LETTERS: ‘American concentration camp’

Dear Editor:

We were recently made aware that the American Jewish Committee (AJC) had requested that the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) disapprove a proposal to utilize the term “American concentration camp” to describe the World War II incarceration of over 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry. In a June 30, 2011, e-mail to the JACL, the AJC contends that the use of the term “concentration camp” to describe the WWII Japanese American experience “suggests equivalence with the fate of European Jewry that is both untrue and will not go down well with much of the Jewish community.” We respectfully disagree.

The Japanese American community has never attempted to equate their WWII experience in America with the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis against European Jews, gypsies, Poles, and other groups deemed undesirable. There is no comparison between the violent death of less than 10 Japanese Americans in America’s prison camps and the slaughter of 6 million Jews and 4 million other victims in prisons run by the Nazis.

However, there is one area where both the American and Nazi governments used similar methods to cover up what they were doing: they used euphemisms to describe their “programs” against their minority victims. The Nazis used terms like “emigration,” “evacuation,” “relocation,” “resettlement,” and “final solution” to cover up the wholesale murder of millions. Similarly, the American government used terms like “non-alien,” “evacuation,” “assembly center,” and “relocation center” as misleading terms to describe what they really were, respectively: American citizen, forced removal, temporary prison and concentration camp.

The term “internment camp” has also been misused by the government as well as members of our own community. “Internment camp” has a very specific meaning: internment camps are used to imprison enemy aliens of countries that are at war with the “host” country. During WWII, thousands of aliens of Japanese, German, and Italian ancestry were imprisoned by the Justice Department in several camps known as “internment” or “justice camps.” Prior to and during their forced removal, the American government tried to marginalize Japanese American citizens by repeatedly referring to them as “non-aliens” in many of their public pronouncements, including the infamous “Instructions to All Persons of Japanese Ancestry” notices that ordered Japanese Americans to report to departure points prior to their transport to temporary prisons or “assembly centers.” Referring to any of the War Relocation Authority (WRA) prison camps as “internment camps” implied that inmates were to be considered less than American, whether they were aliens or “non-aliens.”

The phrase, “American concentration camp,” is important to describe what really happened during WWII to 120,000 Japanese Americans. Any other phrase diminishes the gross violation of constitutional and civil rights perpetrated against American citizens and resident aliens of Japanese ancestry. The definition of “concentration camp” is “a place where people are imprisoned against their will based on arbitrary criteria, such as race, national origin, religion, political beliefs, etc.: inmates of such prisons have not committed any criminal acts to justify their imprisonment.” The forced removal and imprisonment of innocent people in concentration camps by their respective governments in America and Germany during WWII was a great injustice. Horrifically, the Nazis went far beyond mere imprisonment by systematically torturing and murdering millions of people. In Europe, many of the Nazi prisons were not concentration camps in the traditional sense: they are more accurately described as “death camps” or “extermination centers” whose purpose was to torture and kill, not imprison its innocent victims.

In America, more than two-thirds of the inmates in the 10 large prison camps run by the WRA were American citizens and half of the inmates were children. The government called the concentration camps “relocation centers” during and after the war in public documents and media contacts, but used the term “concentration camps” in official documents and correspondence. It took state and federal governments decades to officially designate the 10 WRA prison camps as “concentration camps.” Historical landmark plaques at both Manzanar and Tule Lake prison camps are notable for referring to all 10 WRA prison camps as “concentration camps.” Using any other term that attempts to be more palatable to the government or segments of the general public would be a giant step backward and an insult to all who suffered from the American government’s actions during WWII.

We support the suggestion by the American Jewish Committee that AJC and JACL representatives, along with interested community leaders, meet in the near future to further discuss this issue.

Members of the Board of Directors
Japanese American Historical Society of Southern California

Roy Sakamoto, president
George Nakano
Bill Shishima
Marie Masumoto
Kitty Sankey
Joh Sekiguchi
May Toya
Iku Kiriyama
Lloyd Inui
Dianne Belli
Christy Sakamoto
Janet Okubo

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