A Discussion: “Concentration Camp” in Thacher Gallery

Tera Thompson-Garner

Contributing Writer


Everyone, from professors, to students, to alumni gathered last Thursday to discuss the name of the current Thacher Gallery exhibit, “Something from Nothing: Art and Handcrafted Objects from America’s Concentration Camps.” Specifically, the discussion centered around the camps where many Japanese and Japanese Americans were forced to relocate during World War II, and whether they should be referred to as “concentration camps” or by another name.


This comes after the Foghorn published a side-by-side opinion article debating the correctness of the term “concentration camp” to describe Japanese internment camps in the United States. Junior Gabriel Greschler (who is news editor of the Foghorn, but did not contribute or edit this article), stated that the term concentration camps is historically given to camps where people were intentionally killed, like concentration camps in Europe during the Holocaust and the Namibia genocide. The other article, written by senior Wesley Hitomo Yee, justified the use of “concentration camps,” because of the extreme violation of humans rights carried out by the government against the residents of Japanese descent, many of whom were American citizens at the time.


As people of all backgrounds, ages and races began to fill out a large circle within the gallery, USF history professor and Asian Pacific American Studies board member James Zarsadiaz started the discussion. He invited anyone in the circle to share their thoughts, saying a goal of the gallery is to “start conversations and be responsive to the community.”


Professor Lee Bycel, who teaches “Holocaust and Genocide” at USF and is also a rabbi at the Congregation Beth Shalom, referred to the Oxford definition of concentration camps: “A place in which large numbers of people, especially political prisoners or members of persecuted minorities, are deliberately imprisoned in a relatively small area with inadequate facilities, sometimes to provide forced labor or to await mass execution.”


Bycel said,“There’s no question to me that’s the correct label of what happened to the Japanese during the war, I applaud whatever term the victims want to use”.


Allowing the victims of the camps decide what definitive term to use seemed to resonate throughout the circle. Freshman nursing major Jules Hiyashi raised her hand to speak. “I think going from relocation to concentration is a big step,” she said. Hiyashi’s grandmother was relocated to a camp during World War II at the age of three and remained there until age four. She recalled the stories her grandmother told her about that time. “She called it camp because that’s what it was to her,” Hiyashi said.  


Hiyashi explained that perspective is one of the most important factors in uncovering the truth behind the United States’ enforced camps. “It all ranges to their own experience,” she said.


Karen Kai, a ‘78 USF law school alumna, believes that she is in the minority when it comes to the term “internment” rather than “concentration” camp. “I think that, like concentration camp, the term internment has a whole bunch of echoes and resonances and connections that can lead you to explore this experience. And that’s what’s important. That we have these discussions and we explore the various byways that can take us toward greater understanding,” Kai said.


The forum did not formally decide whether internment or concentration was the better term. Instead, they discussed  personal responses to the abuse of innocent people and repercussions still felt today as a result. “Just because it’s used in one context, doesn’t diminish how it’s used in another context,” Bycel said.


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