
Although terms like “relocation center” were used to describe the camps, “many scholars have established that term ‘concentration camp’ was first used by the U.S. government, not by Japanese Americans … It started at the very top, from POTUS himself,” Ishizuka said.
In a 1936 White House memo, President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote that every Japanese American who has contact with Japanese ships visiting Oahu “should be secretly but definitely identified and his or her name placed on a special list of those who would be the first to be placed in a concentration camp in the event of trouble.”
Rep. John Rankin (D-Miss.) said, “I’m for catching every Japanese in America, Alaska and Hawaii now and putting them in concentration camps.”
Attorney Gen. Francis Biddle stated, “The present procedure of keeping loyal American citizens in concentration camps on the basis of race for longer than necessary is dangerous and repugnant to the principles of our government.”
“Soon the U.S. government and military began to shroud the incarceration in euphemistic terminology,” Ishizuka said. “Although the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court accepted these euphemisms without examination, Justice Owen J. Roberts boldly stated, ‘An assembly center was a euphemism for a prison, so-called relocation centers a euphemism for concentration camps.'”
However, even Japanese Americans began to use more benign terms like “relocation centers,” she said. “The extensive and persistent use of euphemisms functioned to mitigate the unprecedented unconstitutional reality as well as undermine and gain the silence of its victims …
“Social worker Amy Iwasaki Mass … concluded that it was psychologically easier for us to believe the propaganda, minimize the negatives and speak only of the positives than to face the fact that we had been betrayed by our own government.”
Ishizuka also quoted activist Raymond Okamura: “One indication of the emotional scars left by the incarceration is the continued use of the government euphemisms by the former prisoners … If this practice persists, no one will be able to testify to the magnitude of the occurrence.”
Another example of government manipulation of language was the term “non-alien,” Ishizuka said. “In this case, a non-alien is a U.S. citizen. The government obviously didn’t want to say all persons of Japanese ancestry – both those denied naturalization and U.S. citizens – will be evacuated.”
During the Q&A session, Ishizuka clarified concerns about the term “internment,” which is frequently used both in and outside of the Japanese American community.
“‘Internment’ is a very technical term that refers to a very specific detainment that’s under law,” she explained. “There were internment camps but they were very different from the War Relocation Authority camps. Internment camps were ones that my grandfather and many of our grandfathers and fathers were taken to right after Pearl Harbor that were run by the Justice Department …
“There were two parallel detainments that were happening. One was the internment of non-citizens, so-called aliens … Then there was the incarceration that was under the WRA … 120,000 (Nikkei) turned out to be incarcerated, but they were not (all) interned … Some organizations have decided to go ahead and use that, but … it is technically not a correct term to use.”
As a Sansei, Ishizuka said, “I was not in camp but I inherited it. I had five grandparents, one father, two mothers, 25 aunts and uncles, and one cousin who had been in camp … My Uncle Babe … was killed the day after he helped save the Lost Battalion in Italy. He was 22. Uncle Tee … will be 100 this July.”
The government’s labels had a direct impact on her family, she said, showing a photo of her grandfather Momota Okura as “a proud and distinguished gentleman” before the war and then a mugshot taken when he was detained after Pearl Harbor. “If you didn’t know him, everything about this photo says ‘criminal.’” The file describes him as an “alien enemy” and “prisoner of war.”
Ishizuka had already written a thesis and a play and produced a film about the impact of the camps when she was asked to curate the exhibition. “As the curator, my mandate was to produce an introductory exhibition to a broad audience. But as a Sansei, my responsibility was to also make it meaningful to my parents, aunts, uncles and other camp survivors who have had such an impact on my life …
“I was faced with two distinct audiences — a general audience, many of whom would know little or nothing about the subject, and an intimate audience who not only were the ones affected, but for whom ‘camp’ — in all its nuances and resonance — had become fundamental to their identity.
“While these two audiences were seemingly different, I came to conclusion that they are not only linked, but that each serves to illuminate the other … Only by exploring and exposing the meaning of camp from the incarcerees’ perspective can a general audience begin to know and understand the depth of its significance … I concluded that to ‘recover’ history involves ‘recovering from’ history.
“We are at a critical point in the history of the world. In no time, there will be no more eyewitnesses to the injustices of these two events … It’s up to us, who inherited the legacy of the camps, to testify to the magnitude of the occurrence so that it not happen again.”
Photos by MARIO G.REYES/Rafu Shimpo
To be continued