Manzanar is an
apple tree though none grew
in this arid place
As mentioned in my post about Snow Falling on Cedars, many Japanese-Americans were sent to what were called war relocation centers from 1942-1945. I must add as an edit, that many should be most in that some were arrested out of fear they might be spies or worse (as Hatsue`s father in Snow Falling on Cedars was because he happened to have dynamite for loosening tree stumps) and kept in a separate place. The rest were sent to these war relocation centres.
Many people tend to call these war relocation centers `concentration camps`. This term has long been under debate, even up to only two years ago.
We know concentration camps from history as places where the Nazis sent Jews and other groups, but mainly Jews, to be eventually exterminated. Japanese-Americans were sensitive to the fact that using this term might be an affront to Jewish people who had suffered in concentration camps so, due to the fact an exhibit about the American camps at Ellis Island was about to open in 1998, and people from the AJC and the Parks Service who run Ellis Island objected to the use of `concentration camp` leaders from the Japanese-American and Jewish-American communities met to discuss what term would be best to use. According to an article on the internet, this then led to the AJC (American Jewish Committee) and the Japanese American National Museum issuing a joint statement as follows:
“A concentration camp is a place where people are imprisoned not because of any crimes they have committed, but simply because of who they are.[….] Despite differences, all had one thing in common; the people in power removed a minority group from the general population and the rest of society let it happen”.
However, this came under fire for implying that Jewish people had the monopoly on being persecuted, despite pointing out that not only Jews but other groups (Gypsies, Poles, homosexuals and political dissidents) were sent to concentration camps and that concentration camps have also been set up in other parts of the world, and other peoples have been persecuted throughout history. Therefore, in July 2012, the National Council of the Japanese American Citizens League, ratified the Power of Words handbook, calling for correct terminology that reflected the truth of the situation.
I`ve taken all this from wikipedia by the way but if you google you can find it. It goes on to say:
“According to the Power of Words handbook: “From government documents and propaganda, to public discourse and newspapers, many euphemisms have been used to describe the experiences of Japanese Americans who were forced from their homes and communities during World War II. Words like evacuation, relocation, and assembly centers imply that the United States government was trying to rescue Japanese Americans from a disastrous environment on the West Coast and simply help them move to a new gathering place. These terms strategically mask the fact that thousands of Japanese Americans were denied their right as US citizens and forcibly ordered to live in poorly constructed barracks on sites that were surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers. Although the use of euphemisms was commonplace during World War II, and in many subsequent years, we realize that the continued use of these inaccurate terms is highly problematic”.
So, to think that up to only two years ago, when this handbook was put together and ratified, people were still discussing what these centers should be called is pretty surprising. Interesting that the name of the handbook Power of Words has POW as an acronym as that is effectively what Japanese Americans were during World War II, as the living conditions were very poor and if you tried to escape you were shot on the spot by guards in watch towers. Not quite the near-death (or actual death) situations most POWs ended up in but the threat of death was obviously the main thing in common.
A Japanese-American family saga I watched last year also devoted a large part as you would expect to the relocation centre and to the fact that many Japanese-American young men volunteered while in the relocation centers (there were ten centers altogether) to fight for America (Kazuo also does this in Snow Falling on Cedars) to prove their loyalty and the Japanese-American battalion ended up being the most decorated of all American battalions during World War II. Interesting that they wanted to and were allowed fight for the US, a country they saw as their own, despite the treatment dealt out to them for being of Japanese ancestry. This saga dealt with other big issues that occurred within these relocation centers such as arguments among internees over black marketing of sugar and rice, people collaborating with the authorities and other issues. There were a few things about that drama that grated on my nerves but tv dramas are a bit hard to swallow sometimes.
Earlier this year, I read a book about immigration to America through the gateway known as Ellis Island. The book was called Island of Hope, Island of Tears:The Story of Those who Entered the New World through Ellis Island – in their own words (there is also a documentary called Island of Hope, Island of Tears, I assume based on the book but not necessarily as Ellis Island was generally nicknamed the Island of Tears). Really interesting book. Immigrants from mainly Eastern Europe (escaping mostly from persecution pogroms) were interviewed for their memories of coming through Ellis Island. Ellis Island`s main function was to process immigrants but also it seems to hold people who were suspected of being spies or other unwanted folks during World War II (or earlier), including Germans, Italians and Japanese. Ellis Island was not a war relocation centre (as these ten centers were located in California, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Arkansas) exactly but it must have been used as a camp to detain people of these three ancestral groups during the same period, hence the need by the parties I mention above to be clear on the definition of concentration camp.
The American government have long since apologised to the Japanese-American community as is right. Things like that should never happen but sad things are still happening in the world because of one group of people or another persecuting another and making them live in miserable conditions in restricted spaces, and in some places even under daily threat that their lives will come to an end there and then.