Last summer, I talked mom into attending the Heart Mountain Pilgrimage. Heart Mountain is one of the two “camps” in which she and her family were imprisoned behind barbed wire and guard towers during World War II.
Since her incarceration there as a little girl, she had visited the site only once in the late sixties. At that time, there was no trace of the “camp” where 14,000 people were unconstitutionally incarcerated. At the time, it was the third largest city in the state of Wyoming.
Mom, now 87 years old, didn’t expect to see many survivors of the camp. She was only a 4th to 6th grader during the incarceration, so the vast majority of those who experienced this dark chapter have passed away. We were happily surprised to learn over 50 survivors made the 2019 pilgrimage, many of whom we met.
We met several well-known figures at the pilgrimage.
They included former Secretary Norman Mineta, retired Senator Alan Simpson, retired Judge Lance Ito, “Death, Sex & Money” podcast host, Anna Sale, and veteran journalist and news anchor Tom Brokaw and his wife, Meredeth.
By chance, mom was interviewed by both Brokaw
and Sale. Brokaw included clips of mom’s interview in a 4-minute piece that was broadcast on “Morning Joe.”
I encourage anyone who can to visit the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center. It is just 15 minutes outside of Cody, Wyoming. This is a vital and instructive period of history that must not be forgotten.
“Shikata Ga Nai” (しかた が ない) roughly translates to “it cannot be helped,” and is a phrase often associated with the discipline and determination exemplified by Japanese Americans who sacrificed and persevered through their persecution and unconstitutional incarceration during World War II. It is also the name of a documentary sent to me today by a coworker. This award-winning documentary was created by recent St. Mary’s Academy graduate, Lauren Yanase.
“Shikata Ga Nai: An Inconvenient American,” follows the story of her own family members as they were forced first to the Santa Anita Racetrack horse stalls, then to Heart Mountain, Wyoming – the latter being where my own family was incarcerated for two years.
The documentary is filled with excellent archival photos and video clips narrated by Yanase’s family members who experienced it first-hand.
The documentary took Yanase two years to complete and was awarded the prestigious Girl Scout Gold Award.
It is 27 minutes long and excellent. You may view it here:
I just learned from a friend about a novel form of taxation in Japan. It’s called “Furusato Nouzei” (ふるさと納税), which roughly translates to “hometown tax.” It allows people living in urban areas to contribute to rural areas in return for a tax credit.
Japan has one of the fastest-growing senior populations, and many young people move from rural to urban areas. In order to increase the number of children and provide tax revenue to rural areas, the “hometown tax” was created in 2007.
According to Wikipedia, anyone who voluntarily contributes Furusato Nouzei of more than 2000 yen (approx. $19 US at current exchange rates) can have their income and residence taxes reduced. The entire amount a taxpayer contributes to the hometown tax is deducted, minus 2000 yen. According to my friend, you can choose whichever city you want to give to.
Many cities offer gifts from their area to entice people to choose their city for the Furosato Nouzei. For example, my friend chose Nagano-prefecture and will receive 1kg of beef steak as a thank-you.
Not surprisingly, cities that offer gifts are more often chosen as recipients of Furosato Nouzei, although the practice has been criticized by some. Cities that offer no gifts or have nothing to offer typically receive fewer tax contributions.
In the U.S., where the mere suspicion of added taxes (regardless of overall savings, need for infrastructure and services, and/or the greater common good) can result in massive political backlash, the notion of paying a voluntary tax might seem far-fetched. But it may be worth examining as a potential solution to the great disparities in resources between urban and rural areas.
Last weekend I attended the 2019 Heart Mountain Pilgrimage, an annual event that takes place in Cody, Wyoming, and at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center. I took my mom and we met many former incarcerees (nearly 50 attended, many in the their nineties) and their family members, saw several films, attended workshops, toured old and restored facilities, and met many dignitaries.
I am still processing the experience, and I anticipate writing several entries inspired by this trip. This is the first.
When we study the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII, we encounter numerous euphemistic terms used to describe the experience and those impacted.
I perceive a generational and cultural difference in how people refer to this history and experience. Generally speaking, the older a person is, the more likely he or she will employ the terms the government and history books used.
I also notice people outside the Japanese-American community generally accept and use these terms without considering the impact of the words and the possible motivation behind their selection in the first place.
I want to list the euphemisms and their definitions, explain why I reject them, and offer alternatives I believe are more accurate. I did not come up with these myself, and discussion and debate over these terms are ongoing within the Japanese-American community.
She was the tireless researcher who uncovered the missing copy of a 1943 government report that refuted the Pentagon’s claim that the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans was a military necessity.
When tens of thousands of Japanese Americans were forced from their homes, the eventual “camps” where they were to be incarcerated had not yet been built. So they were sent to so-called “assembly centers.”
These were makeshift concentration camps located at fairgrounds, barracks, racetracks, horse stalls, and livestock pavilions.
The word “assembly” is benign, and the term belies the fact that thousands of people were forced into cramped and often unsanitary conditions, surrounded by barbed wire, and guard towers with armed guards and powerful searchlights.
My mother remembers the search lights being so powerful at night that even through her closed eyes she could see the light every time they passed over and shined in the window of her barrack. The impact was so powerful that it stayed with her when her family was moved to another camp that had no such light. The searchlight flash kept crossing through her mind when she tried to sleep.
Recommended alternative terms: temporary detention center, temporary prison camp
Although some have argued Japanese Americans were removed from the west coast “for their own safety,” I strenuously reject this narrative. Written word and actions clearly indicate the motivation was fear, racism, and greed that drove the removal of Japanese Americans. Although some were indeed threatened with violence from racist neighbors, that was clearly not the primary reason for their forced removal.
“Relocation” is also benign. It doesn’t conjure up images of armed soldiers wielding bayonets, police officers, and FBI agents ordering people from their homes, families compelled to bring only what they can carry, and train rides of unknown duration to unknown destinations during which the passengers were compelled to keep the blinds closed and every car guarded by armed soldiers.
Recommended alternative terms for “evacuee”: inmate, prisoner, or incarceree
Recommended alternative terms for “evacuation” and “relocation”: mandatory or forced removal, banishment, eviction, or exile
Regarding “alien,” racist immigration laws prevented Asians from becoming naturalized citizens. My grandparents had lived peacefully and lawfully for more than thirty years as legal aliens in the U.S. before Pearl Harbor was bombed. Not until McCarran-Walter Act (aka The Immigration and Nationality Act) was passed in 1952 could they legally become naturalized U.S. Citizens. By that time, by grandfather was 72 years old, and my grandmother 60.
My grandparents had no allegiance to Japan or the Japanese emperor, nor did they have any intention of returning to Japan. They were and considered themselves American regardless of racist laws.
So although the term “alien” is technically accurate, it is essential to consider the unique situation in which tens of thousands of Japanese Americans like my grandparents found themselves during WWII.
The posters that announced “Instructions to all persons of Japanese ancestry” referred to “all Japanese persons, both alien and non-alien.” What is a non-alien?
There is no justification for using the unambiguously racist term to identify US citizens, which represented two-thirds of the 120,000 people forced from their homes and unconstitutionally incarcerated during WWII.
Recommended alternative terms: US citizen, American citizen
Since the term “alien” in the context of Japanese American (see above) is already problematic, and two-thirds of the imprisoned Japanese Americans were US citizens, neither term is accurate.
Recommended alternative terms for “internment”: incarceration, imprisonment
Recommended alternative terms for “internee”: prisoner, incarceree, inmate
Relocation Center, Internment Camp
There were 10 so-called “relocation centers” in which Japanese Americans were held. They are still commonly referred to “internment camps” today. I’ve already discussed the problems with the terms “relocation” and “internment” above. So what should we call them?
I call them concentration camps, and in doing so I acknowledge the charged nature of that phrase and the controversy both within the Japanese-American community and outside it with regard to the term.
Merriam-Webster defines a concentration camp as “a place where large numbers of people (such as prisoners of war, political prisoners, refugees, or the members of an ethnic or religious minority) are detained or confined under armed guard.”
Some definitions make direct reference to mass execution. Apart from the sometime reference to execution, the definition fits the camps in which tens of thousands of Japanese Americans were incarcerated.
It is true, when one hears the term “concentration camp,” the first image for most people is the camps into which Nazi Germany forced so-called “undesireables,” including Jews, political prisoners, Romani, disabled people, clergymen, and gays.
It is also true there are members of the Jewish community that vigorously object to the term being used to describe the 10 so-called Japanese-American “relocation centers”; they correctly point out that although there were deaths and shootings in the latter, those were relatively few. The Japanese-American camps were not designed or intended to exterminate people.
However, with deep respect and compassion for my Jewish brothers and sisters, I must point out that concentration camps existed before the Holocaust and have been created since. I suggest that camps in the Holocaust be distinguished as “death camps” or “extermination camps,” an extreme and gruesome subset of the more general classification of concentration camps.
In numerous instances, the phrase “concentration camp” was used by members of the US administration and military at the time. President Franklin D. Roosevelt called the 10 camps in the US “concentration camps” in 1942 press conferences. Attorney General Francis Biddle referred to our “concentration camps” in a December 1943 letter to FDR. Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy referred to “placing American citizens, even of Japanese ancestry, in concentration camps” in a 1942 memo to Eisenhower.
Concentration camps existed well before WWII (for example, in the Boer War, US Civil War, Ten Years’ War in Cuba) and after (Bosnia, Cyprus, Croatia, etc.). I feel avoidance of the use of the term “concentration camp” minimizes the real suffering and inhumanity, and increases the likelihood it can be repeated (and ignored or minimized) in the present and future.
Update:Code Switch, and excellent NPR podcast which discusses race and identity has an episode which dives into the controversy over calling anything other than the death camps of the Holocaust “concentration camps,” including a meeting between Jewish and Japanese Americans to discuss the term, what it means, and whether that term can or cannot be defined by the people directly affected. It is called “America’s Concentration Camps?“
Summary: Proper manners dictate height and depth when bowing and clinking glasses
Respect and hierarchy are paramount in Japanese society. In general, one should always show respect to one’s elders and superiors. This is demonstrated, for example, in toasting and and bowing.
Whenever people bow, which is often in Japan, it is proper for the “underling” to bow deeper to his or her superior. As a side note, if space is limited, bow to one side of the other person to prevent conking heads.
Similarly, when glasses are clinked, you should always click with your rim lower than that of your superior (elder, boss, etc.). When several people are clinking glasses together, you can observe this awareness of respect and hierarchy.
It is also good form never to fill your own cup. People should keep an eye on their companions’ cups and always refill theirs. Yours should be filled and refilled by someone else.
If you travel to Japan, people will notice and be impressed if you observe these simple customs of respect.
Some fun can be had with these customs. For example, if you are the boss or the respected elder, when several glasses are about to clink, you can suddenly lower your glass and enjoy the sight of everyone else having to hurriedly lower theirs as well before contact. This usually elicits laughter.
Mom had some fun in a similar way when we were visiting Keishoji. As honored visitors from overseas, we were shown great respect and gratitude everywhere we met. Being the eldest meant Mom typically occupied the position of highest respect in nearly any gathering we attended.
One evening, about a dozen of us were seated for dinner. As was customary, we sat on the floor next to a low table. The priest’s brother, a fisherman, had to leave early because he needed to rise very early the next morning to fish.
We were all seated on the floor, and upon taking his departure, the fisherman dutifully nodded and bowed his head to each of us. Turning to my mom, the most respected person in the party, he bowed low. Mom bowed low in return, which obligated him to bow lower.
Mom kept bowing lower and lower, and he kept responding until his body was basically plastered to the floor. He finally protested that he could bow no further. Everyone knew Mom was having a little fun with him and we all had a good laugh.
As for myself, I hope I am still agile enough to sit on the floor and bow low when I reach my 70s and 80s.