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WORDS CAN LIE OR CLARIFY: Terminology of the World War II Incarceration of Japanese Americans* - Part 5

Read Part 4 >>

While a major controversy between the Nikkei and Jewish communities had been resolved, no such consensus emerged in responses to the JANM’s call for debate among its board members, staff, scholarly advisory group, and volunteers.   Some suggested capitulating to the early warnings from the National Park Service, such as JANM board member Grant Ujifusa, who favored dropping “concentration camps” from the title for fear of having the exhibit rejected.  But others, including this writer, sent indignant emails and letters saying

At what point are we, as Americans of Japanese ancestry, going to cease to resist having our history written for us by others?  Is our empowerment so weak that we must capitulate and surrender our right to state our own history in our own words?…. If the [concentration camp] words are unacceptable in the title, why would they be acceptable in the text labels and what assurance is there that you would not be asked to remove them later also?1

Support for retaining “concentration camps” in the exhibit’s title came from a younger generation of scholars who followed Roger Daniels’ pioneer research and publications on the Nikkei mass removal and incarceration.   Ishizuka quotes history professor Arthur Hansen at California State University, Fullerton, who replied by telephone within forty-eight hours:

There should be no compromise on the terminology.  The slippage would be a form of accommodation that the Japanese American community participated in under duress in the past.  The redress effort was an attempt to get over that.  To flip back into it would be to capitulate to a historical falsification.  ‘Concentration camp’ is a decidedly accurate term.2

UCLA professor and co-author of a book on the redress movement, Mitchell T. Maki, wrote to Ishizuka and urged her to stand firm:

A community is only as strong as its members’ desire to maintain it.  Self-definition is a central component to the maintenance of a community.  Let us not have won the battle for redress only to sacrifice its true achievement:  the Japanese American community’s willingness to tell their own story of a terrible injustice and the subsequent recognition of that injustice by the United States government.3

On July 4, 2009, a panel discussion on “Concentration Camps vs. Relocation Centers, Internees vs. Prisoners,” attracted a large audience at the 2009 Tule Lake Pilgrimage.  Panel chair James Hirabayashi, former JANM chief curator, recounted the evolving movement for accurate terminology, including the JANM brouhaha at Ellis Island.4  The panelists at the Tule Lake Pilgrimage agreed that the conventional definition of “internment” is the incarceration of enemy aliens (non-citizens) in wartime, thus the use of this term perpetuates the dangerous myth that Nikkei were not U.S. citizens, and therefore subject to incarceration as enemy aliens.  They reminded the audience that “concentration camps” housed political prisoners , and that certainly applies to the mass incarceration of Nikkei based on racist military commanders and overt lies by government officials.  Hirabayashi noted that Nazi “death camps” should not be equated with concentration camps.  Unfortunately, recent history is replete with examples of both concentration camps and death camps in Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Perhaps the most important legacy of the Tule Lake panel was the presence of several National Park Service staff members from Manzanar National Historic Site, as well as NPS staff assigned to the Tule Lake Segregation Center National Historic Monument.  Their active and supportive participation in the lively discussion augers well for a more enlightened and progressive role by the NPS than in the earlier Ellis Island controversy.  Terry Harris, NPS Chief Ranger, responsible for preparing the interpretive center at Tule Lake, welcomed input from NPS colleagues, activists, community groups, and academics to work cooperatively in a common effort to present a full range of information that allows individual visitors to reach informed conclusions about what really happened.  Harris’s commitment to an open-minded posture confirmed the keynote speech by his Regional Director Jon Jarvis at the dedication of the Tule Lake Segregation Center the day before, in which he declared that “only a genuinely self-confident and mature democracy can afford to publicly admit to its failures in the past.”  Jarvis was recently confirmed as the newly-appointed Director of the NPS.5  To their credit, interpretive centers created by NPS staff at sites, such as Manzanar, reflect an admirable and courageous effort to tell what, at the time of their creation, were the facts as described by the best scholarship available.6  But since then the scholars themselves, starting with Roger Daniels, have admitted that their own use of euphemisms must be reviewed and revised for the sake of historical accuracy. 

While euphemisms were being discussed at the 2009 Tule Lake Pilgrimage, retired educator Mako Nakagawa and a group of activists in Seattle proposed a two-pronged effort to replace wartime euphemisms with more accurate words:  The JACL “Power of Words” proposal and the “Seattle (Terminology Action) Plan.”  She explained the “Power of Words” proposal as: 

…a position statement supporting the need to discuss, study and identify terms that will help us expunge euphemisms and support the use of accurate terminology regarding the incarceration of Nikkei people into American concentration camps during World War II.7

The terms listed below for the Seattle (Terminology Action) Plan are identical in many ways to the terms in my “Words Can Lie Or Clarify.”   Nakagawa’s categorization into two groups is based on the premise that certain terms will be more or less controversial than others.

This plan identifies two groups of terms.  One group is labeled ‘Preferred Terminology’ with the following terms: forced removal, expulsion, uprooting, American Concentration Camps, incarceration, imprisonment, prisoner, inmates, incarcerees, Temporary Concentration Camps and confinement.  The second group is labeled ‘Targeted Words for Replacement,’ and includes the terms: evacuation, relocation, Relocation Centers, Assembly Centers, Internment, and Non-alien.  This proposal was kept separate from the Power of Words proposal so that in the event that it gets bogged down, the original proposal can continue to seek approval....8 

There is certainly a growing sense of mission and enthusiasm among academics and Nikkei community activists.   One example among many is a forthcoming conference to be held in the spring of 2010 at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, on telling the story of the former concentration camp at Heart Mountain, Wyoming.  Lane Hirabayashi, who occupies an endowed chair on the wartime Nikkei experience at UCLA, is working with the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation and the Japanese American National Museum to organize a conference marking 65 years since Heart Mountain closed.  One of the sessions Hirabayashi plans is a discussion on terminology of the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans.  His own evolving interest in accurate terminology was reflected in this 1995 statement, “A Note on Transcription and Terminology:”   

I have avoided the euphemistic terms evacuation (which…implies a temporary removal in order to protect the population in question), relocation (which implies a long-term removal along the same lines), and associated terms as evacuee, assembly center, and relocation center.  

It is also relevant here that the term internment camp (along with its derivations such as internee) is technically inappropriate for the WRA camps because the United States Department of Justice set up and ran special maximum security camps to imprison Japanese, Italian, and German nationals who had been swept up in the weeks following the attack on Pearl Harbor and whose loyalties were deemed suspect.  These special camps were called internment camps by the Justice Department, and this convention has generally been followed in the scholarly literature to differentiate them from the camps run by the WRA.  

 As described in the research and publications of a number of scholars, the process that more than 110,000 Japanese Americans were subjected to was mass incarceration, and the facilities that they were placed in were American-style concentration camps. 
The term concentration camp certainly describes conditions in a camp like Poston from the point of view of many of the Japanese Americans, none of whom, even if they were U.S. citizens, were given a fair trial before they were forced to leave their businesses, homes, and communities.

The formation of organizations like the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation dedicated to preserving former wartime Nikkei incarceration sites like those at Manzanar and Tule Lake presents an opportunity to pursue a full discussion of euphemistic terminology and the need to revise and create a nomenclature that educates visitors to these sites about what really happened, and how it can happen again, as we have seen in the wake of the terrorist attacks on “9-11.” 

Recent and current developments strongly suggest a growing consensus among NPS, community activists, and academics that it is time to focus squarely on the importance of historically accurate terminology for the wartime Nikkei incarceration, and I would like to share selected terms from my ongoing compilation that has been previously circulated among colleagues and friends for a decade or more under the title “Work in Progress.”

>> See Glossary of terms related to the World War II Incarceration of Japanese Americans (PDF)


1.  Email to Karen Ishizuka from Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, Virginia, February 6, 1998.  Ibid.
p. 158.

2.  Telephone log of February 5-6, 1998, JANM.  Ibid., p. 159.  Hansen was a pioneer in oral histories of former incarcerees.  See Arthur Hansen and Betty E. Mitson, eds.  Voices Long Silent: An Oral Inquiry into the Japanese American Evacuation (Fullerton: California State University, Fullerton, Japanese American Project, Oral History Program, 1974).

3.  Letter to Karen Ishizuka from Mitchell T. Maki, Assistant Professor, School of Public Policy and Social Research, University of California, Los Angeles, February 4, 1998.  Ibid. p. 159.  See Mitchell T. Maki, et al.  Achieving the Impossible Dream:  How Japanese Americans Obtained Redress.  (Urbana, Illinois:  University of Illinois Press, 1999).
4.  James Hirabayashi is emeritus professor and founding dean of the School of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University.   Other panelists were George Nakano, former Torrance City councilman and California State assemblyman, and Don Hata, emeritus professor of history at California State University, Dominguez Hills.  Hirabayashi referred to his “‘Concentration Camp’ or ‘Relocation Center’ – What’s In A Name?” article for the Japanese American National Museum Quarterly (Autumn 1994), pp. 5-10.  
 “George Nakano - Legislator to Division President,” for the December 2009 issue of CalRTA Contact Magazine, California Retired Teachers Association.  pp. 12-13:  “Nakano’s growing-up years were unusual, including three World War II ‘concentration camps.’  (He is adamant about this term: ‘US citizens were put in concentration camps; non-citizens go to internment camps.’  He also isn’t fond of the euphemism, ‘relocation camps’).”  
Hata referred to his negative review of historian Alice Yang Murray’s Historical Memories of the Japanese American Internment (California History, 86:1, 2008) 74:  “[This] is an expansion of the author’s doctoral dissertation and…she is no stranger to the subject....  Mature historiographical scrutiny of the voluminous literature on this subject could not be timelier in this era of a so-called war on terror, but that goal awaits another author.”

5. Terry Harris is Chief Ranger/Chief of Interpretation, National Park Service, Lava Beds National Monument.  At the time of the 2009 Tule Lake Pilgrimage, Jon Jarvis was Director of the NPS’ Pacific West Region; see Julie Cart, “Parks chief foresees sunny skies: To Jon Jarvis, who takes the helm of the National Park Service today, the agency is on the brink of rebirth,” Los Angeles Times (October 5, 2009), A9.  For the Tule Lake pilgrimage, see: Barbara Takei, “Tule Lake’s Block 42: A Little-Known Story of Wartime Civil Disobedience,” Nichi Bei Times (January 1, 2009), 3.  Also see S. Floyd Mori, “JACL Needs Further Conversation on Tule Lake,” Nichi Bei Times (July 30-August 5, 2009), 2.

6.  Alisa Lynch, NPS Chief of Interpretation at Manzanar National Historic Site, was among the founding staff.   A 2004 article by Kimberly Edds in the Washington Post, “New Museum Revives Painful Memories for Internees,” reported that “Ross Hopkins, the first Manzanar superintendent, received death threats from residents....He received so many calls at home he got an unlisted number....Years of focus groups and extensive community outreach by park officials helped to allay many critics’ fears.”  Also see: Jesse A. Garrett and Ronald C. Larson eds.  Camp and Community: Manzanar and the Owens Valley (California State University, Fullerton:  Japanese American Oral History Project, 1977) 233 pp, for interviews of local residents who recalled the site as “the Jap camp.

7. Mako Nakagawa.  “The Power of Words,” Nichi Bei Times (August 20-26, 2009), p. 3.

8. Ibid.

9.  Lane Hirabayashi, ed.  Inside An American Concentration Camp: Japanese American Resistance at Poston, Arizona (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1995), p. xxi.  Hirabayashi is the George and Sakae Aratani Professor of the Japanese American Internment, Redress, and Community in the UCLA Asian American Studies Department.


*Note:  This essay has circulated over the past decade among friends and research associates with the working title “Work in Progress: Terminology – WW II exclusion/incarceration of West Coast Japanese-Americans.”  Copyright © 2009. Rev. 2010.


© 2009 Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga

concentration camps euphemism glossary internment camps terminology World War II