The Thacher Gallery exhibit “Something from Nothing: Art and Handcrafted Objects from America’s Concentration Camps” is a very personal snapshot of the experiences and artworks from the Japanese and Japanese Americans incarcerated during WWII. Over 120,000 people of Japanese descent were incarcerated in 10 camps operated by the War Relocation Authority of the United States (WRA) during WWII. While even Japanese Americans commonly refer to these camps as “internment camps,” a term used by the American government, discussions within my community have led us to agree that “concentration camp” is a more appropriate term.
All communities should have the right to describe their experiences as they see fit, without needing to compare to those of other communities. The title of this exhibit is not and should not be offensive to the memory of the Holocaust. We are not attempting to equate these camps to those of the Holocaust; we are using this term to describe our experience and to raise awareness about a similar but lesser-known human rights injustice committed by the United States during the same time period.
Though history has associated the term “concentration camp” with genocide, countries that have been left out of our classrooms’ Western-centric history have examples of what must also be referred to as concentration camps. North Korean forced labor camps for political prisoners, Australian exclusion of asylum seekers and refugees to offshore island detention facilities and Burmese exclusion of Rohingya Muslim minorities are examples of concentration camps that don’t necessarily involve mass killing or direct violence. The United States excluded people of Japanese descent from the population of the West Coast, regardless of their U.S. citizenship status. Though the actions of the United States in this situation do not amount to the genocide of the Holocaust, we cannot deny that countless human rights injustices were also committed here in this country, and that the camps used were undoubtedly concentration camps.
To everyone affected by the Holocaust: as a Japanese American, I stand in solidarity with you against the grave injustices inflicted upon your community. Please respect that while our experiences were drastically different, I feel that without a doubt the WRA camps of WWII should also be referred to as concentration camps. Let us not argue about who gets to use the term concentration camp. Let us stand together against unlawful incarceration and the infringement of human rights throughout our world today; let us make sure that this never happens again.