NVC Newsletter

Holocaust and Japanese American Connections: How Could Concentration Camps Happen?

by Gail M. Nomura
March 2017, Volume 67, Issue 3

Last summer Tosh Okamoto brought together a coalition of groups to explore the historical connections between the Japanese American community and Jewish community, and these beginning discussions led to a three-part series of programs focusing on the Holocaust and Japanese American Connections. The main groups planning these programs included the NVC/NVC Foundation, the University of Washington Department of American Ethnic Studies, the Holocaust Center for Humanity in Seattle, and the Consulate General of Japan.

The first program in the series, “How Could Concentration Camps Happen?,” was held at the University of Washington at Kane Hall on February 18, 2017 as part of the UW Day of Remembrance. More than 400 people attended this program. JACL, Seattle Chapter was a co-sponsor of the program.

Each year Day of Remembrance programs are held across the nation to remember and educate the public on the history of the mass violations of civil liberties that followed the signing of Executive Order 9066 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, which set into motion the forced removal, exclusion and incarceration of over 120,000 Japanese Americans without due process of law during WW II. This year’s program marked the 75th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066. Speakers discussed conditions that exist in a society that enable governments to order and execute mass incarcerations such as those inflicted on Jews in Europe and Japanese Americans in the United States during World War II and discussed the potential for mass incarcerations in contemporary society.

Dee Simon, the Baral Family Executive Director of the Holocaust Center for Humanity, discussed three conditions: 1) prejudice in the form of anti-Semitism, 2) failure of national and global leadership, and 3) complicity of ordinary people. People were taught to hate through invasive propaganda. The government suppressed opposing publications, imprisoned opponents, controlled the courts and police and effectively destroyed the concept of an impartial judicial system. 

The Nuremberg Laws in 1935 institutionalized racism against Jews who were stripped of German citizenship, excluded from professions, their schools closed and intermarriage prohibited. As Germany invaded Poland and other countries the global community including the United States refused to increase their refugee quotas and closed their borders to Jewish refugees.  Jews had no place to go escape the Holocaust. Simon concluded by powerfully discussing the consequences of the complicity of ordinary people who witnessed the crimes of the Holocaust and chose to abandon fellow human beings.

Millions of people were complicit in the Holocaust.  A person who was an eleven-year-old boy who regularly had seen the dead and dying in a concentration camp from across the camp fence from the adjoining public soccer field said when asked what he thought when he looked across the fence, “I didn’t think about it.  It was normal.” Society had reached a point where mass killing of fellow human beings was believed to be “normal.” Simon concluded with a quote that urged that we must never fail to protest injustice.

Tetsuden Kashima, Professor Emeritus of American Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington, discussed similar societal conditions in the United States in World War II of race prejudice, war hysteria, and failure of political leadership as factors leading to the incarceration of Japanese Americans in World War II.  Race prejudice was a part of U.S. history from the beginning, targeting Japanese Americans as well as other minoritized groups with discriminatory laws including a denial of naturalization for Japanese immigrants and a lack of equal opportunity. 

As for war hysteria, Kashima questioned why were only Japanese Americans seen to bear the face of the enemy and pose a wartime threat to the nation when the United States was also at war with Germany and Italy.  Yet there was no mass incarceration in Hawaii.  A key factor was the failure of political leadership. Kashima urged the need for an informed citizenry to prevent future mass incarcerations. 

Lorraine Bannai, Director of the Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality and Professor of Lawyering Skills at Seattle University School of Law discussed the present-day relevance of the history and conditions examined by Simon and Kashima which are seen almost daily now.  She reviewed the themes of mass incarceration of the past in Europe and the United States in World War II: ignorance, prejudice, history of discriminatory laws, complicity of those who chose not to see and allowed it to happen, and the failure of the rule of law. 

Bannai focused on the failure of the courts in the United States in World War II to scrutinize government actions, noting the unchecked exercise of executive power and capitulation to military judgment in time of war.  The courts upheld the constitutionality of exclusion and created the precedent for future mass removals and incarceration. Bannai argued that government is apt to overreach to justify its actions and the Court needs to scrutinize and serve as a check on the other branches of government to address the toxic mix of ignorance and fear which targets the vulnerable.  Later research revealed that the government had suppressed, altered, and falsified evidence while presenting to the courts the case against Japanese Americans in World War II. 

Bannai stated that the dehumanization of all starts with the dehumanization of one so when we see injustice, we must speak up, write letters, repost articles, write to our representatives, and support organizations with donations and time. 

Stephen Sumida, Professor Emeritus of American Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington, was a commentator for the panel discussion and extended the discussion and gave examples of how Jewish Americans and Japanese Americans are joined in culture in literature (John Okada’s No-No Boy) and contemporary practices.  Scott Kurashige, Professor of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington, Bothell, added a note on the importance of the concept of solidarity in building a more democratic nation that respects civil rights and racial justice by citing historical cases of solidarity across racial and ethnic boundaries. Vince Schleitwiler and Jeannie Shinozuka, Acting Assistant Professors of American Ethnic Studies, University of Washington, facilitated a very thoughtful question and answer session and Gail Nomura, Associate Professor Emerita of American Ethnic Studies, University of Washington, moderated the program. 

Consul General of Japan Masahiro Omura was in attendance and Tosh Okamoto of the NVC, Rachel Nathanson, a member of the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors of the Holocaust Center for Humanity, and Sarah Baker, 2017 President of JACL, Seattle Chapter gave opening remarks.  A “Sushi, Bagels, and Spam Musubi” reception followed the program where community members could continue the conversation.

The next program in the series on the Holocaust and Japanese American Connections on April 9 at 2 p.m at Blaine Memorial United Methodist Church will be on Japanese Consul Chiune Sugihara, who enabled more than 6000 Jews to escape the Holocaust. The third program on April 30 at 2 p.m. at the Nisei Veterans Memorial Hall will be on the history of the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, who were among the liberators of the Dachau camps. The programs are free and open to the public. Free parking is provided.