Defining Our Camps

Wesley Hitomo Yee is a senior international studies major.


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.


One thought on “Defining Our Camps

  1. Hi Wesley,
    I would appreciate if you could give a little background on who exactly has discussed and decided that “concentration” camp is a more appropriate term. Is there literature? Have these people studied the holocaust? As a first generation American and someone who grew up and still is very close with her Grandma, who was in the Auschwitz concentration camp, and her Grandpa, who was in the Dachau concentration camp, as well as their brothers and sisters, I can tell you from first hand stories that the internment camps were very different than the concentration camps. I, and many people I know, are personally offended by the Thatcher Gallery’s use of the word “concentration” and hope to help them understand why. I’d like to point out a few significant differences. Firstly, children in internment camps were allowed to gain an education at the internment camps and were not separated from their families within the camps. Taking a look at concentration camps, you will quickly find this is not the case. Education and religion were strictly forbidden, and my Grandpa will tell you all about how they pointed his seven year old brother down another line to get sent into the gas chambers. Another difference, my Grandma watched people from a neighboring village dig their own grave and get shot into it, in front everyone which means including the women and children that were next. On the other hand, people were digging for their small family farms in the Japanese internment camps. Now I must point out that what happened to the Japanese Americans was a horrible, horrible and undeserving situation. I do not disagree that they were put through hell and absolutely mistreated. However, when I sit down with my grandmother and she recollects on jewish babies being thrown into the air and shot down by Nazi concentration camp workers, I can’t help but be offended that the use of the term “concentration camp” would be given to anything other than the Holocaust and other mass genocides. This is my family, these are my people, and this is our truth. I hope you can understand where myself and my peers are coming from.
    Nicole Garay

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