Cast in Bronze: Terminology Symposium in San Francisco, October 22, 2011

By Soji Kashiwagi

The main reason for holding a day-long symposium on terminology and the use of U.S. government euphemisms during World War II was not, according to event organizers, to take on the role of the “word police” and tell members of the Japanese American community what they should or should not say regarding what happened some 69 years ago.

In fact, Mako Nakagawa, the Seattle-based author of the Power of Words Resolution which was passed by the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) National Council in 2010, said that those who lived through the experience “…have earned the right to call it whatever they want.”

Instead, the event’s focus turned toward educating those in public institutions and museums who cast words in bronze that, as Lane Hirabayashi describes, “…are not strictly or historically accurate like ‘internment,’ or ‘relocation,’ on plaques, memorials, exhibits, and installations in Interpretive Learning Centers.”

Barbara Takei, a Sacramento-based researcher/writer and member of the Tule Lake Committee, added that one of the goals of the symposium was to help generate more dialogue within the Japanese American community “…about self-definition and the right and responsibility we have to use language that does not hide or minimize the terrible injustice that was suffered by our families. Future generations will not understand the violation to our civil and human rights if we use language that minimizes and hides the story in language that is euphemistic and incorrect.”

Entitled Cast in Bronze: Terminology and Memory of the Japanese American World War II Incarceration. the symposium was held on Saturday, October 22, 2011, at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, in front of about 100 participants, several of whom traveled to San Francisco from all over the Bay Area, Sacramento, Fresno, Los Angeles, Seattle and New York.

Sponsored by Hirabayashi and the Aratani Endowed Chair, UCLA Asian Americans Studies Center, and the Tule Lake Committee, the event featured a distinguished panel of historians and experts, including Tetsuden Kashima, Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington; Roger Daniels, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Cincinnati, Don Hata, Emeritus Professor of History at California State University, Dominguez Hills, Karen Ishizuka, filmmaker, author and independent researcher, Mako Nakagawa, President, Mako & Associates, Satsuki Ina, psycho-therapist and film producer, and Dave Kruse, Superintendent, Tule Lake National Monument.

The presence of Kruse from the National Parks Service (NPS) was significant because the NPS was one of two groups that were questioned about its continued use of terms like “internment camps,” and its reluctance to use “concentration camps,” the term the majority of the panel agreed was more accurate.

The NPS, which currently manages the historic sites at Manzanar, Minidoka and Tule Lake, has been developing an official version or remembrance of the incarceration story.

“These are the places where the public will learn about how an unpopular minority group was stripped of their rights by the government that was supposed to protect them,” said Takei. “Why would we want them to tell the story using the government’s lying, dissembling language?”

Kruse explained the reasons why the NPS has preferred to use “internment camp” and other U.S. government euphemisms.

One is that the NPS wants to use the actual language used by the U.S. government at the time. To replace the words with something else, it believes, would alter the history. Another reason is that the general public, when visiting the sites, is more accustomed to the word “internment camps.” When NPS staff have used the words “concentration camps” some visitors have either become offended, or cannot comprehend its meaning in the context of the camps. An additional reason is that the NPS wants to avoid controversy, and is looking toward the Japanese American community to come to a consensus on the terminology before it feels comfortable using it.

Another community respondent, Karen Kai, also prefers to use the term “internment camp.”

Panel speaker Tetsuden Kashima explained that “internment camp” is defined as a place where aliens are imprisoned. His Powerpoint presentation illustrated the difference between the internment camps the Department of Justice established to detain Issei community leaders, and the concentration camps that were administered by the War Relocation Authority (WRA). Since the Nisei were American citizens and not aliens, Kashima said “internment camps” does not accurately define the ten WRA camps.

“Whomever controls the vocabulary, controls the narrative,” Kashima added.

Daniels, a long-time authority on camp history and among the earliest proponents of the term “concentration camps” to describe the WRA camps, stated, “Clarity, like liberty, must be won and re-won, from generation to generation.”

He added that getting this right is vitally important to more than just the Japanese American community.

“This is a national question,” he noted. “And we ought to get it right.”

Daniels went on to say that there’s no precedent for President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066.

“There’s no past history,” he said. “There’s nothing like it in American History. FDR never talked about 9066 publicly or privately.”

He also said that during the war, the WRA camps were not called “internment camps.”

“On the West Coast,” he said, “They were called ‘Jap camps.’”

Ishizuka, a former curator at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM), shared her struggle to use the term America’s Concentration Camps in a 1998 JANM exhibit at the NPS site at Ellis Island, New York. Opposition to the term came from the NPS, and members of the New York American Jewish community, some of whom felt that JANM’s use of the term would diminish the horror of the Nazi concentration camps. After tense negotiations, and with Senator Daniel Inouye’s assistance, an agreement was reached and JANM moved forward with the use of the term at Ellis Island.

Together with the American Jewish leaders, they issued a joint statement which Ishizuka shared at the symposium:

A ‘concentration camp’ is a place where people are imprisoned not because of any crimes they committed, but simply because of who they are. Although many groups have been singled out for such persecution throughout history, the term ‘concentration camp’ was first used at the turn of the century in the Spanish American and Boer Wars.

During World War II, America’s concentration camps were clearly distinguishable from Nazi Germany’s. Nazi camps were places of torture, barbarous medical experiments and summary executions: some were extermination centers with gas chambers… 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.

Neil Gotanda, Professor of Constitutional law at Western State University, responded to Nazi Germany’s euphemistic use of the term “concentration camp” instead of the more accurate “death camps” by saying: “For Jews, their story begins with the words “concentration camps.” For Japanese Americans, their story ends with the words “concentration camps.”

Nakagawa passionately spoke about her arduous journey to get her Power of Words resolution passed by the JACL’s National Council by a vote of 80-2 at its National Convention held in Chicago last July. Since then, her resolution, which strongly advocates for the use of “concentration camp” and other accurate terminology, went to a special committee of the JACL which was assigned the task of implementing it by developing an educational handbook for school distribution.

However, the handbook’s language, released earlier this year, had been altered from the original resolution. The words “concentration camp” were omitted, and replaced by “relocation center” with quotations around it. After an emergency resolution to block the implementation of the handbook was passed at this year’s JACL Convention in Los Angeles, Nakagawa’s resolution is back in committee, and the appointed chair of the committee is the same individual who rewrote her resolution in the first place.

The committee chair, Greg Marutani, attended the symposium, but declined to comment after Nakagawa was questioned as to why her resolution was being stalled.

Takei was disappointed that Marutani did not address the questions and concerns regarding Nakagawa’s resolution.

“Greg could have reported that he was appointed to chair the implementation committee by JACL president David Kawamoto, and that he is in the process of selecting who will serve on the committee or announcing who is serving, and, that once his committee meets, they will prepare a report for the next convention in Seattle 2012 on how the resolution would be implemented,” she said. “Why was this so difficult?”

Hata, who spoke about how he and his late wife Nadine proposed in the early 1970s to impeach the JACL’s national president because of JACL’s refusal to testify at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights public hearings on civil rights issues of Asian Pacific Americans, once again called for impeachment “over the current internal struggle over accurate terminology that pits the will of the membership against national officers and surrogates who openly defy, delay, and obstruct,” said Hata. “Impeachment seems to be an appropriate remedy for such failure of leadership, along with a final open discussion of the Lim Report, or the inexorable downward death spiral of no new members will continue, and perhaps deservedly so.”

Hata, who later said that a strong JACL is needed by the Nikkei community, still did not back off his claim that JACL needs to “clean up its act” before it can move forward.

Since no one spoke on behalf of the JACL, the questions raised went unanswered and unresolved.

But one question was answered in the mind of Judy Shintani, a Sansei symposium attendee from Half Moon Bay. “Before I was not comfortable using the term ‘concentration camp,’” she said. “But after hearing everyone speak today, I’m now comfortable with the term, and will start using it.”

A 91-year-old Nisei woman from Fresno, after reviewing a list of government-issued euphemisms, emphatically stated: “I was not ‘relocated.’ I was forcibly removed and incarcerated in an American concentration camp!”

Reactions such as these are rewarding for the symposium’s organizers.

“The audience response was great,” said Barbara Takei. “Most of them stayed the entire day, and wanted to spend more time talking in the small group sessions.”

“In terms of fulfilling the objective of holding an educational forum, getting the best possible speakers to comment on the history, the issues, and the practices entailed in the ‘terminology struggles’ over the years, I was very happy with how everything went,” said Lane Hirabayashi.

As for next steps, both Hirabayashi and Takei emphasized the need for the Japanese American community to continue to work with groups such as the NPS.

“We need to try and insure that the National Park Service understands the concern around proper, accurate, terminology to describe both what happened, and how it felt to those who were incarcerated,” said Hirabayashi.

“Do we want the story to be told using the euphemistic language of the WRA and the Army, or should the exhibits help the viewer understand the experience from the point of view of the Japanese Americans whose dignity and civil and human rights were violated,” Takei asked. “We need to develop a collective voice to make sure that we have greater control over how our history and experiences are remembered.”

Playwright Soji Kashiwagi is active with the Tule Lake Committee, and is the Executive Producer/Writer of the Grateful Crane Ensemble. He writes from Pasadena, California.

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

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9 Responses to Cast in Bronze: Terminology Symposium in San Francisco, October 22, 2011

  1. Pingback: Words Can Lie Or Clarify Criticizes Euphemistic Language Used To Describe WWII Camps Used To Imprison Japanese Americans « Manzanar Committee

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