The Power of Words

Monday, March 3, 2014

Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Of course it would. But if somebody handed you something that looked like a rose and called it a “stinker,” you might hesitate before putting your nose up to it. Words do matter.

President Roosevelt, General DeWitt, and the federal government were masters at misleading through euphemisms. As mentioned in last week’s post, the Civil Exclusion Orders and other orders issued by General DeWitt turned citizens into “non-aliens” to make the orders sound more palatable—or to make the Nisei sound less American. But that was just the beginning of the euphemisms.

According to the official terminology, Japanese Americans were “relocated” or “evacuated” from the West Coast. Those words conjure up images of moving people for their own safety, as when residents are evacuated from homes in the path of a flood or a forest fire. There was isolated violence against Japanese Americans and some people argued—and may even have believed—that the forced removal was for the safety of those removed. But then why weren’t they given a choice of where to go? And, as many of the Nisei remarked, why were the guns pointed at those being “evacuated” rather than at those responsible for the threat?

Then there were the terms used for the camps the Japanese Americans were sent to. “Assembly centers” were temporary camps used to house the Japanese Americans while more permanent “relocation centers” were being built. Both had barbed wire fences and substandard housing, as will be described in subsequent posts. The government’s labels were political propaganda used to whitewash the fact that the camps were actually prisons for people who had committed no crimes. Those terms worked so well—at least among the bigots—that some Caucasians claimed the camps were country clubs where Japanese Americans received free room and board and took valuable resources away from the troops fighting overseas.

Finding an accurate label for these camps created a dilemma for me. Many people call them internment camps. Technically, however, internment camps are for aliens, and about two-thirds of the Japanese Americans were citizens. Today, some Japanese Americans use that term, while others view it as politically incorrect.

Technically, the assembly and relocation centers were concentration camps, where people were imprisoned solely because of their race. That seems to be the politically correct term, but I can’t quite bring myself to use it. For me, “concentration camp” conjures up images of the German camps where Jewish people were intentionally put to death and of the Russian camps where Germans and dissidents died from hard work and starvation. The American camps were terrible places, but they don’t match the image in my mind or in the mind of most Americans when they hear the term “concentration camp.”

I was conflicted when I thought that internment camp and concentration camp were my two basic choices. Then I read a resolution from the National Council of the Japanese American Citizens League. That resolution gave a thumbs down to “internment” and a thumbs up to “concentration camp.” But it also provided the term “incarceration camp” as another option. That term eliminated my dilemma, and I have chosen to use it.

But what we call the camps doesn’t matter nearly as much as what happened to loyal citizens and their parents. We’ll start by looking at the “assembly centers” in next week’s post.

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The photograph at the top of this post shows the front entrance gate at the Tanforan Assembly Center in California. It was taken by Dorothea Lange on June 16, 1942 as part of her official duties as an employee of the United States government. Because it is a government document, the photo is in the public domain.

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