The Media’s Role in Citizens’ Perceptions of Topaz, the Japanese Internment Camp in Utah

by Elizabeth Fields

The media have always played a role in our history. More than simply relaying the news, media dictate which stories deserve our attention, whether or not we are aware of it. Sometimes subtle and sometimes not, the media mold our values and opinions through careful choice of language and selection of which stories to tell. In the case of the Japanese internment facility located in Delta, Utah, the media’s influence over the public proved to be no different. Through the alienation of Japanese-American citizens and normalization of internment facilities, Utah media placated its citizens and prevented them from being able to recognize Topaz as being inhumane and unjust.

WRA official

Internees began arriving at the Central Utah Relocation Center, known as Topaz, on September 11, 1942. This article from the August 27, 1942, issue of the Millard County Chronicle, was typical of the coverage.

Described as being “one of the most flagrant violations of civil liberties in American history,” the upheaval and relocation of many Japanese-American citizens during World War II was set in motion on February 19, 1942, when President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. (history.com) This order authorized the creation of military zones along the West Coast and stipulated that individuals who were considered a threat to national security could be relocated to internment facilities located farther inland. The order soon was used to justify the removal of Japanese-Americans who were suspected of having an allegiance to Japan. Forced to put their jobs and education on hold and to give up their homes and most of their possessions, more than 120,000 citizens were sent to internment camps in states including Idaho, Wyoming, and Colorado, where they were closely monitored to ensure that they could not assist the enemy. The Central Utah Relocation Center, more commonly known as Topaz for the mountain to the west, officially opened on September 11, 1942. By the time it closed, it had housed more than 11,000 detainees. (topazmuseum.org)

American citizens who did not have ties to Japan had been primed by the media to distrust and dislike Japanese culture, both domestic and abroad, since the beginning of America’s involvement in WW II. In the months leading up to the opening of Topaz, Utah citizens were exposed to hateful, racist terminology degrading their perception of the Japanese. On January 6, 1942, the Salt Lake Telegram reported that American soldiers were “killing the cocky little invaders like flies,” quite literally dehumanizing the foreign enemy. On January 5, 1942, the Salt Lake Telegram relished the thought of American allies writing “in rivers of Japanese blood.” This violent rhetoric set the stage for internment camps to open without question or opposition from the American public. It is important to note that Utah media consistently referred to the Japanese enemy as “Japs” in nearly any article written about the progress of the war.

In September 1942, when Japanese-American citizens began arriving at Topaz, the media also referred to these camp residents as “Japs.” On August 27, the Millard County Chronicle published an article under the headline, “WRA Officials Arrive to Take Over Jap Camp.” In the same issue, a separate article advertised cheap labor provided by internees and provided details about “how the Japs can be got, the regulations, and other information.” In this particular story, the language is eerily reminiscent of historical articles advertising slave labor. Utah media did not even bother to differentiate between the Japanese enemy and the Japanese-American citizen. Instead, the media lumped the two populations together using the same racial slur. Immediately, citizens living outside of internment camps differentiated the Japanese-American citizens as being in a separate category from themselves and associated them with the enemy. In some cases, citizens may not have even made a distinction between citizens and the enemy because the two shared the same epithet.

To further Utah’s ignorance to the injustice at play, Utah media completely normalized the Topaz internment camp by publishing mundane, day-to-day happenings at the camp, none of which included any of the harsh realities of life at Topaz. One of the most insulting articles was published in the Salt Lake Telegram on December 30, 1942, with the headline, “You Wouldn’t Trade Places.” It suggested that those living outside internment camps were actually experiencing some kind of envy. The article observed: “There are all sorts of rumors—that the Japanese evacuees from California live there in style, that they are being fed far better than most Americans.” The article described the minimalistic lifestyle of internment camp, but then assured readers, “Certainly they are being treated decently … the food is wholesome…. Although not being pampered, they are being very fairly treated.” It even claimed that the Japanese-American citizens enjoyed the work they did at the camp, saying, “Work becomes desirable as a pastime.” In reality, life at Topaz was anything but fair. According to the Densho Encyclopedia,

“Many of the apartments were not finished when inmates arrived. The prisoners had to endure especially cold conditions until gypsum board was installed on the walls and ceilings… Ill health was common at Topaz… Several prisoners reported how this … traumatized them and prevented them from ever feeling fully secure in camp.”

On December 17, 1942, the Millard County Chronicle published an article detailing the plans for a Christmas party to be held at Topaz: “This will be a large scale operation, purposed by the WRA [War Relocation Authority] to promote good will, [and] to show the proper Christian spirit.” The brief article clearly applauded the righteousness of the WRA and completely dismissed the fact that internees could not be in their own home with their friends and extended family to celebrate. Many of the internees were not Christian and did not even observe Christmas as a holiday. This article reinforced the concept that they they were comfortable and happy, perhaps even lucky. This complete misconception of the reality of living in an internment camp prevented Utahns from recognizing the injustice of the situation.

The last and perhaps one of the most significant elements in keeping Utah citizens silent was the Espionage Act. This act prevented anyone from publishing material conveying “anti-patriotic” sentiments. More than an act of censorship, the Espionage Act reflected a deep-rooted fear that citizens of Japanese descent felt a stronger alliance to Japan than to America that would cause them to betray their country. On May 28, 1942, the Millard County Chronicle wrote,

“What shall we do with Japanese aliens to prevent possible espionage and sabotage?… Many of the Japanese, especially those of American birth, were loyal to the United States. But their fathers and mothers were aliens. It was to be expected that a considerable number of these would be tied to Japan by bonds of race and nationality.”

The Espionage Act only encouraged feelings of distrust toward the Japanese and furthered the media’s contempt for them. To write in opposition of Topaz would be to risk interrogation or even detainment. Simply put, it was unsafe to openly protest Topaz. Had it not been for the Espionage Act, perhaps Utah media would have exposed the truth about Topaz and the public would have had the ability to resist.

As Americans when we think of World War II, we think of bravery and sacrifice. We think of the grainy, black and white footage of victorious soldiers raising the flag at Iwo Jima. We think of Rosie in her red bandana, proudly pulling her denim sleeve across her flexed arm and proclaiming, “We Can Do It!” We think of the famous photograph of a young soldier home from war, in the streets of New York kissing a stranger out of pure elation. We do not think of an American Japanese family leaving their home in San Francisco to be locked away in an internment camp in Utah. We do not think of a young American Japanese student, forced to halt his education to be unjustifiably imprisoned. We do not think of thousands of people uprooted from their homes, careers, and aspirations to satiate the racism of a fearful country. We do not think of it, but we should. Through alienation, false justification, and writing within the boundaries of the Espionage Act, Utah media placated citizens and manipulated them to believe that Topaz and facilities like it were just and necessary.

Today still, our country faces prejudice every day that is perpetuated by our media. With the understanding of the injustice of Topaz, we are better able to critically analyze the sources we rely upon and protect those who our media would wrongfully have us fear.

Elizabeth Fields is studying strategic communication at The University of Utah.

Sources

“They Fought Like Demons,” Salt Lake Telegram, January 5, 1942, 8.

“The Japs Take a Beating,” Salt Lake Telegram, January 6, 1942, 6.

“The Story of 112,000 Japanese in America,” Millard County Chronicle, May 28, 1942, 8.

“WRA Officials Arrive to Take over Jap Camp,” Millard County Chronicle, August 27, 1942, 1.

“Utah County Wants Topaz Jap Laborers,” Millard County Chronicle, September 27, 1942, 8.

“To Hold Xmas Festivities at Topaz,” Millard County Chronicle, December 17, 1942, 1.

“You Wouldn’t Trade Places,” Salt Lake Telegram, December 30, 1942, 6.

“Japanese-American Relocation.” History.com, http://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/japanese-american-relocation.

“Topaz.” Densho Encyclopedia, http://encyclopedia.densho.org/Topaz.

“Topaz Camp.” Topaz Museum, http://www.topazmuseum.org/topaz-camp.

 

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