Confronting the trauma of America’s concentration camps

Three-year-old Elizabeth Toyomi Okayama (front left), with her sister, father, mother and brother at Heart Mountain Concentration Camp in Wyoming, 1943. Used with permission.

It is late afternoon. The grounds are quiet and sun-drenched. The waters of Puget Sound lap against the nearby shoreline and a gentle summer breeze blows through. There is a restorative calm to the site, which makes the reality of what took place here seventy years ago all the more jarring.

On March 30, 1942, 227 children, women, and men of Japanese ancestry living on Bainbridge Island, Washington were taken from their homes, rounded up by soldiers armed with rifles fixed with bayonets, and herded onto the Eagledale Ferry Dock. After being transported to nearby Seattle they were sent by train to concentration camps in either Manzanar in California or Minidoka in Idaho. The Bainbridge Island contingent was the first group to be incarcerated under President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, which, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, authorized the military to exclude people of Japanese descent from much of the West Coast. Eventually 120,000 people were forced into 10 remote camps across the western U.S. until the end of World War II.

Like many of us, I was taught to call these sites “internment camps,” a term designed to make a distinction between confinement and punishment, which sometimes refers to detaining belligerent armed forces, as spelled out in the Second Hague Convention. There is, however, a long history of referring to “a guarded compound for the detention or imprisonment of aliens, members of ethnic minorities, political opponents” as a “concentration camp,” beginning as early as the 18th century in Poland. There is some evidence that FDR himself referred to the U.S. sites as concentration camps. A vigorous discussion about the appropriate term has ensued for decades, with some commentators contesting the weakness and neutralizing concept of “internment.”  Without detracting from the horror experienced by others — including those who perished in the Nazi death camps — “concentration camp” conveys more accurately the chilling reality of what the Japanese American community faced.

A handful of us are touching this history this afternoon at the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial, a permanent site located near where the ferry landing once stood.

The heart of the site, which opened on August 6, 2011, is a low-slung, undulating 272-foot “Story Wall” evoking Japanese architectural forms that gently meanders down toward the water. The granite wall features the names and ages of Japanese Americans from the island who were forcibly incarcerated, as well as a series of images and quotations from a number of the involuntary exiles. As the memorial’s website puts it, the wall tells “a unique American story of immigration, establishment, their forced removal and return to their island home.”

This is a personal story for me. My mother-in-law, Elizabeth Toyomi Okayama, was a child in the camp at Heart Mountain in Wyoming. Like many others, her family was rounded up in Los Angeles and transported far from home. She arrived as a three-year-old and was freed when she was six. Her parents, fearing that they would face the kind of racism they experienced in California, opted for a new life in Chicago, where they opened restaurants and raised six children. While Liz is not with me on this trip, my three-year-old daughter is, and it is poignantly bewildering to think of her being arrested, wrenched out of the world she knows, and held without due process for years.

Half of those incarcerated in this systematic sweep were children. The impact of this comes through in The Children of the Camps, a documentary that highlights the stories of six Japanese Americans who were interned as children and their exploration of the trauma of this experience of racism and scapegoating. The film features the work of Dr. Satsuki Ina, who was born in the Tule Lake concentration camp and who has developed a therapeutic approach focused on the process of telling personal stories.

Unearthing trauma in the midst of safe space can be transformative and healing. This is true in the classic therapeutic setting that Dr. Ina and others facilitate. But it is also at work in a public venue like the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial. By publicly witnessing to the horror and shame inflicted in this place seven decades ago, it reframes it. This space of terror has been reclaimed and transformed by exhuming the humanity of those who were treated as the demonized enemy by naming them, picturing them and hearing their voice. To walk this gravel path is both to glimpse the violence and injustice that took place here but also to enter — and even, at least in a small way, to consciously or unconsciously embody — a counter-narrative that reframes the stubbornly destructive judgments of history.

But such a site not only provides an opportunity to engage with the past; it can also prod us to create a present and future where this kind of hysteria-driven collective punishment is resisted, challenged and dismantled. The lessons from this historical tragedy have been lifted up, for example, in the effort to counter the racist treatment of Muslims in the U.S., especially since 9/11. The film Caught In Between (here and here) explicitly makes connections between 1942 and today’s “war on terrorism” and its impact on U.S. Muslims, and the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center currently features an exhibit challenging stereotypes of Muslims.

The Bainbridge Island memorial exists as a bulwark against the corrosive effect of time and ideology that can calculatingly lull us into willful amnesia or diversionary ignorance. Even the silky, pastel light on this temperate summer day is unable to dull our awareness of the glaring meaning of this place. Its motto — Nidoto Nai Yoni, “Let It Not Happen Again” — invites visitors to grapple with the realities of what occurred here and also, most pointedly, with how we can make good on this urgent command ringing across the decades.

This process of engagement is not only happening on Bainbridge Island. People are journeying to many of the camps, including Manzanar and Tule Lake in California. (Last month, the New York Times published an account of the journey 400 people recently made to the Tule Lake.) Pilgrimage to these and other such sites are acts of nonviolent transformation. They can change us and they can inspire us to change the world.

By their very presence, such sites relentlessly and publicly challenge the policies that spawned systemic violence and injustice, which gets me to think that we need such memorials everywhere, countering the historical and contemporary forms of exclusion, too often unseen and forgotten and thus continuing their originating trauma.

“Let It Not Happen Again” is applicable to many harrowing legacies — as today’s grievous remembrance of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki reminds us — and so we are implored by history itself to remember and act in every possible way for the well-being of all.

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