Should American prison camps where mainland Japanese Americans were incarcerated during WWII be described in be same terms as the Nazi death camps, where nearly nine million victims of the Nazis were murdered?
Recently, a New York Times opinion piece (“When History Repeats,” July 14, 2018) addressed the imprisonment of mainland Japanese Americans in prison camps during WWII, including members of the writer’s immediate family. Author Michiko Kakutani compares that history to the intolerance and bigotry promoted by President Trump, Vice President Pence and Republican politicians.
In her column, she calls the prisons where Japanese Americans were incarcerated “concentration camps.” Initiated by President Franklin Roosevelt at a time of racist nationalist hysteria, those incarcerated included nearly 13,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans from Washington state. But I find the term “concentration camp” very troubling.
A retired Times Senior Book Critic, Kakutani is Japanese American, born in Connecticut in 1955. While I am not Japanese American, I am of the same generation, and feel an affinity for Kakutani because I come from a similarly persecuted group; I was born in 1950 to American-born Jewish parents whose parents emigrated from eastern Europe.
On both sides of my family, back in Europe, numerous family members were murdered by the Nazis. Even if they have no knowledge of it, nearly every Jewish American of European descent has family members murdered by the Nazis and Fascists during WWII in Europe.
Europe’s dark legacy of religious oppression has recently had local touchstones. On July 7, 2017, the Seattle-Tacoma PBS station, KCTS, published an article titled “A Sobering Legacy: Survivors of Japanese-American Prison Camps Reflect,” by Laila Kazmi. On Sept. 1 they aired a documentary film, “The Long Journey Toward Healing,” a film produced by Laila Kazmi, who also uses the term “concentration camps.”
A postscript to the KCTS article states “Words Matter: Densho and historians have adopted the term ‘incarceration’ in place of ‘internment’ out of belief that the former is a truer representation of the experience of Japanese Americans who were imprisoned in concentration camps for over three years, two-thirds of them being U.S. citizens.”
Densho is a Seattle-based nonprofit that focuses on the history of incarcerated Japanese Americans; while I agree that “incarceration” is a more accurate description than “internment,” Densho does not address the controversy about the phrase “concentration camp.”
On Feb 18, 2017, another Seattle TV station, KING-5, aired a documentary, “Prisoners In Their Own Land.”
Producer Lori Matsukawa states she prefers “concentration camps” to describe the prison camps where Japanese Americans were incarcerated. Matsukawa says, “This is not meant to take away from what happened to Jews and others in Europe, who were imprisoned in ‘concentration camps’, which some now acknowledge was a euphemism for Nazi death camps.” Thank you, Lori Matsukawa.
Holocaust deniers like David Duke use this euphemistic description (“concentration camps”) to support their false claim that the deaths of six million Jewish victims (and four million non-Jewish victims) either didnt happen, or wasn’t as bad as it seemed.
They claim there were no gassings, shootings, forced starvation, hangings, slave labor or other atrocities.
I applaud Kakutani, Kazmi and Matsukawa for keeping the tragic history of intolerance against Japanese Americans in the public eye.
The Holocaust happened because millions of people chose to remain silent.
The most important lesson I offer students is to not be silent when you hear of injustice.
It has to be called out. And that includes not using language that sugarcoats mass killings and forced labor.
Akiva Kenny Segan is an artist in Seattle.
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