FDR Called Them Concentration Camps: Why Terminology Matters

Guest Post by Joseph Shoji Lachman

Boys Behind Barbed Wire (Norito Takamoto, Albert Masaichi, and Hisashi Sansui), 1944, Manzanar concentration camp (Photo Credit: Toyo Miyatake)

As we approach February 19th, the 75th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, now referred to as the Day of Remembrance, you'll see a lot of media talking about the Incarceration of Japanese Americans. However, you'll notice that sometimes the terminology isn't consistent. Why do some people say "internment" or "relocation", while others say "incarceration" and "forced removal"?

Here are some of the most common points of confusion, and explanations of why many in the Japanese American community use and avoid specific terminology when talking about our history.

1. "Internment" vs. "Incarceration"

What most people don't realize is that the term "internment" has a very specific meaning. It only refers to the confinement or impounding of "enemy aliens" during a time of war. "Internment" does not refer to the imprisonment of our own citizens. Of the 120,000 who were imprisoned, about 80,000 were indeed American citizens by birthright, while the other roughly 40,000 were barred from citizenship until the law changed in 1952.

"Incarceration" correctly refers to the imprisonment of all 120,000 Japanese Americans who were affected by Executive Order 9066. This correctly acknowledges that these people were mostly citizens, and does not portray them as "enemy aliens."

2. "Relocation" or "Evacuation" vs. "Forced Removal" or "Exclusion"

As you might remember, a public school teacher wrote a horrible op-ed titled "Was the Relocation of West Coast Japanese Racist?" (Yes, it was.) The first problem I noted with his writing was the term "relocation" in the title.

First of all, by definition, neither "relocation" nor "evacuation" include the continued imprisonment of Japanese Americans. "Relocation" is used when talking about a longer term plan to move a population, usually to protect them from some kind of harm. "Evacuation," on the other hand, suggests a short-term removal of persons from an area for their own safety (typically from a natural disaster).

The government knew there was no threat to the West Coast from Japanese Americans, but suppressed the evidence and forced thousands of citizens and legal residents to abandon their homes and their land without due process. That's why in this case, "forced removal" or "exclusion" are appropriate terms that reflect the compulsory nature of the order, and reject that it was "for our own good." They were indeed excluded from the West Coast, and would have been arrested for trying to return.

3. "Internment Camps" vs. "Concentration Camps"

The term "internment camp" is problematic for the same reasons as "internment" above. Critics will complain that the term "concentration camps" is an exaggeration that recalls Nazi camps during the Holocaust. However, the level of brutality does not change the fact that these meet the definition of a concentration camp, for example as seen in the 2013 Merriam-Webster English Language Learner's Dictionary:

Concentration Camp: A type of prison where large numbers of people who are not soldiers are forced to live during a time of war, usually in very bad conditions.

Indeed, the conditions were inhumane for many of those incarcerated. The facilities were surrounded by barbed wire, with guards pointing their guns inwards. Many families were forced to live in horse stables, and many still remember the inescapable stench. You can read Mine Okubo's description of the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno:

"We walked in and dropped our things inside the entrance. The place was in semidarkness; light barely came through the dirty window on the other side of the entrance.... The rear room had housed the horse and the front room the fodder. Both rooms showed signs of a hurried whitewashing. Spider webs, horse hair, and hay had been whitewashed with the walls. Huge spikes and nails stuck out all over the walls. A two-inch layer of dust covered the floor.... We heard someone crying in the next stall."

Let's also talk about another little known part of this history - the Lordsburg detention facility.

Lordsburg was home to some of the most disturbing mistreatment of Japanese Americans. Colonel Clyde Lundy ordered many Issei (first generation Japanese Americans, immigrants barred from citizenship) to build military facilities and perform other types of slave labor in inhumane conditions, a clear violation of the Geneva Convention.

Possibly even more disturbing were the killings of multiple older Japanese American men incarcerated at Lordsburg who were accused of trying to escape. Toshio Kobata and Hirota Isomura, both described as physically disabled and incapable of running, were both shot in the back and killed by a guard, who was found not guilty by an army court-martial board. Article 54 of the Geneva Convention said that attempted escape could not be punishable by death. Sadly, these men may have been targeted for protesting the inhumane treatment.

In case you're still not convinced, read the following quote by Franklin D. Roosevelt himself in a note to the military Joint Board on August 10, 1936: (emphasis is mine)

What arrangements and plans have been made relative to concentration camps in the Hawaiian Islands for dangerous or undesirable aliens or citizens in the event of national emergency?

Yes, FDR himself used the term when discussing the issue, and records show that so did most government authorities and congressional officials. "Internment camp" and "relocation center" are unacceptable euphemisms that ignore the reality of American concentration camps, where the U.S. imprisoned its own loyal citizens and denied them their civil rights.

4. "Japanese" vs. "Japanese Americans"

When discussing the Incarceration of Japanese Americans, these two terms are often used quite interchangeable, and often times without any malice intended, but they have important implications for how we view this historical event.

The most problematic result of the term "Japanese" is obscuring the fact that about 2/3 of the 120,000 who were incarcerated were indeed American citizens. They were the Nisei, second generation Japanese Americans, many of whom had little familiarity with Japan. The other 1/3 were the Issei, the first generation immigrants who were barred from citizenship and even owning land in many places because of discriminatory laws at the time.

Many today also say "the Japanese" to refer interchangeably to both Japanese Americans and the soldiers of the Imperial Japanese military. People try justify the Incarceration by mentioning the crimes of "the Japanese" against POWs, or the attack on Pearl Harbor. People are not understanding that we should never punish our own citizens and their families for the actions of a foreign nation's military. And yet despite this mistreatment, around 33,000 Japanese Americans enlisted and fought for the U.S. during and immediately after World War II.

Looking further back, Japanese Americans had already been residing and raising families in the U.S. for decades, and they had to cope with a grower discriminatory backlash. The 1908 "Gentleman's Agreement" between the U.S. and Japan meant that no more male laborers could immigrate to the U.S., and the 1924 Immigration Act ended Japanese immigration to the U.S. altogether. My great grandfather, for example, came with his family in 1907 to serve as a pastor at a church he founded for Japanese American Episcopalians. His daughter (my grandmother) and other second generation kids grew up almost like any other American child. However, unlike many of her childhood friends, she had to receive her high school diploma while in an American concentration camp.

Is it inappropriate or offensive to use historical euphemisms at all? Yes and no, depending on the context provided. We should remember to critically analyze the euphemisms the government employed to describe the Incarceration of Japanese Americans, and also challenge that language, so that we do not obscure or distort our history. This piece only shows the basics of why these terms are so problematic, but it can serve as a reminder for people to think about how we frame our history. Look for similar ways that euphemistic or propagandist language is applied to how we discuss American Muslims and Muslims around the world, and catch warning signs when it seems that history may repeat itself.

Joseph Lachman was born and raised in Seattle, and recently finished his B.A. at Yale University in History of Science, Medicine, and Public Health. He is fourth/fifth generation half-Japanese, and speaks Chinese and Japanese. His current writing focuses primarily on Asian and Asian-American culture, and he is also passionate about civil rights and human rights. Joseph plans to pursue these fields further in law school and beyond.

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