From the Archive

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Over the last ten years, Densho has collected hundreds of hours of video testimony and tens of thousands of historical images. From the Archive is a monthly feature that highlights primary sources from the Densho Digital Archive to illustrate themes in Japanese American history. We hope that it will give you a sense of the rich depth of materials in the Archive. To access the entire collection, simply register for a free user account.

Frontier Colonies or Concentration Camps? Euphemisms for the Incarceration

"Evacuation" sale, May 1942, Seattle, denshopd-i36-00012.

Anyone who speaks about the treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II faces a linguistic predicament. Do you use the benign terminology adopted by the U.S. government at the time? Were over 110,000 individuals of Japanese descent "evacuated" from their homes and businesses, as would be said of people saved from a natural disaster? Is "assembly center" an apt term for the compounds of barracks ringed by barbed wire and guard towers that held these displaced people for months? Were the permanent camps built further inland, also secured by barbed wire and sentries, accurately called "relocation centers"? Or do you choose blunter language that might court confusion and controversy?

To complicate a writer's task, scholars point out that the commonly used word "internment" is incorrect when speaking of the mass detention. By law, only enemy aliens can be interned.1 Japanese, German, and Italian nationals arrested and held by the War and Justice Departments during World War II could accurately be called internees. It should be noted that unlike European immigrants, Asians were prevented by discriminatory laws from becoming naturalized citizens. With the declaration of war against Japan, the entire Issei generation became legally subject to internment. The second-generation Nisei, U.S. citizens by birth, were not technically interned. They were -- what? -- detained, imprisoned, incarcerated?

Because the issue of terminology is so central to any examination of Japanese American history, Densho points website visitors to our policy on the webpage "A Note on Terminology." While avoiding the government's euphemisms of the time, Densho recognizes the lack of consensus and respects the choices others make, especially those who were themselves detained in the camps.

During their confinement, Japanese Americans followed the phrasing of the War Relocation Authority (WRA), the civilian agency in charge of the camps. In their interviews with Densho, most Nisei recall being "evacuated" to "assembly centers" and "relocation centers." At the Portland, Oregon, temporary camp, residents dubbed their newspaper The Evacuazette. That other camp newspapers adopted WRA terminology is not surprising. No Densho interviewee, however, calls themself a "non-alien," the government's designation for them in the exclusion orders and other documents. The fact that federal authorities strained to avoid the word "citizen" for the approximately 70,000 Nisei they had rounded up reveals their sensitivity to the power of language -- and perhaps the precariousness of their legal standing.

The manipulation of language, and distortion of reality, could reach painfully absurd levels. A 1942 WRA document entitled "Minidoka: Preliminary Report in a New Frontier Community," declares that the dust-choked Idaho camp "will be a modern American city -- frontier style." Remarks by WRA administrators strike a defensive, almost Orwellian tone:

Project administrators Stafford and Schafer are determined that concentration camp conditions shall not exist at Minidoka.

We spent several hours with the project administrators. Our impression of their attitude can be boiled down to this:

The people of Minidoka were evacuated from their homes because of wartime exigency. They will be relocated under conditions as normal as wartime conditions will permit. Most of the people will be confined in the relocation area for the duration but in no other aspect will Minidoka resemble a concentration camp.

The administrators refer to the people as "colonists" not as "internees." The mess halls are called "dining halls." The canteen is described as the "community store." There are other efforts to establish a community spirit.

The article goes on to say: "Minidoka today is an experiment. It is a twentieth century repetition of the frontier struggle of pioneers against the land and the elements...Minidoka is not a concentration camp. But we remember the words of one young colonist as we left the relocation center: 'I'm a free-born American, accused of no crime. Why must I remain here?'"

An uneasy debate continues as to whether the Japanese American detention facilities should be called concentration camps. They fit the dictionary definition, but deference to memories of the Holocaust deter many from using the term. During the war years, U.S. officials, including Attorney General Francis Biddle, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, and several Supreme Court justices, employed the term. At a press conference in November 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt stated, "There are about roughly…a hundred thousand Japanese-origin citizens in this country. And it is felt by a great many lawyers that under the Constitution they can't be kept locked up in concentration camps."2 In a 1962 interview, President Harry S. Truman said of the Japanese American facilities, "They were concentration camps. They called it relocation but they put them in concentration camps, and I was against it. We were in a period of emergency, but it was still the wrong thing to do."3

Some outside the Japanese American community clearly reject the euphemisms for the mass incarceration. Charles Z. Smith, a retired Washington State Supreme Court justice, heard what his Japanese American friends went through when he became involved in the redress movement in the 1980s:

I attended and participated in the first Days of Remembrance at Puyallup. And so these things began to churn inside, intellectually and emotionally, to the point at which you began to look into it and see what actually happened and how a government could do such terrible things to a part of its population, and the idea of literally imprisoning. And whatever euphemism they may use, "internment camps," I call them "concentration camps," and they were imprisoned and the staging grounds, stables, fairgrounds and stables, things like that, throughout the area, and how they applied the law simply by a person's appearance, by the name that they had, and with nothing, nothing more than that.

Many Japanese Americans still use the government euphemisms for their forced removal and confinement--perhaps out of habit, expediency, or reluctance to label themselves prisoners. But others, especially activists who pursued justice through redress, do not shy away from ugly words that tell the ugly truth. Grayce Uyehara explained the reasoning behind her choice of language to allies in the Jewish community:

And then we did get into bringing an understanding of why we call our camp experience a concentration camp experience. We said we understand the Jews went to death camps, and we really should not use that terminology, because we were not in death camps. But I said, "What they suffered was done by a despot and the government was fascist and ours here in the United States has a Constitution as the background of how we are to operate. And so for a nation to set aside its fundamental laws, and lock us up without due process of law, by golly, it is a concentration camp when you see it in the context of a democracy."

1. For an explanation of terms and euphemisms for the World War II treatment of Japanese Americans, see Tetsuden Kashima, Judgment without Trial: Japanese American Imprisonment during World War II (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003), pp. 8-9.

2. Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, Personal Justice Denied (1982-83; reprint, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997), p. 233.

3. Interview with Merle Miller, 1961. From James Hirabayashi, "'Concentration Camp' or '"Relocation Center': What's in a Name?" [ link ]

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