By James Tabafunda
Northwest Asian Weekly
When race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership combine to cause the removal of University of Washington (UW) students, professors, and others, the annual Day of Remembrance takes on a special meaning.
The university held a panel discussion entitled “How Could Concentration Camps Happen?” on Feb. 18 at the UW’s Kane Hall. It drew about 300 people and was the first of three events put together by a coalition of the Nisei Veterans Committee/NVC Foundation, the Holocaust Center for Humanity, the Consulate General of Japan, and the UW’s Department of American Ethnic Studies.
“Seventy-five years ago, 449 University of Washington Japanese American undergraduate students — American citizens — disappeared from our campus. Their education and lives disrupted,” said emcee Gail M. Nomura, UW associate professor emerita of American ethnic studies, about President Franklin Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066.
“We remember today at the University of Washington these students, some of whose grandchildren and great grandchildren are in our classes now.”
Victims of racism and those sent to concentration camps have something in common.
Dee Simon, the first speaker and Baral family executive director of the Holocaust Center for Humanity, said, “We have a history that our generations will never forget. Future generations will not forget it. It is in our soul.”
The daughter of a Jewish woman who survived two years in the Theresienstadt camp, Simon says politicians and religious leaders used the Jews as scapegoats for political problems, social problems, and economic problems.
“Jewish businesses were closed and key: German citizenship was taken away so now, Jews because of their birth, were now stateless aliens, criminals, and a threat to society.”
Adolf Hitler opened the first concentration camp — Dachau — in 1933, and by 1938, “there were about seven concentration camps in Germany.”
The failure of international leadership contributed to the rise of concentration camps.
Simon said, “Of the 32 nations that attended the Evian Conference (in 1938), only two nations increased their quotas for Jewish refugees. And that was the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica. America did not increase its quotas, even at a time when we were under our quota.”
“It was a clear signal to Hitler that no nation cared about the Jews,” she said. “At this point, mass murder and the camps were now possible.”
She added the complicity of millions of ordinary people “to abandon their fellow human beings” also provided the proper environment for concentration camps to operate. She described one man who, at age 11, watched soccer games at a field right next to a “camp where people went to die.”
“His response tells it all. He said, ‘I didn’t think about it. It was normal,’” Simon said.
Tetsuden Kashima, UW professor emeritus of American ethnic studies, said, “All of us know that the particular words that we employ are virtually important because our words can clarify, mystify, and confuse others. It’s also important since whosoever controls the vocabulary can actually control the story.”
While the War Relocation Authority referred to the camps as “relocation camps,” all 10 camps located around the country were guarded by armed units of the military police, “who, during the war, shot and killed four Japanese Americans.”
Kashima said, “The appropriate term, I think, is to call them ‘concentration camps.’”
The third speaker, Lorraine Bannai, is a professor of lawyering skills at Seattle University School of Law and the director of the Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality.
She spoke about the present-day relevance of injustice and mass incarcerations. “Unfortunately, in my opinion, we see that relevance almost daily now.”
Four themes, according to Bannai, have emerged, including fear mixed with ignorance about people and their intrinsic humanity. Prejudice exists when minorities are thought of “as disloyal, that they’re criminal, that they’re impure, that they’re not like us.”
The second theme: mass incarcerations don’t just happen. A history of exclusion and shunning is usually how they start. She said, “It starts with discriminatory practices and laws that exclude minoritized groups from membership in society.” Japanese Americans were not allowed to be in an interracial marriage and to become naturalized citizens.
Simon had earlier identified the third theme: complicity, and the final theme is the failure of the rule of law.
“As Tet mentioned, nothing in the order was directed at Japanese Americans, but it was very clear that the order was only issued to control what was considered to be the Japanese American problem on the West Coast,” Bannai said.
“The dehumanization of all begins with the dehumanization of one, and as a corollary, the denial of rights to one can be the denial of rights to any of us.”
In 1976, President Gerald Ford ended Executive Order 9066. He said, “We now know what we should have known then — not only was that evacuation wrong, but Japanese Americans were and are loyal Americans.”
For more information on the second event (April 9, “Conspiracy of Kindness”) and the third event (April 30, “Japanese American Soldiers and the Liberation of Dachau”), go to aes.washington.edu/calendar#/?i=1.
James Tabafunda can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.