By GWEN MURANAKA
Why do you still talk about the camps? We get that question a lot, particularly as the calls come to freshen content for The Rafu to become younger and more relevant. There is some truth to the comment. In order to draw a younger audience, the few Japanese American newspapers still out there have to strike out from beyond just writing about topics that Nisei are interested in.
But when so many in the mainstream media are so wrong on the issue — when the Lillian Baker-types are now running blogs and appearing on Fox — than where but in publications such as these will the experience be talked about in proper context? Newsrooms are shrinking or disappearing altogether. There are fewer staff to write long, in-depth pieces and too often the loudest voices, who can write on deadline, are likely to be the ones who get heard.
In 2004, conservative commentator Michelle Malkin wrote a book stating that the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II was justified, and that racial profiling of Arabs was necessary to fight the war on terrorism following the 9/11 attacks.
It can be argued that Malkin is an extremist, but even so-called sympathetic voices can be misguided. Last week, the Orange County Register ran an article, “Manzanar relocation camp was bad, but no Bataan.” Columnist John Hall in an earlier column wrote about his visit to the Japanese American National Museum and Manzanar. With that much research, you’d think he’d get the story right.
Hall qualifies the suffering of the men, women and children who were imprisoned in the Japanese American camps by saying, “Even at its worst, though, Manzanar was far from being the concentration camp some have labeled it. It was no Bataan Death March.
“Many Japanese Americans understood the reasoning for it because of the panic over possible invasion that seized the USA, particularly those of us on the West Coast, after Pearl Harbor (Dec. 7, 1941) and the reported submarine attacks off the shores of Santa Barbara and Seattle.”
Huh? This comparing of historical atrocities is belittling and pointless. As if human suffering were sports statistics to compare. How do you compare the suffering in Rwanda or Darfur? In Nagasaki or Hiroshima? In the case of Japanese Americans, the comparison misses the point that these were American citizens whose rights were taken away by their own government, in an atmosphere of racial hysteria.
At the St. Louis Dispatch, a reviewer’s comments about the injustice of the camps in a recent review of the HBO series, “The Pacific,” got a reader to complain that it was the “(political) left’s (requisite) slap at internment camps.”
Columnist Joe Holleman rightly puts the reader in his place, saying that a “slap at the U.S. for its domestic Japanese internment camps is not an issue of right vs. left, no matter how illogically partisan this nation has become.”
There is a revisionist creep in interpretations of the camp experience that is troubling. Of course, the latest is the move by the Texas Board of Education to teach students that the forced evacuation and incarceration of Japanese Americans was not racially motivated. I found it interesting that the board member who pushed that through, David Bradley, is from Beaumont, Texas, once the site of the notorious Jap Road.
Thankfully there are voices of reason on the other side. Scholars such as Eric Muller, and activists like Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga have done much to focus an unyielding eye on that terrible chapter in history. Their voices are too few, their venues too small. But at least they are out there.
Herzig-Yoshinaga has written an essay, “Words Can Lie or Clarify,” which serves as a courageous bookend to her work at the National Archives uncovering documents for the redress movement. She takes on the very language we use to talk about the internment, even the word “internment” itself.
As she cites in her essay, “Internment is a well-defined legal process by which enemy nationals who were not allowed to become U.S. citizens, are placed in confinement in time of war … what happened to the West Coast Japanese was lawless. Citizen and alien, male and female, old and young, all were simply swept up, placed in the holding pens from Santa Anita to Puyallup, and then shipped out to ten desolate camps.”
Her voice is important and needs to be heard. This is why we still talk about the camps.
The nuances of language, the power of words to shape how we perceive events, is a power which should not be conceded to those whose agenda is to obfuscate or twist the truth.
“I am certainly not alone, nor among the first, to be concerned about the power of words to lie or clarify, and the need to identify and replace inaccurate and misleading euphemisms that were used by government officials at all levels and perpetuated by many Nikkei as well,” Yoshinaga says.
Amen to that.
Gwen Muranaka is Rafu English editor-in-chief. Ochazuke is a staff-written column. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.