-A Writer's Reflection

Rohwer Japanese Relocation camp: Racism, Fear or Protection?

The easiest explanation to any social injustice is racism. 

During the world war 2, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese were about to attack on the west coast of US. The Japanese never attacked, but the fear was high. Meanwhile, the US government rounded up all Japanese Americans living in cities, towns, villages on the west coast and put them into detention. Yes, shocking as it was, it happened. The Japanese Americans, mainly in California and Oregon, were given short notices to vacate and report. Most of them were not able to sell anything and were put into concentration camps for few days. After few weeks to few days, they were transported on trains going to one of the twelve intermittent camps in undisclosed locations in US. These detainees were then released after three years.

Incidentally, the detainees were US citizens. Many of them born in US and some of them had never been to Japan. The question arose, why a country would treat its own citizens in such an atrocious way. Detainees were not exactly the prisoners, as they were provided with basic necessities. They had a normal life within the boundaries of their camps and occasionally some detainees were even allowed to visit nearby villages. After a few months in the camp, many detainees enrolled into US military and fought in the world war for US in Europe, but not before they cleared a ‘loyalty test’.
One site of such intermittent camp was near the village of Rohwer in Mississippi delta region of south east Arkansas. Famous Hollywood actor George Takei was one of the detainees in that camp. Arkansas state university as a part of revival of entire delta region and its heritage invested in preserving the history in Arkansas. A museum was established in McGehee, Arkansas around 13 miles from the actual site of the intermittent camp. 

According to their visitors’ book, I was the first Indian to visit the museum, quite obvious as I had no relation to that history or it wasn’t a popular place. Most of the Arkansans I talked to didn’t even know about this part of history or its connection to the natural state. The first part of the museum had a movie depicting the history and experiences of the inmates. The second part had an exhibit of quotes of the detainees, photographs, artwork and other things used by them. The life was not easy. Each family had a small room to live their life. They had limited rations, heavily guarded camp and no social life except for within the camps. For detainees, that time period was like two immigrations, one when the camps started as they had to leave everything behind and another when the camps ended as they had to restart their life again. 

One of the detainees, Eiichi Kamiya, wrote about the Rohwer camp:
“Far enough south to catch Gulf Coast hurricanes, far enough north to catch the Midwestern tornadoes, close enough to the river to be inundated by the Mississippi valley floods, and lush enough to be heaven for every creepy, crawly creature and pesky insects in the world.”
And that was the best part of the camps.

Today, the only parts left of the camps are a guard tower and a cemetery. I was completely unaware of this history. After visiting the history in the museum, I drove to the actual fields of the camps, the corn fields. Gorgeous weather, cool breeze and sun shine welcomed me. I felt chilly not because of breeze, but I was visualizing the camp life in there; heavily guarded fence, guard towers, armed sentries, small barracks, lines for rations and yet peaceful Japanese Americans going about their life. The questions flooded my mind. I talked to many people about it and the answer I received from the most was racism. Was it just racism? Debatable. In fact, during the Clinton administration, US government, in a special white house program, invited and apologized to survivors of intermittent camps.

I have been in the US for last five years and I have seen many sectarian divides and movements. Racism is being blamed for more time than anything else. By blaming it on racism, every other underlying causes gets undermined. Same was the case during the world war 2. Yes, there could have been racism, but surely the US government was not driven by the racism. The senate had representative from African American community since 1870, some 70 years before Japanese intermittent camp.

The bipartisan political system is the weakest of all democratic political system I’ve seen. That could be the reason. Most of the problems do not need political support or escalation, as election issues are easy to find in a bipartisan system. Most of the time, just saying you hate the other party has been enough to get you votes, as no third front exists to challenge. During the decision of putting Japanese intermittent camp, politically, stakes were very low. Forget about opposing, even educating about the event was not considered important. Thus, many of the Americans are till day unaware about Japanese intermittent camp. 

On the other hand, it could have been a smart decision by the Government. Japanese were about to attack on west coast or as was believed by the people there. Being a paranoid society, the enmity was bound to increase among Japanese Americans and other Americans. Japanese Americans would have incurred heavy loss, as they were minority, if the riots were broken out. By moving them to intermittent camps, the Government at lease ensured safety of their lives. While fighting a world war, stability at home was of the utmost importance. By moving Japanese Americans out of the west coast and away from other Americans, the US government not only ensured their safety but also the stability at home to focus on the war. Smart!

The last part, German Americans were not treated the same way. True, because the real perceived fear was from Japan and racially Japanese were easy to discriminate. Racism in the society played part in the discrimination, but I do not believe the US government was driven by the racism. The Japs, as they were called, from the camps were allowed to visit nearby villages. A group of youths visited a nearby town, probably Rohwer, but I’m not sure. They boarded a bus. Segregation was a reality at that time, and so white people travelled in the front of the bus, while black people occupied the rear. Being wary of the white people, the Japanese youth instinctively walked to rear to sit with blacks. The driver instructed them to sit in the middle creating a third sect. Yes, that was racism, but no different than anywhere else in the universe. More so, that was a lack of education and awareness. They had never seen a Japanese person and did not know how to react. They were not beaten up. The Japanese were just discriminated out of unawareness and lack of education more than racism.

All being said, most of the Americans who know about Japanese American camps, today believe that was a bad fruit of their glorious history. I am taking the blame away from Racism, because I believe blaming the racism is an easy way out and undermine other issues. In addition, I have travelled to the interiors of the US. I have travelled to the places notoriously perceived as racist. Nevertheless, I have never been racially discriminated. 

In the end, a quote from Ray Johnston, the project director of the Rohwer camps, glorifies the response of Japanese Americans and how civilized they were. Yes, they were Americans and they loved their country, US:
“I was very agreeably surprised throughout the life of the Center at the excellent conduct of practically all evacuees. I do not believe that any other similar-sized segment of our population would have behaved themselves as well under similar circumstances. I feel that a group of average Americans, under similar conditions, would have been continually causing turmoil, strikes, and so on, and that administering such a Center would have been unbearable."

Thank you Arkansas State University for preserving the history. (http://rohwer.astate.edu)

Visit the place and build your own opinion.


Rohwer Japanese Relocation camp: Racism, Fear or Protection? Rohwer Japanese Relocation camp: Racism, Fear or Protection? Reviewed by Mihir on 6:09:00 AM Rating: 5

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