This review was written in 2010, but this story about another concentration camp reminded me of the film, so I decided to post it here.
I watched Passing Poston at the Brooklyn Public Library at 1:30 on a Sunday afternoon. The audience was small, about 25 people, including some people who were friends of the directors who were there to give a post-screening Q&A session, along with Dr. Gary Okihiro. About half of the audience was Asian or Asian American, and the rest of the people appeared to be white or Black.
The film raised several interesting points by interspersing recent interviews with former concentration camp residents, archival footage, and footage from the Indian reservation that was the site of the Poston Concentration Camp. The former residents of the camp had very different ways of reacting to their imprisonment: one woman was inspired by her experiences to produce visual art; another found her faith; and the only Japanese-American man in the film concluded that his Americaness was conditional. The representatives of the reservation where the camp had been situated saw the continuity of the disempowerment of minority groups by the U.S. government and although they did not speak about their individual responses, spoke of the benefits the Indians on the reservation gained as a result of camp residents’ work.
As the subject of concentration camps inevitably brings up comparisons with the more notoriously well-known Nazi camps employed during the Holocaust, I wondered why there were so few films about American concentration camps. I contemplated the disparity between the ubiquitousness of the Holocaust in Americans’ collective consciousness in contrast to the relative obscurity of American’s imprisonment of Japanese-Americans. I asked myself why the audience for a documentary like this was so small, yet films and lectures about the Holocaust I have attended had much larger audiences despite being in less accessible venues like the CUNY Graduate Center compared to the Brooklyn Public Library.
I asked the panel after the screening why this was the case, and offered the guess that Americans were reluctant to counter the myth of the benevolent U.S. government and of the infallibility of ‘Greatest Generation’ while the Nazis were iconic representatives of pure evil in American popular imagination. Director Joe Fox responded with the answer about a similar experience he has had getting the film distributed. He theorized that distributors assumed that the audience would be a small niche of Japanese Americans. Professor Okihiro forwarded that scholars have generally framed study of the era as an anomaly in American history and an interesting case of Constitutional law rather than as crime against humanity. This response led me to conclude that the publicity surrounding the concentration camps needs to be repackaged for it to enter into the American lexicon and become a touchstone just as the terms “Holocaust”, “Nazi”, “Jim Crow”, and “September 11th” have.
While waiting to suggest this to Professor Okihiro, a man approached me to suggest that the reason the concentration camps have failed to capture the attention of the public was that Americans are just generally ignorant of history. He supported this idea by saying that many Americans who “watch American Idol and not people like you and me, educated, who watch PBS, and read” confuse the Korean and Vietnam Wars. I countered that while the public may not be able to distinguish between the Gulf of Tonkin Incident and the Pusan Perimeter, everyone knows the word for the Nazi genocide of the Jews; a lot even know two: the Holocaust and the Shoah. (Shoah is Hebrew for conflagration and Stephen Spielberg’s foundation to preserve personal histories of the Holocaust is named “the Shoah Foundation”.) The man replied, “Well, maybe in New York.”
Again and again, I am struck by the ruthlessness of American colonialism and its treatment of people that it subjects to its self-serving rules. Passing Poston clearly demonstrates once again that the government changes the rules at will, and calculates moves that justify conspiracy theorists' claims about the hidden motives behind seemingly valid or reasonable actions and explanations. While American Indians and US-born people of Japanese descent are both Americans, the government carefully executed an old plan, according to Professor Okihiro, to relocate West Coast Japanese, while simultaneously building up the infrastructure of the reservation in order to be able to later force other Indian tribes into the area. The colonization of Indian lands by Europeans is indisputable fact, but more Americans would dispute that the Japanese-Americans are colonized as well, since they migrated to the U.S. The parallel excuses, though, illustrate how similarly these two disparate groups threaten American interests and therefore were treated the same.
“one day I went to bed American, and the next day I woke up an alien.”The Bureau of Indian Affairs that has ruled over the reservations since the mid-nineteenth century also claimed that they were protecting the Indians, civilizing them, and assimilating them. The Japanese Americans were likewise assimilated and taught about American freedoms, protected, and contained on the same land as the Indians. It is often argued now that Roosevelt wanted to provoke war with the Japanese and further American interests in the Pacific. The very reason that there was a significant Japanese population on the west coast and Hawai’i is that American corporations needed labor. Again the government exploited that labor to fulfill its own needs and schemes. Between the similar stories presented to the public about why it was necessary to move and confine Americans of Indian and Japanese ancestry, a clear colonial relationship can be drawn. A further comparison between the similarities of experiences is captured up by the Japanese-American man who said that “one day I went to bed American, and the next day I woke up an alien.” He stated this in front of a mostly Indian and Latino audience on the reservation in Arizona that Poston was situated on. The audience applauded, easily identifying with it, according to James Nubile who related the story to us.
Passing Poston draws the lines connecting Japanese Americans and American Indians as disempowered groups unfairly treated and compelled by the government to be relocated. The story is nearly unknown and needs to be publicized so that Americans can move beyond the myth of a benevolent government and honorable history (with small anomalies that can be discounted as exceptions in a generally good and progressive path) to ensure that such an injustice never be repeated. This may require coining a different term or reclaiming "concentration camp." Since the USA PATRIOT Act was passed, and the detainment of thousands of innocents on suspicion of terrorism, it is critical to preventing the need for future apologies and reparations.