Jessica Williams is a writer based in Los Angeles, CA.
Near the start of the Second World War, in 1939, the United States government established internment camps for foreign nationals from Germany, Italy, and Japan living within its borders. These camps were in accordance with international guidelines for dealing with enemies in times of war. Within hours of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7,1941, the U.S. government set to restricting the rights of Japanese Americans, authorizing FBI arrests of Japanese American individuals without reason. Due to wartime hysteria–as well as ongoing fear of the Other–in April 1942, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which instructed persons of Japanese ancestry to be “evacuated” to temporary housing for an unnamed period of time. Before the end of World War II, approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans had been incarcerated in concentration camps for as long as four years.
The words we use to talk about the treatment of humans around the world during World War II are imprecise. We describe what the Nazis built as “concentration camps” and what the U.S. government built as “internment camps.” Yet, both words have specific definitions that do not align with the ways these words are currently used.
The Geneva Convention provides specific parameters for the legal internment of prisoners of war and foreign nationals, allowing the government in question to “impose on them the obligation of not leaving, beyond certain limits, the camps where they are interned, or if the said camp is fenced in, of not going outside its perimeter.” The US Holocaust Memorial Museum, however, defines a concentration camp–which has existed since at least the Boer War (1899-1902)–as “a camp in which people are detained or confined, usually under harsh conditions and without regard to legal norms of arrest and imprisonment that are acceptable in a constitutional democracy.” As Nazi camps exceeded these definitions and limitations, more precise terminology for those camps would be extermination or death camps. By extension, American camps, in which Japanese Americans were for years detained in austere, prison-like conditions for no crime beyond heritage–a sentence that, while unjust, would only be officially ruled unconstitutional in 2018–would more rightfully be termed concentration camps. Neither camp was fit for human inhabitants. Both grew out of distrust of the Other.
Because history is written by the victors, American concentration camps have come to be referred to as Japanese internment camps. This terminology both distances America from any sense of ownership of this shameful and legally-supported form of racism and decreases the severity of the living conditions within the camps, presenting them instead as something humane and tolerable. Society has reimagined the past, sanitizing it to be more palatable in order to better fit into the prescribed narrative that defines America as “one nation […] indivisible.” Despite the fact that Roosevelt himself described the camps with the word “concentration,” the majority of America continues to speak of American concentration camps as Japanese internment camps, refusing to acknowledge the thousands of lives irreversibly altered, the identities shattered, and the communities broken.
The truth of American concentration camps is often conveniently excised from or glossed over in American history as it is told today, relieving Americans of the work required to come to terms with serious questions of national identity and culpability. Any account of American history that does not deeply examine this morally (and legally) unjustifiable violation of constitutional rights refuses to admit grave errors in judgment and violations of rights. Moreover, this removal diminishes the experience of the unconstitutional incarceration. When the telling is left to history textbooks, the government’s actions are left out or distanced so as to remove ownership. This selective construction of the past, which reimagines American concentration camps as mild inconveniences for Japanese Americans, bolsters the image of a free America at the expense of survivors.
History textbooks, where many first learn about and form impressions of WWII, generally subtly reference the discrimination and violation faced by American minorities, including Japanese Americans. For example, the 2007 edition of McDougal Littell’s The Americans: Reconstruction to the 21st Century is silent on the subject of American concentration camps, instead vaguely referencing many minority groups being “[r]estricted to racially segregated neighborhoods and reservations and denied basic citizenship rights.” In this version of American history, the treatment of minorities during WWII and indeed all government-sanctioned forms of prejudice are passive or wholly erased. Other texts do more to describe the experience but still obfuscate the overall effect of concentration camps on Japanese Americans. In McGraw Hill Education’s most recent edition of their high school textbook United States History and Geography: Modern Times, the book uses 1940s government terminology, referring twice to Japanese “relocation” and including a subsection entitled “Japanese, German, and Italian Relocation,” thus conflating and equalizing these groups’ treatments. Once again, the internment and concentration camp experiences are confused, with inaccurate terminology perpetuating misinformed historical interpretations. The text mentions neither the government study produced at the time which showed that Japanese Americans were loyal to the U.S., nor does it mention that no evidence of espionage was ever found. While this textbook does at least include the camps, its presentation addresses neither the psychological toll of such experiences nor the wrongdoing of the United States. Worse, the text muddles the message, asserting the opinion that the incarceration was justified when it concludes that Roosevelt “must have felt justified [when he signed E.O. 9066] four days later when a Japanese submarine surfaced north of Santa Barbara, California, and shelled an oil refinery.”
Not all textbooks that address American concentration camps do so in such a troubling way. OpenStax textbook U.S. History takes care to go into the discrimination faced by Asian Americans leading up to the war as well as the living conditions in the camps: “Those who were sent to the camps reported that the experience was deeply traumatic. Families were sometimes separated . . . and had to abandon the rest of their possessions. The camps themselves were dismal and overcrowded.” Yet despite this inclusion, the language falls short. In their continued use of the word “internment,” U.S. History perpetuates conventional, superficial reprogramming of this American memory and reinforces inaccurate terminology that lessens the lived experience of incarcerated Japanese Americans. By refusing to use the language with which Japanese Americans describe their experience–as well as denotatively accurate definitions–these texts erase the memory of the trauma that the U.S. government inflicted upon its citizens and suggest that they do not remember correctly. In this sense, the white winners of WWII have had the opportunity to use the instruments of memory, especially language, to color our understanding of the Japanese American experience during WWII.
In “Troubling the Boundary between Psychology and Anthropology: Jerome Bruner and His Inspiration,” James V. Wertsch, David R. Francis, Professor of Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, states that memory is “viewed as distributed: (1) socially in small group interaction, as well as (2) ‘instrumentally’ in the sense that it involve[s] both people and instruments of memory.” At present, America generally relies on textbooks to understand historical events. As seen, when used as instruments of memory, these fall short. In order to correctly remember what has happened to real people, the narratives we tell must include those of the affected. There is no dearth of recorded memories from Japanese Americans describing their concentration camps experiences: And Justice for All: An Oral History of the Japanese American Detention Camps collected testimonies from 30 survivors alone. In it, Eddie Sakamoto, incarcerated at Manzanar, describes feeling “like a prisoner […] And anybody try to go out, not escaping, but try to go out, they shoot you, without giving any warning.” The living conditions did not help that prison-punishment mentality. William Hosokawa describes the living conditions at the Wartime Civil Control Administration camp as “chicken coops, a long row of them […] There were no ceilings, so that if a baby cried 150 feet down on the other end of this long line of cubicles, the crying could be heard throughout the entire building. Of course, there was no running water, so that for water, you had to go to the central washroom.”
And yet, even in their own retellings of such harsh experiences of imprisonment across camps, survivors have also used ambiguous language or outright silence on the subject when passing this legacy onto the next generation–some Sansei (a term of pride used to describe second-generation Japanese Americans) believed that the camps to which their older relatives were referring to were “some kind of summer vacation that their parents used to go on.” Survivors may opt to downplay the trauma of their experience, choosing to shield descendants from the harsh realities of life in white America, allowing reverence for their country to outweigh their desire to speak against these rights violations. When survivors refuse to speak truth, they leave the telling of their stories to others, denying witnesses honest testimony and themselves catharsis. When survivors choose silence, they give oppressors permission to do the same. By refusing to speak up, the work of truth-telling is passed on–and so the truth becomes twisted. What then is the significance of this? If they don’t speak out about it, whose job is it to properly record their history so as not to repeat it?
David Livingstone Smith, author of Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others, has posited that “Americans tend to have a rather deformed picture of their own history. And so we’re not so acquainted like the Germans are with the atrocities that […] white America has committed. If you’re aware of those things, then it might give you pause.” Modern Germany lives with the pall of Nazism hovering; its people continually atoning and attempting to put distance between the country and the horrors committed. Yet, we do not do the same for our American transgressions. Whereas Berlin has not a Memorial to the Holocaust, but the “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe,” the U.S. capital, Washington, D.C., hosts a “Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism During World War II.” This vague title glosses over the trauma inflicted upon the Japanese American community and does little to fully acknowledge the severity of Japanese American concentration camps.
In order to come to terms with the past, the objective truth of trauma and history must be reckoned with. The social and cultural challenge is to see history within its context but without comparison and to learn from our history. By acknowledging that American concentration camps were created to incarcerate people of Japanese descent–62% of whom were American citizens–during World War II, the hypocrisy of the U.S. comes to the fore. It is only by opening up and tending to these wounds, by being honest in our recordings of American history, including admitting transgressions committed, that a nation can begin to apologize and, eventually, heal. Our failure to acknowledge complicitness in creating a hostile environment for innocent Americans affects community relationships both historically and today, and dooms us to repeat similar morally indecent behaviors.
The Trump administration is undermining the meaning of words to great effect, as Addison Anthony’s article on “fake news” illustrates. The administration has used the rapid pace of media spread to its advantage, planting catchphrases as needed to mollify critics. Currently, camps at the border–which were immediately compared to American concentration camps–have been called “tender age shelters,” intended to house detained babies and children. To call these “shelters” suggests that the government and its agents are acting in the best interests of the children, when they are in fact inflicting negative emotional and physical changes on these children victims. It is a bizarre term that brings to the fore the very trauma being perpetrated while trying to assuage feelings of shame. Many have already decried the use and name of “tender age shelters,” which should be more accurately named “detention centers.” Yet, the government that enacted the zero-tolerance policy that led to their creating has shown no remorse.
It took 74 years for the Supreme Court to overturn Korematsu vs. United States, the Supreme Court Case that essentially legitimized racism as enacted during WWII to incarcerate Japanese Americans in concentration camps. Structures of power have not changed enough between 1941 and today for the fear of history repeating itself to ever be too far from our minds can ever be too far. Any social or political movement illustrates the value of underrepresented voices challenging prescribed narratives. Words can be used to build up or tear down. But the importance of voices does not stem solely from volume; it also comes from precise, carefully chosen language. Validation must come from both without and within. To speak truth to power, the truth must first be known. Speaking up is just half of the battle. Being heard correctly is how to win the war.