More From Okazaki On Use of “Concentration Camp;” Refutes Rafu Shimpo Columnist George Yoshinaga

On September 8, 2010, Rafu Shimpo columnist George Yoshinaga once again railed against the use of concentration camp to describe the camps that Americans of Japanese ancestry and their immigrant parents were imprisoned in during World War II.

In Yoshinaga’s column, “Horse’s Mouth: Raku, A Japanese Restaurant” (Yoshinaga’s comments were also included in a separate column, “Horse’s Mouth: The Richest Countries In The World,” September 14, 2010), he claimed that the ten camps were not concentration camps because, “those who wanted to leave camp had no problem, contrary to her statements.”

Joyce Okazaki (second from right) during a meeting with
Manzanar National Historic Site staff, April 26, 2009.
Photo: Gann Matsuda

Yoshinaga went on to describe his exploits outside the barbed wire, more than implying that he and all other Japanese Americans at the Heart Mountain camp had complete freedom and could come and go as they pleased.

While many did indeed leave camp for work, approval from camp administration was required, and Yoshinaga’s case was no exception. But on an even more rudimentary level, if such freedoms existed at Heart Mountain, why was Yoshinaga, along with thousands of others, sent to a desolate region of Wyoming to live behind barbed wire, under armed supervision and with watch towers armed with machine guns? What was the point of that if those living there had complete freedom and could leave camp on a whim?

Obviously, they did not have such freedoms, and Manzanar Committee member Joyce Okazaki has, once again, responded to Yoshinaga’s faulty memories of his camp experience, pointing out the fallacy of his claim that concentration camp is not an appropriate term to be used to describe these camps.


Contrary to what George Yoshinaga claims in his September 8, 2010 column, no inmate was able to leave Manzanar as they pleased during World War II. The same applied to Tule Lake and the eight other camps. Prior approval had to be given by the camp administration for any leave.

The ten camps were surrounded by barbed wire fences and guard towers, manned with armed sentries. Manzanar and Tule Lake were within the restricted Military Zone, where stricter policies were enforced. This loss of freedom is documented in a number of videos and books about the incarceration, including the documentary, Conscience and the Constitution, and in Michi Weglyn’s book, Years of Infamy, the Untold Story of America’s Concentration Camps.

After December 1944, inmates were able to leave camp with the minimum of restrictions, due to the United States Supreme Court decision.

According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the term “concentration camp” refers to 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.

There should be no question that this loss of freedom clearly fell within this definition. Karen Ishizuka, former Senior Curator at the Japanese American National Museum, made clear that, “…[we] need to call them what they were. They were concentration camps.”

The term, “concentration camp” replaces euphemistic terms, such as “relocation” or “internment,” which were used to cover-up the truth by officials of the U.S. Government, not to mention some historians at that time. In the mid-1970’s, Japanese American authors Michi Weglyn and Sue Kunitomi Embrey knew that those words were euphemistic and the true descriptive term was “concentration camp.” Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga is a champion for correct terminology and her views were printed in the Rafu Shimpo’s Vox Populi column on September 9, 2010.

Japanese Americans were forced to leave their homes, businesses, jobs and colleges, incurring huge monetary losses, and move to a future that was unknown and in question. They arrived at these primitively set up camps with tar paper barracks in desert areas with the accompanying heat and windstorms, put into one room of a barrack with eight people to a room.

Metal cots with mattresses filled with straw were for sleeping and there was no running water or toilet facilities in the room. One had to line up and eat in the mess hall three times a day, go to the latrine in a separate building for showers and toilets. Depending on where one lived, sometimes families split up into different camps. There was the constant threat of being killed by guards for not following orders, protesting harsh treatment, and getting too close to the barbed wire fence. At Tule Lake, inmates were beaten and thrown into the stockade for minor infractions.

The government’s intent was to put Americans of Japanese descent into concentration camps. Only a week after Pearl Harbor, Congressman John Rankin starkly proclaimed, “I’m for catching every Japanese in America, Alaska and Hawaii now and putting them in concentration camps and shipping them back to Asia as soon as possible.”

As we place this experience into historical context, it is important to accurately describe this chapter in American History. Although Executive Order 9066 was justified as a “military necessity” to protect against domestic espionage and sabotage, it was later shown that no Japanese American had engaged in espionage or sabotage. Instead, this concentration of Japanese Americans was motivated, according to the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership. This information was discovered by Herzig-Yoshinaga, as a Library of Congress Archive researcher for the Commission.

Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, along with Cabinet officers and members of the U.S. Supreme Court, all referred to the camps as “concentration camps.” Justice Tom Clark, who regretted at his retirement in 1966, “We picked them up and put them in concentration camps.” Roosevelt’s Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes described the Japanese American wartime experience this way: “Crowded into cars like cattle, these hapless people were hurried away to hastily constructed and thoroughly inadequate concentration camps, with soldiers with nervous muskets on guard, in the great American desert. We gave the fancy name of ‘relocation centers’ to these dust bowls, but they were concentration camps nonetheless.”

President Roosevelt, after re-election in 1944, stated in an interview, “…it is felt by a great many lawyers that under the Constitution they can’t be kept locked up in concentration camps,” referring to the Japanese American citizens (Weglyn: Years of Infamy).

The California State Historic Landmark plaque at Manzanar states, in part, “Manzanar, the first of ten such concentration camps, was bounded by barbed wire and guard towers, confining 10,000 persons, the majority being American citizens.”

Appropriately, the Japanese American National Museum’s exhibit, “Common Ground,” uses the words, “concentration camp,” in all of the captions and text.

Roger Daniels, Charles Phelps Taft Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Cincinnati, has emphatically stated, “As we are in the seventh decade after…Executive Order 9066, it is high time that scholars begin to call things by their right names. Let us hear no more about “internment of the Japanese Americans.”

There is going to be a panel discussion at the Japanese American National Museum on September 24, to discuss euphemistic language with Herzig-Yoshinaga, and Mako Nakagawa, retired educator from Seattle, who authored the recent Japanese American Citizens League-adopted “Power of Words” rule, “to expunge euphemisms and support the use of accurate terminology regarding the incarceration of Nikkei people into American concentration camps during World War II.”


The views expressed in this story are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the Manzanar Committee.

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