Recently, there seems to be a trend amongst some people to use the word “incarceration” when discussing the evacuation of Japanese Americans to the relocation centers at the onset of the war. I worry about this phenomenon since the word “incarceration” implies “imprisonment” and “confinement” and many of those who use this word did not experience a life in these relocation centers.
Prior to the mass evacuation of Nikkei to the assembly centers and relocation centers, the FBI “rounded-up” the leaders and suspicious people in Nikkei communities and took them from their homes to 4 internment camps run by the Justice Department in New Mexico, Montana, Texas and North Dakota. The use of the word “incarceration” would be appropriate for this group of people. However, this group was just a small population of the Nikkei community. The vast majority were not sent to these internment camps.
About 3 months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, more than 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry living on the west coast were ordered to evacuate their homes without proper legal procedures and relocate first to assembly centers and then to 10 relocations centers ; Manzanar (CA), Tule Lake (CA), Gila River (AZ), Poston (AZ), Minidoka (ID), Heart Mountain (WY) , Topaz (UT), Granada (CO), Jerome (AR) and Rohwer (AR). These events should never had happened in a country that professes to be the champion of freedom and equality. Undeniably, these happenings are represented by a dark cloud in the history of the United States. In the relocation centers, long tumultuous days began for those who had Japanese blood. Despite these difficult circumstances, the Japanese-Americans never lost their sense of pride and coped with their situation with an indomitable spirit and waited for the arrival of better days.
Issei and Nisei, for the manner in which they accepted their evacuation, were a perfect example of the “quiet Americans”. They experienced years of racial discrimination but rarely openly displayed their objection prior to and during wartime except for the instances at Tule Lake Relocation Center. To erase the infamy their parents experienced, the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) began (in 1976) their mission of redress for the wartime evacuations. Their objective was to obtain a political settlement and after many meetings and hearings by the congressional Redress Commission spanning several years. The final victory was won in 1988. The Commission concluded that the evacuation was the result of racial prejudice, wartime hysteria and inadequate political leadership. The government recognized the mistakes it had made and paid $20,000 of monetary redress to each survivor, and President Ronald Reagan made an apology.
The relocation centers are sometimes called “camps” or “concentration camps“. However, the Japanese American wartime concentration camps were quite different from the Nazi’s concentration camps. Some Nikkei in the camps might have felt as if they were imprisoned or confined. But in these camps, there were no gas chambers. Instead, there were schools, hospitals, shops and churches, and they could leave the camps easily with simple permits. Many residents left the camps for colleges and employment. In fact, more than 20,000 Nikkei left the relocation centers before the closing to begin new lives.
In February 1942, the proclamation of the evacuation from the military zone was announced. But the evacuation order contained a provision of a time limit on the free evacuation. If the Nikkei did not want to enter the relocation centers, they were free to move to any town in the United States with the stipulation that the destination not be in California, the western half of Oregon and Washington, or the southern half of Arizona. In other words, they did not have to enter the relocation centers. While inside the camps, the government provided free housing, food, medical care, schooling and other necessities. Employment inside the camps provided them spending money. As the worries of the life in camps disappeared, many people in the camps changed their opinions of their temporary home. It was not as bad a place as they once thought it to be. There were many Nikkei living in cities like Reno, Salt Lake, Denver, Chicago and New York, and these people were not affected by the evacuation order at all.
I arrived into the United States in December, 1956. At that time, the Nikkei communities were experiencing a change of generations. Nisei were in the mainstream and there were still many Issei remaining. In regard to the relocation camps, I often heard from both Issei and Nisei, comments such as, “I want to go back there again.”, “I had lots of fun.” or “ It was not that bad.”. And instead of “I was confined or imprisoned”, they said, ”I entered the camp.” or “we moved to the camp.” I never heard them say, ”I was confined.”, or “it was like a prison.”. It was true that all Nikkei, without exception, suffered severe economic and psychological damage. But, it was also true that many families who were struggling to make their ends meet felt that those 3 years in the camps were a time to rest and the time spent there was almost like a family vacation. The government provided not only the security and basic necessities for living, but entertainment and opportunity for adult education were also available. Romance, too, blossomed here and there. Many people, young and old, had many fond memories of the camps.
Whether it was an evacuation to the free zone or an evacuation to the centers, it was a forced evacuation because of the war. The problem of this forced evacuation of the Nikkei was supposedly solved when the US government recognized its past mistake. Like opening an old wound, bringing up the matter of what happened almost 70 years ago may invite criticism from society in this country. To argue the matter that was once settled is not fair and is contrary to our democratic principle. In addition, the expression of “imprisonment ” and “confinement” are not in accordance with the historical facts dealing with the evacuation of the Nikkei into the relocation centers. Those words should not be used in the public arena. We, the Nikkei, should instead move forward to contribute to making a better America. (www.isseipioneermuseum.com)