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Words Do Matter: A Note on Inappropriate Terminology and the Incarceration of the Japanese Americans – Part 5 of 5

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When one examines the postwar printed record, whether memoirs by former inmates and officials or accounts by scholars and others, the result is pretty much the same. The terminology used by the government—evacuation and relocation—prevails, plus, for almost all the Nikkei authors and some scholars, the ambiguous “camp.” Nothing better exemplifies the difference between expressed Nikkei attitudes just after the war and three to four decades later than successive editions of two outstanding Nisei memoirs.

The first, Miné Okubo’s pioneering 1946 illustrated text, Citizen 13660, dealt only with wartime and told of evacuation from Berkeley and confinement at Tanforan—in a horse stall—and at Topaz. The soon-to-be ubiquitous “camp” was the most common term, but otherwise standard government terminology—including relocation and evacuation—was used. Identical words punctuate the preface to the first reprint edition, dated May 1, 1978, but by the time of the second reprint edition just five years later, Okubo had testified before the CWRIC, and her preface speaks of “Americans and Alaskan Aleuts who had been forcibly removed from their homes and incarcerated in concentration camps” (xi), but in the rest of the new text reverts to the old standard language. In addition, the word “internment” and the phrase “internment camp” have been added to her vocabulary in describing what she endured, whereas in the original such language had been reserved for the process undergone by many Issei, as in “Father had been whisked away to an internment camp” (11).51

A similar pattern may be discerned in the two editions of Monica Sone’s 1953 memoir, Nisei Daughter, which deals with a Seattle girlhood and devotes its final two-fifths to uprooting from Seattle, life in the Puyallup Assembly Center and the Minidoka Relocation Center, and resettlement in Chicago and at an Indiana college. Its text uses only terminology that the WRA would have approved. But in her preface to the 1979 edition, the second, one-sentence paragraph shows clearly that consciousness-raising had taken place:

The ten concentration camps, which received 120,000 of us in 1942, were finally closed in 1946. (xv)52

Since I have reviewed the first three decades of scholarly literature about the wartime incarceration elsewhere, it will not be repeated here.53 By that time (1975) the broad outlines of what can be called a “master narrative” had emerged. Most scholars had generally agreed that the wartime incarceration was needless and would have endorsed the 1982 CWRIC conclusion cited above. Even earlier, in 1967, when Harry Kitano and I organized the first academic conference devoted to the wartime experience of the Nikkei, held at UCLA, we found it impossible to find anyone willing to defend the actions of 1942.

But that early scholarly consensus that the incarceration of the Japanese Americans had been wrong did not mean that historians paid much attention to it. In what was perhaps the outstanding American history textbook of the immediate postwar decades—and certainly the most liberal—Richard Hofstadter, William Miller, and Daniel Aaron in a text of 758 pages could say only this in their section on “Civilian Mobilization” in what was not yet the “Good War”:

Since almost no one doubted the necessity for the war, there was much less intolerance than there had been in World War I, although large numbers of Japanese-Americans were put into internment camps under circumstances that many Americans were later to judge unfair or worse.54

Note that the term “internment camp” has somehow, as they say, crept into the language, where it has remained.

This down-playing of the negative aspects of the wartime experience was a corollary of what can be called American secular triumphalism, which affected people on the left as well as those who liked Ike and were wild about Harry. Even today, the topic of conscientious objection, for example, is little discussed.55 It is not an accident that the first scholarly critique of the rationale for the incarceration, the courageous essays by Eugene V. Rostow, wrote off the event as a “mistake” rather than as a logical outgrowth of centuries of racism.56 And, as late as the mid-1970s, I could lecture about the wartime incarceration at an elite college, such as Hobart and William Smith, and have students ask me afterwards if that “really happened.”

By that time, two books about the incarceration had appeared that used the term concentration camps in their titles.57 These works gave an increased credibility to the use of the term, a credibility, as we have seen, that was challenged not only by persons like McCloy, Eisenhower, and Myer, who had been accessories to the incarceration, either before or after the fact, but also by three other categories of persons:

(1) A whole spectrum of conservatives and self-styled patriots who were simply appalled that such a dreadful term could be applied to their country. The reactions of this group ranged from mild annoyance to absolute frenzy on the part of a few zealots, such as the incarceration denier Lillian Baker.58

(2) A sizable number of Holocaust survivors and their supporters who resented deeply the term being used for anything as “mild” as the American incarceration. Some clearly felt that the term belonged to them. The most celebrated instance of this occurred in 1998, when a protest by some Jews against the use of the term “concentration camp” in the title of an exhibition from the Japanese American National Museum, scheduled to open on Ellis Island, caused such a controversy that the National Park Service superintendent in charge cancelled the exhibition until her superiors intervened.59

(3) And finally, there are those, such as historian Alice Yang Murray, who, while fully understanding the arguments for using the term, nevertheless feel that:

while I agree that places like Manzanar and Tule Lake fulfill the dictionary definition of a “concentration camp,” I personally can’t accept the designation. The term “concentration camp” may once have been a euphemism for a Nazi “extermination camp,” but I think that over time the two kinds of camps have become inextricably linked in the popular imagination. In other words, I believe the meaning of the term “concentration camp” has changed over time. During World War II, officials and commentators could say Japanese Americans were confined in concentration camps without evoking images of Nazi atrocities. I don’t think that this is true today.60

Given this widespread resistance, it is clearly unrealistic to expect everyone to agree to use the contested term concentration camp, even though I believe that it is the most appropriate term.

But it seems equally clear to me that it is not unreasonable to expect scholars to cease using both the incorrect prevalent term “internment camp” and the stock phrase “the internment of the Japanese Americans.” There are two very good reasons to suggest this.

In the first place, while there were surely injustices involved in the internment process, as there always are when compulsion is involved, it did follow the forms of law and was a recognized legal procedure dating back in American law to the War of 1812. The eleven thousand or so persons who were interned in the United States during World War II have not, until quite recently, been the subject of much historical scrutiny. What has to be remembered is that those persons were taken into custody because of their status: all were alien nationals of a nation against which the United States was at war, each was seized for reasons supposedly based on his or her behavior, and each was entitled to an individual hearing before a board. No one who reads the fine study by Louis Fiset of the internment process as it affected Iwao Matsushita can conflate his circumstances with those of Japanese Americans incarcerated under authority of Executive Order 9066.61

In the second place, the conflation of the two processes has allowed some authors to write as if what happened to a tiny minority of unnaturalized Italian and German residents was somehow equivalent to the mass incarceration of some eighty-thousand American citizens of Japanese ancestry and some forty-thousand Japanese nationals who were barred from naturalization by race.62

As I have tried to show, there has been a long history of using euphemistic language about the wartime atrocity that was wreaked upon the Japanese Americans of the West Coast during and after World War II. Begun with malice aforethought by government officials, politicians, and journalists, it has been continued, largely in thoughtless innocence, by scholars. As we are in the seventh decade after the promulgation of Executive Order 9066, it is high time that scholars begin to call things by their right names. Let us hear no more about the “internment of the Japanese Americans.” 63

51. Miné Okubo, Citizen 13660 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1946; 2nd ed., New York: Arno Press, 1978; 1st pbk. ed., Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1983).

52. Monica Sone, Nisei Daughter (Boston: Little, Brown, 1953; 2nd ed., Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979), xv (page citation is to the 1979 edition). (Actually, all but one of the camps, Tule Lake, had closed before 1946).

53. Roger Daniels, “American Historians and East Asian Immigrants,” in The Asian American: The Historical Experience , ed. Norris Hundley (Santa Barbara, Calif.: Clio Press, 1976), 1-25

54. Richard Hofstadter, William Miller, and Daniel Aaron, The United States: The History of a Republic (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1957), 694. There is no index reference to either Japanese Americans or internment.

55. I have commented on this general phenomenon in “Bad News from the Good War: Democracy at Home during World War II,” in The Home-Front War: World War II and American Society , ed. K. P. O’Brien & L. H. Parsons (Westport, Conn: Greenwood, 1995), 157-71.

56. Eugene V. Rostow, “The Japanese American Cases—A Disaster,” Yale Law Journal 54 (July 1945): 489-533, and Rostow, “Our Worst Wartime Mistake,” Harper’s 191 (August 1945): 193-201.

57. Allan R. Bosworth, America’s Concentration Camps (New York: Norton, 1967), and Daniels, Concentration Camps, USA .

58. I am in the process of writing an essay about Baker and the relatively rare phenomenon of denial that any kind of punitive detention of Japanese Americans took place. I went to the Baker manuscripts at the Hoover Institute thinking that I might find links between her and the California-based group of Holocaust deniers centered around the so-called Institute for Historical Research. I found only negative connections. Baker affirmed the Holocaust, and I have mused that if there had been gas chambers at the American camps, she might have stopped complaining about what she liked to call “The Concentration Camp Conspiracy.”

59. The controversy is treated in the following sources, which include an editorial and letters to the editor, all from the New York Times : Somini Sengupta, “What Is a Concentration Camp? Ellis Island Exhibit Prompts a Debate,” 8 March 1998; “Debate on Camps Goes Back to War; Japanese Atrocities,” 10 March 1998; Somini Sengupta, “Accord on Term ‘Concentration Camp’,” 10 March 1998; “Words for Suffering,” 10 March 1998; “Exhibition on Camps,” 13 March 1998; and Clyde Haberman, “Defending Jews’ Lexicon Of Anguish,” 13 March 1988. For a scholarly review of the exhibit, see David K. Yoo, “Captivating Memories: Museology, Concentration Camps, and Japanese American History,” American Quarterly 48 (1996): 680-99.

60. From a book by Alice Yang Murray which is to be published soon. Used with permission.

61. Louis Fiset, Imprisoned Apart: The World War II Correspondence of an Issei Couple (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997.

62. Examples of this unfortunate genre include: Stephen Fox, The Unknown Internment: An Oral History of the Relocation of Italian Americans during World War II (Boston: Twayne, 1990); Fox, America’s Invisible Gulag: A Biography of German American Internment & Exclusion in World War II (New York: Peter Lang, 2000.); Timothy J. Holian, The German-Americans and World War II: An Ethnic Experience (New York: Peter Lang, 1996); Arthur Jacobs, The Prison Called Hohenasperg (Parkland, Fla.: Universal Publishers, 1999); and Lawrence DiStasi, ed., Una Storia Segreta: The Secret History of Italian American Evacuation during World War II (Berkeley, Calif.: Heyday Books, 2001).

63. There seems to be a slight lessening in the use of “internment.” Greg Robinson, who wrote By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of the Japanese Americans (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), writes in the April 2003 American Historical Review of “mass incarceration without trial of American citizens of Japanese ancestry (to which the phrase ‘wartime internment’ is universally, if inaccurately, held to refer).” American Historical Review 108 (April 2003): 541.


* Roger Daniels, "Words Do Matter: A Note on Inappropriate Terminology and the Incarceration of the Japanese Americans." in Louis Fiset and Gail Nomura, eds. Nikkei in the Pacific Northwest: Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians in the Twentieth Century. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005, pp. 183-207.


© 2005 Roger Daniels

concentration camp euphemism incarceration Roger Daniels terminology World War II