Laying Some History On You: Hiding the Camps

In 1942, over 100,000 Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast of the United States were forcibly relocated into camps ranged across the Pacific Northwest. They endured a variety of privations including starvation, extreme cold, and limited access to medical care. Mental health deteriorated in many camps. For some, a way out was offered; taking a loyalty oath and agreeing to serve in segregated units in the United States military (Japanese-Americans in combat were deployed to Europe only, as authorities were convinced that they would, of course, turn traitor if they were in the Pacific Theatre).

It was one of the most shameful and ignominious events in recent US history. It was wildly inappropriate and horrific and awful and jingoistic, the distillation of over 100 years of anti-Asian rhetoric in the United States, fraught with shades of the ‘yellow peril’ as it was once called. It was vile and deplorable, and it wasn’t until 1988 that the government recognised it was a wrong deserving of reparations. It’s also one of the least discussed events of the Second World War in US schools, and to my shock and horror, when I went to college, I learned that many people were not aware that Japanese-Americans had been interned in the Second World War, or didn’t know about the extent of the camps.

Try to visit an internment camp.

Having trouble? That’s because the camps were rapidly dismantled and converted after the war; gosh, it’s almost like the government thought it had something to hide, despite the fact that it certainly dragged its heels on a formal apology to people who were interned in the camps. Go to Manzanar, a notorious camp, and look around. There’s a memorial acknowledging the camp, and you can see some assorted remains of the camp, but the stark reality is heavily erased, because the government did little to preserve it when their actions might have mattered, immediately after the war when memories were fresh and there were things to be preserved. There is little interest in talking about the camps, and there’s little interest in educating people about them.

I can remember only a handful of discussions in elementary school on the internment camps. I probably wouldn’t have known very much about them at all, except for the fact that I had the opportunity to meet older Japanese-Americans who spent time in the camps and told me about them, and provided a radically different view than the one presented in class. In class we were told that the camps were ‘bad’ but they weren’t really explored; we weren’t provided with information about the conditions there and we weren’t asked to think about how and why it was that Japanese-Americans were held in the camps, we weren’t provided with information to contextualise the anti-Asian sentiment that rode high at the time.

We weren’t told about the dehumanisation of Japanese troops, about the extreme racism that filled wartime rhetoric, about the slurs very specifically weaponised against Japanese people that didn’t show up when it came to demonizing Germany. Japan was made into a cartoonish enemy, real and invented wartime atrocities were magnified and used as evidence that Japanese people weren’t really human beings, to reinforce the idea that the camps were a necessary thing, for the protection of the people of the United States. Without the camps, they might run loose and secretly signal the Emperor! They might run communities or run away to join the war or engage in sabotage. Just as people of Middle Eastern descent unfurled US flags after the 11 September attacks, many Japanese immigrants as well as nisei and sansei asserted their connections to the United States, their citizenship in the case of people who were citizens, in an act of self defense rooted in very real fear, that they would be rejected as ‘Americans’ because of Japan’s hostility.

Whether or not they were well-established families with a long history and deep local ties. Their property was taken and they were bundled away to live in cramped, crowded, unsafe conditions with inadequate food supplies and indifferent medical care. This was necessary, you see, for the war effort. In school, as a child, I was taught that the camps were not really the done thing but the radical understatement of the conditions there left me with the impression that they were more like summer camp. Almost…fun.

I was fortunate in that I went to a high school where we did talk about racism in wartime propaganda, the history of Asian communities in the United States and abusive anti-Asian rhetoric, the context of the camps. We were asked to actively engage with the legacy of the camps, but also the mythos that surrounds the United States, to challenge it on the basis of things like the internment camps; something like this goes against everything this country claims to stand for and to ignore that is to miss out on a huge piece of history, as well as an important discussion that students could really benefit from.

A lot of students did not have access to that and suffered as a result. At university, when I took a survey course of California history to satisfy a graduation requirement, we had a lengthy segment on the camps and I was startled to learn that a lot of students didn’t know very much about them. This at a very reputable institution priding itself on its academic rigor.

It’s as though we want to sweep this under the carpet and never discuss it again, even as we continue to beat Germany over the head for the Holocaust and the camps, even as we expect modern Germans to be filled with guilt and remorse, we close the door on discussions about what we did to Japanese-Americans, where it came from, the ideas that supported it, and what it said, and continues to say, about the United States and the people who live here.