Manzanar Committee Member Joyce Okazaki: “Yes, It Was A Concentration Camp”

On August 31, 2010, Rafu Shimpo columnist George Yoshinaga, who has for many years railed against the use of “concentration camp” to describe the camps where Americans of Japanese ancestry and their immigrant parents were imprisoned during World War II, published the text of a letter written by Eunice Sato, former Mayor of the City of Long Beach, California, who stated her opposition to California Assembly Bill 1775, which would establish January 30 of each year as “Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution.”

Sato wrote, “…Governor Schwarzenegger should veto AB 1775 Re WWII Japanese American Relocation until the ‘concentration camp’ wording is changed. I was among those forced to leave my home so I know.”

“…I believe the bill’s text that refers to ‘concentration camps’ needs to be changed to ‘relocation’ or ‘assembly’ centers which is the more accurate terminology.”

“My urgent request is that the wording be changed from ‘concentration camp’ to ‘relocation or assembly center’ in all places in the bill where the word ‘concentration’ is used. I favor having Gov. Schwarzenegger’s veto AB 1775 in the form it was sent to him and then ask the bill’s supporters to replace wording that currently conveys the wrong impression of what happened.”

To read Yoshinaga’s column, click on: HORSE’S MOUTH: Impressions of the Little League World Series.

Given the current interest in the use of euphemistic language when referring to these camps, Manzanar Committee member Joyce Okazaki, who was imprisoned at Manzanar during World War II, shared an opposing view, which she submitted to the Rafu Shimpo and to the Manzanar Committee’s official web site in rebuttal. The following is the full text of Okazaki’s letter:

Eunice Sato, former mayor of Long Beach, wrote a letter about AB 1775, which was printed in the Rafu Shimpo’s, “Horse’s Mouth” column, August 31, 2010. She is entitled to her opinions, but when she makes statements that are not true, I must reply to them.

In arguing against using the words, “concentration camps,” she states that “…those who were imprisoned in ‘concentration camps’ would not be able to leave at will,” meaning that Japanese Americans had complete freedom to come and go as they pleased.

Yes, it was a concentration camp, and no one was able to leave at will, not from Manzanar, beginning in April, 1942. Rather, we were citizens, placed into secured camps surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers, manned by sentries with rifles, all without due process of law—we were denied our civil liberties.

I was a young child in camp, but we lived in one room, so I heard everything. My parents wanted to leave camp so they had to apply for permission to leave in January, 1944.

My father was granted permission and left in February, 1944, but my mother, a citizen, was denied permission. The reason was her father was arrested on the night of December 7, 1941, at his doorstep, taken to jail and eventually to a Department of Justice prison camp in Missoula, Montana. She had to go through intensive interrogation to make sure of her loyalty, before she was allowed to leave. We left Manzanar in July, 1944 by car and then train with tickets to Chicago and $25 each from the government.

As for the next statements, “…the young people left camps. Some…classmates…left camp…Amache, [to go to college]” (this is an awkwardly written sentence). She is obviously not aware of the American Friends Service Committee, which organized the Student Relocation Council at the request of War Relocation Authority Director, Milton Eisenhower, in May, 1942, and was instrumental in relocating college students who were in assembly centers and in permanent camps to colleges in the Midwest and East.

The governmental procedures for clearing colleges and students were extremely complicated. It was not until the end of 1942 that the process became sufficiently organized to permit any great volume of students leaving for colleges eastward. Wartime bureaucracy required an average of 25 letters be written on behalf of each student. Aside from helping students choose their schools, council workers also secured transcripts, letters of reference, submitted formal school applications, arranged for government clearance of both school and student, matched requests for financial aid with sources of scholarship funds, and found employment.

By August 31, 1944, the War Department removed all restrictions on the attendance of incarcerated students. In a little over two and a half years, the council was able to obtain acceptances for 3,600 students at 550 institutions away from the West Coast (citation: From Friend Journal, November, 1992).

Finally, on December 17, 1944, the War Department announced that all persons of Japanese ancestry, unless individually excluded, would be free to return to the West Coast as of January 2, 1945.

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

LEAD PHOTO: Manzanar Committee member Joyce Okazaki (seated to the immediate left of the man wearing the blue shirt), shown here as a participant in a small group discussion during the 2007 Manzanar At Dusk program. Photo: Gann Matsuda/Manzanar Committee.

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19 thoughts on “Manzanar Committee Member Joyce Okazaki: “Yes, It Was A Concentration Camp”

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  1. Yeah, I have some files on my relatives, from Tule Lake practically begging to go on jobs, in I think Colorado. These places tore families apart. Concentration camps don’t have revolving doors, and people are not allowed to come and go as they please. That sounds the same to me. Yes, I believe they are concentration camps… Relocation gives the impression that people are allowed to come and go as they please, and they were not.

  2. Let’s not let the government try to minimize what happened. We lost everything my parents worked for after coming to the U.S. 26 years earlier – our home, family business, our educations and possessions while being accused of disloyalty to this country. Euphemistic terms such as “relocation center,” “evacuation” and “non-alien” were used to cover up the shame and the violation of constitutional rights the government was engaged in.

    This past weekend at the Japanese American National Museum Mr. Yoshinaga and Ms. Sato could have openly defended their position where euphemistic terms such as “concentration camp” were discussed. They were invited but did not show. Were they afraid to do so like the U.S. government?

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