Nation, World + Society

Debate over words to describe Japanese American incarceration lingers

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Internees at Tule Lake camp, January 1943
Francis Stewart/National Archives and Records Administration

Government records caption this photo: “A large iron stove is enjoyed on cold winter days by the evacuee workers” at the “Tule Lake Relocation Center.” For decades, many in the Japanese American community have argued that inaccurate language has been used to describe what happened to Japanese Americans to hide the true nature of their forced removals.

The debate over appropriate terms to describe the forced removal of Japanese Americans and their immigrant parents from their homes to camps during World War II has been churning since the end of the war and continues today.

Are words like “internment camp,” “internee,” “evacuation” and “relocation center” misleading euphemisms? Should they be replaced by terms that the Japanese American Citizens League and many others in the Asian American community consider more accurate, including “American concentration camp,” “prisoners” and “illegal detention center”?  

In 1994, the issue of terminology surfaced when the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles staged an exhibit, “America’s Concentration Camps: Remembering the Japanese American Experience.” When the exhibit was set to travel to Ellis Island in New York for a showing in 1998, the American Jewish Committee and the National Park Service, which manages Ellis Island, objected to the use of “concentration camps.” A number of Holocaust survivors and their families felt it might confuse the public, who might conflate “concentration camps” with “death camps.” 

Eventually, museum representatives and officials from seven American Jewish organizations worked out a compromise, adding text to the exhibition that defined a “concentration camp” as “a place where people are imprisoned not because of any crimes they committed, but simply because of who they are.”     

In 2012, the National Council of the Japanese American Citizens League unanimously ratified the “Power of Words Handbook: A Guide to Language about Japanese Americans in World War II.”

“It is now time to acknowledge and correct this misleading language of the past and focus on truth and accuracy for the future,” its authors said, in order to better understand the events and actions experienced by Japanese Americans.

Major newspapers like the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and New York Times continue to use “internment camps” to describe places where 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry were held. The Associated Press, the news organization that sets language rules and style for most of the nation’s news operations, also agrees with that practice. UCLA Newsroom, which observes the Associated Press Style Guide, has followed suit.

But many scholars believe these terms are not accurate and do not reflect the historical record.

► Related: Center shatters myth of Japanese Americans imprisoned in camps   

UCLA Asian American studies professor Lane Hirabayashi explains that “internment” refers to the imprisonment of foreign nationals. “Internment” and “internee” can only be applied accurately to the Issei (persons of Japanese ancestry who were non-U.S. citizens) who were arrested by the FBI and then placed in special U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) camps.

“These terms cannot and should not be applied to the Japanese Americans held in the civilian agency-run War Relocation Authority camps,” the professor said. “As the POW (“Power of Words”) handbook indicates, these people were subject to mass incarceration, placed in WCCA (Wartime Civil Control Administration) camps and American-style concentration camps.”

There were other distinctions, he pointed out. The Issei who were held in DOJ camps had recourse to the Geneva Convention and could report violations to their official representative in the U.S. Research indicates that the Issei under DOJ confinement were more empowered than the Japanese Americans who were held in the WRA (War Relocation Authority) camps. “This impacted the kinds and levels of their resistance,” Hirabayashi said.

In addition, Roger Daniels, emeritus professor of history at the University of Cincinnati and a scholar of immigrant and Asian American history, has written that during the war, no responsible government representative used the word “internment” other than to describe what happened to Issei in the DOJ camps.

In fact, Hirabayashi points out in an entry on “Incarceration” in the book “Keywords for Asian American Studies” (NYU Press, 2015) that no major scholarly book published on the mass incarceration used the word “internment” as a synonym for the incarceration of all Japanese Americans until the 1950s, well after the end of the war.

“In terms of studying resistance in American-style concentration camps, precision concerning the kinds of prisoners that the U.S. created, and specificity about the rights each type of prisoner had access to, serves the interest of scholarship,” he explained. “Calling all prisoners ‘internees’ or suggesting that what happened to all Japanese Americans in terms of their incarceration was ‘internment’ is both ahistorical and misleading.”

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