In June, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stated the U.S. government was “running concentration camps” at the southern border, sending the discourse into chaos as everyone began debating whether concentration camp was really an accurate way to describe the detention centers housing immigrants and migrant children at the border. Think pieces emerged defending the use of the term; Meghan McCain got unfortunately involved; Democratic presidential candidates visited the Homestead facility in Florida in hopes of getting a better look.
If you have any grasp of American history, you know this isn’t the first time an entire race, or ethnic group of people have been imprisoned on U.S. soil simply because of their background. In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered that every person of Japanese descent on the West Coast be rounded up and sent to a “relocation center,” one of the many euphemisms the administration would employ to describe the concentration camps Japanese-Americans would find themselves in for four years. “I know what concentration camps are,” George Takei, who recently released a graphic memoir about his experience, tweeted. “I was inside two of them, in America. And yes, we are operating such camps again.”
Densho is a nonprofit that archives and digitizes video oral histories, along with thousands of documents regarding Japanese-American imprisonment during World War II, in order to preserve the history of Japanese-Americans’ imprisonment in the U.S. (“Densho” itself is a Japanese phrase that translates to “to pass on to the next generation.”) Their extensive online archive contains over 700 hours of indexed and transcribed video interviews and 10,000 historic photos and documents. The video interviews detail individuals' experiences at the 10 War Relocation Authority (WRA) camps, with additional interviews of Japanese-Americans that weren’t detained as well as Caucasian camp employees. Over the years, they’ve partnered with other organizations like the Japanese-American National Museum and the Manzanar National Historic Site, who’ve added their own documents and archives into the digital repository.
Beyond archiving, the organization also presents public education programming like author talks, online courses, and resources for educators. In recent years they’ve been especially vocal in condemning the actions being taken by the government against immigrants at the border, decrying the planned use of a former Japanese-American imprisonment site as a place to house migrant children. “Because these things keep happening, it is important to keep telling the story,” Brian Niiya, content director at Densho, told The Outline. “Especially as the generation that lived through it, begins to pass on it becomes particularly important for younger generations to be exposed to the story.”
The Outline spoke with Niiya about the history of the camp including it’s newspapers and poor living conditions, parallels between the Japanese-American experience and today’s centers at the border, and Densho’s archival work.
The Outline: How did Densho get started and what does the organization do?
Brian Niiya: Densho started over 20 years ago. The initial goal was inspired by the Shoah project, which was a project interviewing Holocaust survivors about their experience. With the technology of the time, it was possible to do something similar for a lot less cost using digital video distribution via the Internet. We started interviewing Japanese-Americans about their experiences in the concentration camps, and now there’s 900-something interviews. They’re all viewable, streamable online, and they’re transcribed and indexed so researchers can search by topic or by camp. Many of the people we interviewed had photographs and other documents so we began to scan photographs and documents and doing things like adding all the newspapers that were published in the camps. In recent years we have started to become more vocal in advocating for social justice issues that are related to or that the Japanese-American incarceration can inform contemporary discussion of today.
What’s something that isn’t widely known about the reality of the concentration camps at the time?
I think a lot of people don’t grasp that the camps were very much under construction when people moved in. That was a big problem. The living conditions were really, really bad initially. I think it’s Minidoka where the sewage system — there was a problem with a part, so the sewage system wasn’t operational until January of ’43. People came in August. So for the first several months, they’re having to use pit toilets, just holes in the ground until the sewage system can come in. And you know, as the weather’s getting cold it becomes a huge issue. You see a lot of those kinds of things at the beginning.
Something I discovered through Densho were the WRA camp newspapers, can you tell me a bit more about those?
Their rhetoric was they wanted to try to create small town communities that would operate as normally as possible within the framework of behind barbed wire. Public newspapers were a big part of that, so [the directors of the camps] basically “hired” people to run the newspapers. All of the people producing the newspapers were Japanese-Americans, and it was used by the administration as a means to let everyone know just basic information, announcements, when things are going to happen, when things are opening and closing. Then for a lot of the Japanese-Americans themselves, a lot of the content came to focus around things like results of sports leagues, games, entertainment, what the movie was going to be that weekend. There were some news of the outside, what was going on in the other camps. Many of the camp’s population came from specific areas on the west coast: Topaz, Utah, the bay area. So The Topaz Times would have more articles about things that were going on in the community that people came from. Looking at it on the surface, it looks like a typical small town newspaper.
Were the newspapers largely censored?
They were supervised by the reports office. The reports office was part of the administration of each camp, and it was basically a PR office, so usually a PR man or a local journalist who was kind of overseeing the production of the newspapers. The WRA, their philosophy was not to overtly censor the newspapers, although I found that certain stories were sliced because they went places the administration didn’t want them to go. Most of the control was exerted not as overtly. This would be by the people they hand selected [to be] the editors and reporters. So they’re picking people they know to be relatively friendly to the administration, and are not going to print these revolutionary manifestos or anything. They had other ways of controlling the content, and there was a lot of self censorship because the staff knew that they could only go so far.
Can you point to one of those specific examples?
One example is Minidoka — there was a huge controversy at one point about the fence [meant to keep prisoners from leaving the camps]. In Minidoka, the fence was not up when people came in. Everything goes fairly smoothly, then several months in the administration starts building a fence and people are really angry. They’re like: Why are you building this barbed wire fence, after we’ve been perfectly fine without it for these six months? It became a big controversy at Minidoka and there was a fair amount of unrest. That was one case where the Reports Office specifically asked the newspaper not to print any additional stories about the fence, or editorials, or letters to the editor critical of the fence.
What were the wages like for labor in the camps?
One of the big dissatisfactions for many of the people was that they were paid this paltry wage scale of $12, $16, $19 a month. The reason for that was to pacify outside critics. The WRA wanted to keep the salaries paid to the inmates below the lowest wage paid to G.I.s. That was the rationale for this labor scale, but it created this situation in camps. For instance, you have many Japanese-American doctors, dentists, and nurses who work in the camp hospital, and they’re getting paid $19 a month, and they’re working alongside, oftentimes less qualified, white doctors who are literally getting paid 10 or 20 times as much.
The WRA, at the same time, [is] facing tremendous criticism from the outside, where there’s this continuous stream of newspaper articles accusing the WRA of so called coddling — rumors that [prisoners are] getting steak, while people in the outside are facing all these wartime shortages. All these kinds of fake stories about how lavishly the Japanese-Americans are being treated. That also governs what they do inside the barbed wire, because now, they’re particularly careful about how many cents per person per day they’re spending on food, what the wage scale was because it has to be palatable to sell to the outside critics.
There’s been a recent increase in debate on what constitutes a concentration camp and what is the best terminology to use. Where does Densho stand on this?
Densho’s policy is to use concentration camp. Today, most Japanese-Americans support the use of that — not all, but most. I think the origin of this whole debate is that during the time this is going on, the U.S. government is using euphemistic terms. The camps were called relocation centers, assembly centers. The process of removing people from their homes is called evacuation. Evacuation connotes that you’re being removed for your own protection, like from a flood or from a potential hurricane, so the government kind of use these terms at the time.
Starting in the 1970s there was a big push by Japanese-American activists to say, hey, wait a second, we really need to use terminology that reflects what was really going on. These weren’t relocation centers: these were detention camps, prison camps, concentration camps. The specific term “concentration camp” is controversial because of its long association with the Holocaust and the Nazi death camps. We’re always careful to point out that we’re not suggesting equivalency, or that they were as bad as the Nazi camps obviously, but just from a strict dictionary level these were concentration camps. One could argue that the use of concentration camps to apply to the Nazi camps is itself a euphemism. They were more than that.
What are parallels you see between the Japanese-American experience in the 1940s to the situation for immigrants at the border today?
There’s a similar disconnect between all these rumors and propaganda, and there’s this purposeful distortion as to what conditions really are. The obvious one is the racially based, guilt by association sort of episode. All because we were at war with Japan, anyone with Japanese ancestry is suspect and rather than making individual determination, everybody just strictly based on their ancestry is just thrown into a camp. That’s the greatest similarity today, not just with the stuff going on the border, but even with recent episodes with our popular perception and treatment of Arab-Americans. There’s been a lot of activity and protest around recent plans to use Fort Sill in Oklahoma, which was one of the camps used to incarcerate Japanese-Americans, as a place to hold migrant children.
What are your thoughts on the increase in visibility of pop culture about Japanese-Americans’ experiences during these concentration camps, like Takei’s memoir?
I will say in recent years we’ve seen, and this is good, an uptick in the numbers whether it’s documentary film, feature film, tv shows, podcasts, children’s books many many more have come out in the last few years. A lot of that is due to increased funding — both federal state and programs that fund projects that document and preserve, as well as recent events — the vilification of people of color, immigrants, people who look different, the perception of greater levels of racism, hate crimes. There’s more interest in these stories of what happened if these kinds of things go unchecked. On the one hand, you’re happy that the story is getting told more, but on the other hand, the fact that we need to tell these stories more is not so great.
On a personal level, what does doing this type of archival and research work mean to you?
For me, my mother’s family went through this. I think of her family, and her story a lot, as well as many of the other people I’ve gotten to know over the years. A lot of them — my mom and any of the other Nissei [a Japanese-language term used by Japanese communities in North America and South America to specify second generation immigrants] — really want people to know about this. Through working with institutions like Densho and the Japanese-American National Museum, I’ve gotten to know so many people who lived through this and they made it their mission in life to tell the story to make sure people know. I feel privileged to be able to do this and to be able to try to continue to tell those stories of those people after they’ve gone.