The Power of Words | Friday Workshop 3 | WPC-14


Notes & Copyright

The Power of Words: Concentration Camps USA

Facilitators: Stan Shikuma and Mako Nakagawa, April 12, 2013

This is about how words shape perception and therefore the progress of social justice. When we look at the histories we study in class, they don’t tell the whole story, or even most of it. Talks about concept of Revisionist history, then introduces speakers.

Larry Matsuda was born in the Minidoka Idaho Concentration Camp. He was number 11464D, born an enemy of the state because of his race. Says, “We looked like the enemy, and we became the enemy because of that.” His parents were born in Washington state. His family originally came from Hiroshima, so in WWII, his family was either in a Japanese Internment Camp or in Hiroshima about to be nuked. Matsuda shares a poem he wrote about his experience and understanding/ struggle with his personal history relating to this conflict. His parents had shared stories of pain, shame, poverty, desert winds, smoke, and oppression at Minidoka. When he went to visit Minidoka as an adult, it was a rich and beautiful land. During their internment, the Japanese had irrigated the land with the Snake river, and it is now green and luscious farmland. After the war ended, Minidoka was broken up into lottery pieces for returning WWII veterans — but no Japanese American veterans ever qualified for or won that land. No veterans of color did. It all went to the white veterans. There were no reparations made for the wealth, land, and history stolen from the Japanese families. Larry writes poems to understanding his meaning of this conflict. The Japanese American community was raped by Uncle Sam, and they reacted like rape victims with silence, shame, fear, and an inability to speak up.

Poem: For All The Government Tookby Larry Matsuda.

He finishes the poem by assuring us that despite the imagery used in the poem, he did not steal a rock from a Federal park, because that would be a crime and punishable by time in jail. He wants to clarify that he was given the rock by a nearby farmer, and says such is the power of words.

Quick review of camps history:

In 1941, the Japanese Imperial Navy attacked Pearl Harbor, which kicked off active US involvement in WWII on both fronts. In Jan/ Feb 1942, under pressure from West Coast military officials, Pres. T. Roosevelt signed executive order 9066, which gave the military approval to detain anyone the military considered a threat. Even though the order did not specifically name the Japanese, it was only used on the West Coast and only against persons of Japanese descent. No one of German or Italian descent was ever interned, on either coast.  On March 26, 1942, US military began removing Japanese Americans from their and detaining them. By June/ July of 1942, everyone Japanese American in Arizona was detained. Initially the government put the Japanese Americans in temporary detention centers in fair grounds/ campgrounds/ etc. (Puyallup). Eventually, the Japanese Americans were moved into 10 permanent concentration camps — 2 in AZ, 2 in CA, 2 in AR, 1 each in ID, CO, UT.

These camps were not about protection of citizens or from attack. They were about racism and the denial of civil rights. Only Japanese Americans were detained, even though the US was also at war with Germany and Italy. No German-Americans or Italian-Americans were ever rounded up. This was about race and discrimination — the enemy who didn’t look like “us”. Had nothing to do with age, gender, social status, or citizenship. Everyone was removed and sent away. Government sent away anyone they considered Japanese. If you had only one great-great grandparent, the government considered that to be Japanese.

The camps violated several constitutionally guaranteed civil rights. Japanese were also often not considered to possess the rights of citizens, because they were not allowed to naturalize, despite having lived in the US for several generations.

[Personal Note: Makes me think of illegal immigrants who are living in US now, often paying taxes — property and sales, if not income — yet are not afforded citizenship rights. This situation, protected and perpetuated by the laws of the land, allows for them to be exploited and mistreated in employment situations, and provides no recourse.]

The second oft-ignored issue with these camps is the loss — the theft — of property rights and wealth. The government decreed that everything had to be left behind. Families had anywhere from 2 days to 2 months notice, and everyone knew the score. Japanese Americans were trying to get cash, protection, or storage for a lifetime of investments and memories, and exploitation of their situation was rampant.

The loss of education plays into this as well. Many Japanese American youth had to leave school, and many more lost out on college. This, too, impacted the post-war recovery for the Japanese American people.

Businesses were lost. Before WWII, 70% of Seattle hotels were owned or managed by Japanese Americans, and 400 Japanese Americans owned farms in White River valley. The Pike Place Farmers market was founded by Japanese American farmers, and used to be packed with them; over 80% of the vendors were Japanese American. After the war, 0% of the hotels had Japanese American owners or managers. Of the farmers, only 40 or so Japanese Americans returned to their farms. In the years after the war, the Pike Place Farmers market had no Japanese American vendors.

It is notable that the organizations of white farmers, or grange owners, were one of the biggest supporters in the removal of Japanese American farmers. The Japanese American farmers were competition to the grange owners, and the war-fear aligned with their personal business interests in removing the competition.

The US government eventually (over 20 years later) offered a partial reimbursement to Japanese American families for their loss and suffering. In total, the US government paid out $38 million in reparations, or about 10 cents per dollar lost. The government did not return any of the stolen property or businesses.

The third dimension of the Japanese American internment is the psychological toll. This was a massive betrayal of the American Japanese people by their government, their communities, and their people. The American Japanese felt ashamed of where they were during the war. They did not want to admit they had been sitting in a concentration camp because their government had locked them up. There was a lot of questioning themselves — could they have done something different? Was the government right? Were they somehow a threat without realizing it? Could they have been better, somehow, better Americans, better citizens, better workers?

In the post-war years, alcoholism was rampant. There was a backlash against their cultural history, as well. Parents and grandparents did not teach their children Japanese, or dress them in kimonos. It felt dangerous; it felt like making them different from “Americans.” American Japanese questioned their place in the US, wondering if they weren’t American enough. The American concentration camps and the validation of them by their government caused American Japanese citizens to suffer a post-war self-suppression of identity; an overcompensation in cultivating an American identity that came at the loss of Japanese heritage.

Words are very important, and can be used to reveal of hide truth. On a personal level, we can call each other out of support each other; but on an institutional level, it is harder — almost impossible, actually — to do that. When a euphemism is used in a poem, that’s one thing — but when the government uses euphemisms and plays around with the meaning of words, that’s dangerous. This is why we must change the conversation about the American concentration camps; this is why we must change the language we use.

[Personal Note: I am going to try to write “American Japanese” instead of “Japanese American” throughout my notes. It’s hard, and I don’t even know if it matters, but somehow it feels like the verbal habit of putting “American” after “Japanese” perpetuates assumptions about their patriotism and loyalties — the sort of assumptions that led to this miscarriage of justice in the first place. I think when we refer to Americans, we should maybe start trying to put the “American” part first, and the cultural/ racial tag second.]

CampsIdaho: Minidoka | California: Tule Lake, Manaznar | New Mexico: Poston, Gila River | Utah: Topaz | Wyoming: Heart Mountain | Colorado: Granada (Amache) | Arkansas: Rohwer, Jerome

Mako speaks. She is a teacher at an elementary school. She started her education in an American Concentration Camp for Japanese citizens. She talks about how Eastern Americans know less about the camps than Western Americans. Then she talked about some of the common misconceptions people have expressed to her about the camps, such as:

  • American Japanese citizens were pampered in the camps; living in luxury and ease as the government took care of them.
  • American Japanese citizens were placed in the camps for their own protection, because people were so angry at the Japanese following Pearl Harbor.
  • American Japanese were placed in the camps because it was militarily necessary.

 Each of these misconceptions are provably wrong.

[Personal Note: Beyond being provably wrong by just a quick review of the facts and history, they’re poor arguments from just an emotional or logical standpoint! I can’t believe there are people who find these to be valid excuses under any circumstances!]

Mako talks about how in the camps, a friend told her mother, “If a fence leans in, it’s there to keep you in. If it leans out, it’s there to keep others out.” The camp fences leaned in, but that wasn’t the only indication they were prisoners. There were guard towers and soldiers with guns who watched the inmates, and barbed wire throughout the camps. These were not camps of luxury or protection, and they were not even militarily necessary. If it was militarily necessary to imprison citizens because they happen to share a heritage with the enemy, why did we not imprison German or Italian citizens?

Mako talks about how the words we use to discuss this era perpetuate the myths of luxury, protection, and necessity. When we say “evacuation” or “relocation,” it sounds like we are moving a population out of danger. Those are words we say when hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes occur. When we say terms like “relocation camp,” it covers up the reality and seriousness of what the camps were. Relocation sounds like something temporary, like maybe they detained the American Japanese for a month or so and interviewed them a few times, then relocated them to a safe house once they were deemed non-threatening. These terms are euphemisms, and we need to discard them and name it what it is.

Another euphemism was the wartime habit of calling the American Japanese citizens “non-aliens.” A non-alien is a citizen. It’s that simple. Calling the American Japanese citizens “non-aliens” was recognizing their citizenship and right to constitutional protection while simultaneously “othering” them and shrugging off their rights. An example of this is how curfews in Seattle during WWII were explained. The curfews were allegedly protection from “German nationals, Italian nationals, and Japanese nationals and descendents.”

Another euphemism was the name for the temporary camp at the Puyallup Fairgrounds. The government named it Camp Harmony. It sounds nice, like a kid’s summer camp or something. Sounds friends and nice, not like a camp where the unwilling inhabitants had to sleep in animal stalls, where the shacks lacked heat and running water, where gun-laden soldiers patrolled barb-wire spiked walls.

Mako begins describing the long process of getting the Japanese American Citizens League to agree to a proposal to remove certain terms from being used to describe their history. The goal of this proposal is basically to start by having the JACL recognize the proposal’s validity. From there, the plan is to push to get the accurate/ historically correct terms used in schools, museums, film, and literature.

When they submitted the proposal, the biggest resistance was on the disagreement of what terms to replace the old terms. JACL could all agree on what terms needed to be replaced, but it was harder to agree on the terms that should replace them. Many felt that the term “concentration camp,” should be reserved for the Jewish torture/ death/ extermination camps, and is a term reserved for the Jewish experience. There will be opposition to this term if they try to move forward with the proposal. Other terms suggested:

  • Internment Camps: This is a problematic/ euphemistic term because internment in a time of war is when citizens who are at war with a country are interning citizens of the country they are at war with. The American Japanese were citizens of America, not Japan. America was interning American citizens who shared a heritage of the country America was currently at war with, not actual citizens of that country.
  • Japanese War Relocation Authority Camps: another euphemistic term that side steps around the truth. There were actually two types of camps for those of Japanese heritage living in America during WWII. One was the “Japanese War Relocation Authority Camps” aka “Relocation Camps” aka “Internment Camps.” These camps were managed by Executive Order 9066 and abided by the decisions/ orders of the US Secretary of War. The other type of camps were managed by the Dept. of Justice, and abided by the Geneva Convention.

In the first type of camp, American citizens of Japanese heritage were detained by the American government on spurious and unconstitutional grounds.

In the second camp, Japanese citizens were detained by the American government — also on spurious and, in my opinion, unconstitutional grounds — but the detainment of Japanese nationals who happened to be in America is a detainment that has historical and legal precedent.

Mako then outlines the history of the term “concentration camp,” which (she points out) was in use before WWII and the Jewish Concentration Camps. She also points out that through the war, the American Concentration Camps detaining the American Japanese citizens were referred to as Concentration Camps by government officials up through the chain of command and including President Roosevelt.

Since WWII, the term “concentration camp” has been ingrained as a term that invokes the Holocaust and the Jewish experience. Because the JACL tends to shy away from confrontation and fears offending others, and because the Japanese experience at the hands of their government does not compare to the Jewish experience with the Holocaust, the Japanese people often feel as though they are complaining about a toothache in comparison to a tragedy. At the same time, the American camps were concentration camps, according to the usage of the term pre-WWII and even post WWII. We refer to such camps when discovered in war torn or dictatorial countries today as concentration camps. Concentration camps are the illegal internment and detainment by a government of its own citizens; the citizens said government is supposed to protect. Even so, because of the history and the post-war usage of the term, it is still a very touchy term and many people object to the JACL’s proposed shift to “American Concentration Camps” in lieu of “Japanese Internment Camps.”

[Personal Note: Again with power of words — saying American Concentration Camps makes it an American thing; a thing America did and must own and acknowledge. Saying Japanese Internment Camp makes it a Japanese thing, a thing that very sadly and unfortunately happened to Japanese people. It becomes a discussion not about the American complicity and silence in this travesty of justice, but solely about the Japanese suffering with almost no acknowledgment or acceptance of who fucking caused that suffering and all the citizens who just stood around and let it happen.]

Mako explains that JACL is mostly aimed at changing the language of history in educational institutions, government, media, etc. etc. They are about pointing out the euphemisms; explaining the problems with them; using and encouraging the use of accurate terminology; and erasing the misinformation that’s out there.

Pertinent Quotes:

“What we don’t learn from history, we are bound to repeat,” — George Orwell

“What we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history.” — George Shaw

What happened on American soil during WWII is a scary and horrific thing. The fact that it happened once means it can happen again. We need to learn from this history. This can never happen again. We need to speak up, all of us — American Japanese citizens and their white and non-white allies — and share these stories to prevent this miscarriage of justice from ever occurring again.

We need to change the language, strip the euphemisms, and name this history for what it is. We need to do this if we have any hope of preventing a repeat. After 9/11, American Arabs began to experience a similar experience of being othered and feared by their fellow citizens. The hatred and fear leveled at American Arabs echoed the hatred and fear directed at American Japanese a few decades ago. If we do not stop this hatred in its tracks, if we do not name it and reveal where it can lead, then we risk the same fate for others.

Introduce two films. One is 10 minutes long, one is 3 minutes long. The 10-minute one was a newsreel released by the War Activities Committee explaining the detainment and internment of American citizens. It utilizes euphemistic and misleading language to the max. The second film is 3 minutes long, and is direct, grotesque, and racist as hell. They’re both as racist as hell. Be prepared.

Newsreel (10 min)

Title Screen: Distributed and Exhibited Under the Auspices of the War Activities Committee of the Motion Picture Industry.

Narrator: Milton Eisenhower, younger brother of Dwight Eisenhower.

Text preview recounting recent events leading up to internment. Narration start. Gist of narration:

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the West Coast became a potential combat zone. Government authorities feared the danger of Japanese citizens and aliens alike, and what they would do if Japan invaded the West Coast. The Government was not happy about having to do this, but felt it necessary. Initially, they were most concerned with espionage and sabotage. They thought Japanese fisherman might spy on ships and naval yards; or hotel owners might spy on military bases. Many Japanese lived near oil wells. Eisenhower says that for US protection, the Japanese Americans were told to move.

Narration assures that Japanese Americans were happy and helpful in doing so, that they “cheerfully” helped fill out paperwork and worked with the government as soldiers assisted in the migration. Narration states that Japanese Americans saw this relocation as a civic duty and a way to help in the war effort. Narration states that the US Army guarded and impounded the belonging of Japanese Americans for safekeeping. At one point, the narration refers to the camps as pioneer communities, and draws on the American imagery/ language of settling the west (opportunity, hardship, individualism). Narration praised the Army for providing enough food for everyone.

Both narration and imagery portray the Japanese as happy, busy citizens. Onscreen, they are disembarking from buses and waving at the camera with a big smile; farming land; cleaning houses. The narration gives an account of the Japanese happily adjusting to life in the camps. Says they formed churches and schools and even spent time weaving camouflage nets for the armies use/ benefit. Narration then recounts how Japanese were relocated to permanent camps the Army had built for them — manages to make it sound like a favor — and again invokes the ethos of American Western tradition in the choice of language: The camps were on “raw” and “wild” land that the Japanese Americans would get to “tame and reclaim.”

Narration describes conditions of the camps, casting them in positive terms. Says the guards were “only” on the parameters of the camps; that the Japanese had full run of the inside and internal dynamics. Shows imagery of Japanese men in coveralls with heavy farm tools heading out a gate, and narrates a story of how Japanese Americans were full of American work ethic and how many eagerly undertook the production of rubber and farmland to help in the war effort. Says others were allowed to seek private employment, and these cheerfully went to work on sugar beet fields to help the US with worker shortages. At the end, FDR’s voice narrates over, stating that through their hard work and sacrifice, Japanese Americans will “earn back” their freedoms; an implicit admission that they’d possessed such freedoms to lose.

Post-Film Discussion

Discussed language and imagery of propaganda. Noted how the film had been purposely structured to look like a documentary, but was in fact staged propaganda. The shots were planed; the Japanese told when to smile and where to go. In the discussion, someone mentioned that Japanese laborers earned $12/ month, while doctors and professionals earned $19/month.

[Personal Note: I googled it. During WWII, the median annual income of a white American was $2379, while the median annual income of a non-white American was $1249. For whites, this breaks down to a median of $198.25 a month; for non-whites it is $104.08 a month.]

After WWII ended, the government transported the Japanese to wherever they wanted to go. Some tried to go home, but their property, homes, and businesses were usually gone or in someone else’s hands. Very rarely, the neighbors had protected their homes while they were gone — such instances were not the norm, though. Still, these moments were help and hope when it was most needed, and it gave hope and strength in the face of such bigotry and cruelty.

Newsreel/ Advertisement (3 minutes)

Starts with imagery of American soldiers running over a hill in the thick of battle. Then shows pictures of iconic American cities, asking if war could happen here, here, and here. Flashes to an image of a gun, and states that, “Every gun kills a Jap,” flashing to an image of a Japanese corpse killed in battle as the sentence ends. Repeats this motif with a few other weapons, each time reiterating that, “Every [weapon] kills a Jap.”. Urges viewers to get a job that will help the war effort by making munitions.

Post-Film Discussion

Brief class discussion about how crazy racist the film is. I think we’re all stunned. It’s pretty Starship Trooper-y; hard to wrap our heads around the reality that people took this kind of thing seriously and never batted an eye.


Mako then talks a little about the long journey of getting their language-changing proposal approved by the JACL and the issues they ran into. The proposal was approved at the district level, but not voted on (neither approved or rejected) at the national level because it was thought a similarly-worded resolution had already been passed. Research failed to turn up the alleged passed version of the resolution, so the National Board decided to vote again and it was passed unanimously.

The next step was to get it passed by the council, but it was tabled instead. Fear of offending the Jewish Americans. The council offered a compromise: They’ll pass it, but only if the term American Concentration Camp is dropped. They are unwilling to drop the term. The resolution is tabled for a year so they can talk with the Jewish Americans about the term.

Ultimately, the proposed compromise had the resolution changing a “would” to a “should” and said to propose two alternative terms that could be used in addition to “American Concentration Camp.”

The resolution passed with 82 votes, but implementation of it has been slow. There have been many stalls and delays along the way. At one point, an exhibit about the Japanese incarceration was scheduled to be shown at Ellis Island. Jewish Americans got word that the title of the exhibit would be American Concentration Camps. They objected, and a debate grew around the issue. Ellis Island said if they couldn’t settle down, they would just close the exhibit without opening it at all. A senator came to the defense of the JACL, and facilitated a roundtable discussion between the Jewish Americans and JACL. Together, they agreed on a common definition of concentration camps:

A concentration camp is where people are imprisoned

not because of crimes they have committed,

 but for who they are.

They also agreed that in recent years, concentration camps have existed in the Soviet Union, Cambodia, and North Korea. Despite several differences, they all had one thing in common: A powerful majority removed a discriminated minority from the population and imprisoned them.

Despite the discussion/ agreement, a Jewish leader in the community wrote a letter asking the JACL not to pass the (already passed) resolution. In response, JACL included a copy of the letter in their JACL conference handouts that year. Action facilitates more discussion. This is an ongoing issue, and we need to add our voices to support this resolution and implement change in our educational systems to encourage the use of accurate and correct terminology.

An attendee brings up that the term “concentration camp” is itself considered by many Jews to be a euphemism for what were in fact death/ extermination camps. Another attendee says she appreciates the discussion and context of European concentration camps. She feels it is too bad there is controversy regarding the Jewish and Japanese dialog on this issue. She also point out that the European death camps were not just for Jews, but that the Queer, Gypsy, Disabled, and Atheist communities were impacted as well. Their stories and voices are often silenced by the dominant narrative of Jewish extermination. Her point is noted, but neither classmates nor presenters really expand or provide their own commentary on her apparent view that Jews are hogging the narrative. Then we sang a round of Bing Crosby’s Don’t Fence Me In and closed the meeting.


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