Friday, April 11, 2008

Japanese American Internment/Incarceration/Concentration Camps--which one is it?

Yesterday I went to a talk given by a visiting scholar, lets call him Professor "X," on a portion of his latest research about the Japanese American internment. There were about a dozen people who gathered for his talk, including one I'll call Older American Historian (OAH), who declared at the onset of the talk that he would probably disagree with Professor X since OAH was writing an essay called "The Myth of Japanese American Concentration Camps."

You see, Professor X had dared to include the phrase "Japanese American Concentration Camp" without the scare quotes around the term concentration camp.

Let me pause here by saying that there is an on-going and long-standing debate about whether to refer to the period of WWII in which Japanese and Japanese Americans were racially targeted, detained, relocated, and held in camps throughout the Western and Southern portions of the U.S. as either Japanese American Internment, Japanese American Incarceration, or Japanese American Concentration. Usually this gets even thornier when talking about the actual locations--as in, were these internment camps, detainment centers, relocation centers, incarceration camps, or concentration camps?

Most scholars throw out detainment and relocation. It doesn't get to the magnitude of this mass removal and racialized dimension of what happened. Internment has become the default term, it seems, although many, particularly those who experienced this period, believe this term is too neutral and too inaccurate to describe the inherent racism of this period and the devastating legacy of this period. Incarceration gives more of a feel to the ways in which Japanese American citizens were imprisoned against their will, although I have read some scholarship that believes that incarceration is inaccurate, as well, since Japanese Americans were not truly prisoners, although Densho: The Japanese American legacy project, prefers this term. That leaves us with concentration camps, which is actually the language used by FDR and the other architects of Executive Order 9066 to describe the ten different centers used to house Japanese Americans during WWII.

So here's the thing: when you hear the word "concentration camp" what immediately comes to mind? The Holocaust? Nazi genocide of Jewish people in Europe? You bet. It's the reason I've usually avoided the term in my own writing on the Japanese American internment.

But I have to say, after the exchange between OAH and Professor X, I'm ready to jump on board the Japanese American Concentration Camp bandwagon, because Professor X made a very intelligent, reasoned, and astute argument for why we should understand the camps as concentration camps and why we should use accurate terms to describe particular historic situations. And OAH came across as a cranky, slightly crazy, and most of all incredibly PRIVILEGED white male academic. And those guys drive me NUTS.

You see, right after Professor X finished his talk, OAH immediately launched into a series of questions (because, as he declared to everyone, HE had to leave EARLY). The first one was asking Professor X to compare Japanese American concentration camps to German concentration camps. You know, the ones used to exterminate over 6 million people of Jewish descent.

AGHHHHH!!!! I HATE this question. It's one that appeared in the early stages of Japanese American internment scholarship. Particularly among people who wanted to discredit the legitimate claims of redress and reparations of Japanese American survivors of internment/incarceration. Professor X was very deft at handling OAH's question--he began by saying that it was futile to compare the two, because German concentration camps were actually death camps, and even the ones that were "labor" camps were designed with the Final Solution in mind (ie: Jewish Holocaust/genocide). And then Professor X went through the history of the phrase concentration camp--a phrase that predates WWII by about 50 years (first usage was in the late 19th C. with respect to South Africa and Cuba). Concentration camps, in Professor X's belief, are accurate because they were designed with the purpose of involuntarily concentrating the majority of an ethnic group into one location--for detainment of an indeterminate length. And that's what the U.S. government did to 120,000 Japanese American people--they were targeted, relocated (twice), and detained in camps solely based on their ethnic identity--their visible ethnic and racial difference from white America. No charges of espionage were every discovered among Japanese or Japanese Americans. And as Ex Parte Endo proves, the Japanese American interment was an unconstitutional act that the U.S. government had no business in perpetuating.

But perhaps my desire to jump on the concentration camp terminology bandwagon has as much to do with my antipathy towards OAH as it does with my admiration of Professor X's scholarship. Because the kind of strange refutations that OAH kept making--focusing on the fact that mass numbers of Japanese Americans didn't DIE as a result of being in these camps and that the quality of life for Japanese Americans in the U.S. was demonstrably better than their German/Jewish counterparts. Well... DUH! The U.S. did many dishonorable things to people of Japanese ancestry--but they did not implement a system of genocide against them. The only reason to bring up this false comparison is to discredit the very legitimate hardships faced by Japanese Americans and to discredit the very real racism used by the U.S. government to disenfranchise an entire group of people based on nothing more than irrational and unsupported ethnic bias.

Older white male academic leaves a rather bad taste in one's mouth.

[Addition--July 17, 2008: If you found your way here because you are looking for more information about this period in history and/or connections with current abuses of civil rights, click here for my July 17, 2008 post]


Lesboprof said...


I really enjoyed this post. I have taught history in my discipline for years, and I have always been shocked that so few of my students had ever actually heard of the Japanese internment. What I like about the phrase "concentration camps," is that it does arouse such emotions (especially guilt and disgust) on the part of white Americans. Internment seems like a good name for the overall process, but then I like to describe it as "the internment of Japanese Americans into American concentration camps."

As a Jew and a white person, it seems like the right term to me.

atlasien said...

I'm amazed at the energy that these hate-twisted people spend trying to deny historical facts.

The camps were concentration camps. "Internment" is often too pretty a word.

The Holocaust is a uniquely horrifying historical event. But concentration camps are not unique, as Professor X surely explained.

The denialist used a common deflecting tactic. "At least the U.S. government wasn't as bad as the Nazis!" Yep, they somehow managed to clear the absolute lowest possible ethical bar... and that's supposed to prove something? Grr....

Jennifer said...

I'm with you on being surprised at how little people know about the Internment--and what little they do know is often inaccurate. I remember being at Manzanar at a local museum in Bishop (the nearest town next to the site--this was before the National parks service got it together to actually have a visitor's center and educational material for people). Anyway, there was this small exhibit and there were 2 white women who were clucking over how awful it was, but the one said to the other, "Well, but the same thing happened to German and Italians on the East Coast so it's not really that big a deal" (I think it was in response to a placard about the redress & reparations. I intervened, at that point and explained that while German and Italian nationals, all men, were detained, briefly, in enemy alien centers, there was no comparable mass removal of people based on ethnicity or race as had happened to the Japanese Americans. The women were quite nice and thanked me--maybe they just were taken aback at my brazenness for interrupting their conversation, but I hope, and think, they were just really fine with having facts straightened out.

And Atlasien,
Yes, I know it is quite shocking the lengths people will go to, to justify certain things. I don't know exactly what the motivation was for OAH to challenge, so vehemently, Professor X--and when another Professor, also a scholar of the Internment, intervened and offered additional information, OAH snapped at him and said, "Yes, I'm aware of that incident!"--I mean, "C'MON!" This is a COLLEAGUE of yours--you don't SNAP at him in front of other people when you are making an ASS out of yourself!!!


I'm actually surprisingly happy that the crazy internet denialist hasn't tried to post--have you come across him? He lurks and then pounces on blog sites that try to talk about the Japanese American internment and INSISTS that it was all a matter of MAGIC cables and justified suspicion and not racist at all--he's a Malkin supporter 100% and at Reappropriate he spammed Jenn with all these weird stats and facts and just wouldn't listen to anyone. I often wonder what his agenda is, and all I can think of is that he's a binary thinker who can't realize that the most patriotic thing you can do is to let call the U.S. on the BS that they have done in the past (and present--I mean, the parallels to post-9/11 for Muslim and Arab Americans are too ripe, yes?)

OK, off the soapbox now!

baby221 said...

This is the kind of thing that makes me throw up my hands and say "I hate white people" in a despairing kind of voice, which then subsequently makes it more difficult to get along with all the white people in my life who think I'm talking about them. You're so vain ... I bet you think this song is about you...

I've always called them concentration camps, myself, because it seemed the most grammatically correct. The gov't put them there to concentrate them in one location.

Cipher said...

Hi Jen,

I love you babe!

Love this post; Professor X is a smart guy; oppression olympics causes me ennui in most cases, but his answer was spot on.

The problem is that the term "concentration camps" doesn't serve to function as an appropriate signifier for what happened in relation the Final Solution. Even "death camps" don't quite do it justice because that rather seems sterilized.

I appreciate your candor as per always.

Jennifer said...

Baby221--your reasons for using "concentration camp" are pretty much what Professor X said--the primary goal of the govt was to CONCENTRATE Japanese Americans in one location. Interesting factoid: construction at Manazar began before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. What its intended use was for can be speculated--although if you watch OLD MAN RIVER (Cynthia Fujikawa's filmed performance piece) she will intimate that the US government always had the idea of concentration camps for Japanese people given the heightened tensions with Japan in this period.

Cipher--thanks for the props--and I agree, none of these terms ever speaks to the grim and gruesome reality of these places. Camps of despair and seemingly unending torture and horror? A bit of a mouthful--and really, I forget which smart-pants philospher talked about the impossibility of poetry post-Holocaust (was it Barthes?)--because how can any language be sufficient to convey that experience?

Swayyde said...

My family was living in Cali at the time, had a farm, had a life and lost everything. My great grandfather & grandparents spent four years in the concentration camps, and the only reason it wasn't longer was because the government had no proof that the farm actually belonged to family.
The loss wasn't only material, but culturally as well. We were stripped of it literally. No practice of Japanese faith/religion, no speaking of the japanese language, my aunts and uncles all have white names... Frances May, Fred, Rod...?!? good lord!! Not to say that I don't love mixture, as I am mixed, as are absolutely ALL of my cousins (we're 4th generation japanese in the states, and the 5th generation is likewise... It just strikes me as funny that all the 3rd generation (mom, aunts, uncles) ALL married and had children outside of their race.
One story always struck me; my mom wanted to learn french, so she taught it to herself by reading the dictionary, and one night my grandmother caught her. She was promptly scolded and told "traveling is only for white people". Yet, my grandmother did everything she could to raise "white" children. Sushi and Ham for christmas. The food was the only thing that survived the camps. She became a catholic and raised her family as catholics...
They were concentration camps, they didn't kill per say (and even that's debatable), but they definitely killed the God-given pride and culture of my family.
Internment camps, almost makes it sound like it was some kind of transitional thing to which the japanese people consented...which is far from the reality.
Concentrate means exactly what it means.
You don't call dogs "cats"... know what I mean?

Evan Carden said...

I'm going to have to disagree with you here. Yes, concentration camps should mean, historically and linguistically, camps which 'merely' concentrate people. However, just like anti-semitism should linguistically mean being racist against Semites (IE Semitic peoples) it instead means anti-Jewish. Concentration camps are inextricably linked with the Holocaust.

I had a similiar debate all through my eugenics class. Some things can't get away from one defining (literally) event. Calling them concentration camps, while factually accurate is emotionally misleading.

Just my two cents.

However, that's on the broader issue. In academic settings, the goal is obviously maximum accuracy, for which concentration camps is the correct term...

So, yeah, I'm going to stop now before I confuse myself anymore.

Jennifer said...

Thanks for your two cents. I don't disagree that the word "concentration camp" has become inextricably linked to the Holocaust. I think that's why many, scholars and non-scholars, are careful when using that phrase.

But I think your last point is also true--academics like to be as accurate as possible. And the setting in which this scene occurred was a seminar meeting room on a university campus, so entirely apropos to use it and have a larger discussion about it (which I think is also the point of academia--to have larger discussions about things, especially about the use of contested terms and controversial subjects).

However, I do think that because "concentration camp" has so much emotional meaning we should not forget, as Swayyde's comments remind us, that there were around 119,000 people who were put into concentration camps in the U.S. and for them, it was a concentration camp experience--not parallel to the Holocaust--and that's not what those who use the term in Japanese American incarceration scholarship mean--but it doesn't take away from the fact that it was a very painful experience with generational implications for a large swathe of Americans (who happen to be of Japanese ancestry).

Thanks for leaving a comment--look forward to future ones.

Duke said...

I found your post quite enlightening. I am currently doing a research paper surrounding the Japanese American discrimination, and I was planning on linking it to the Anti-Semitic attitudes in Germany. If Nazi Germany wasn't so help bent on extermination, I could have seen them doing exactly what America did. So I agree using the term concentration camp, but since interment camps have been used for so long, the best way to show your stand is to state that they were interned in concentration camps. I also agree with not calling Nazi Germany's camps concentration camps but instead death camps.