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Words Do Matter: A Note on Inappropriate Terminology and the Incarceration of the Japanese Americans - Part 3 of 5

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In discussing language, perhaps the best place to start is with the three- and four-letter epithets that were all but universally used to describe persons of Japanese birth or descent. While it was common until very recently for most Americans to use ugly words to describe persons of color and others deemed to be “lesser breeds without the law”—nigger, kike, wop, spic, chink, greaser, etc.—none was more universally used than Jap or Japs. One cannot imagine, for example, a respectable politician using any of the other terms in the title of a magazine article, but Franklin Delano Roosevelt could propose to call a 1923 essay—actually intended to minimize trans-Pacific antagonisms—“The Japs—A Habit of Mind.” 24 Even a casual perusal of pre–World War II American newspapers and magazines shows that in both headline and text the word was often used to describe: 1) the Japanese government; 2) the people of Japan; and, more rarely except on the Pacific Coast, 3) Japanese Americans. One does not have to be a student of semiotics to understand the dehumanizing effect of such continuous and casual usage. And, of course, once the United States and Japan were at war the usage multiplied.

The language and visual contexts of World War II movies made in the 1940s and 1950s—and which still pollute our TV channels—make it quite clear that while the actions of Germany and of most Germans were evil, a distinction was often made between “good” and “bad” Germans. The actions of the Imperial Japanese Government and the actions of not only its people but of persons of Japanese ethnicity anywhere were treated as the deeds of an evil race. Perhaps the most notorious example of the casual demonization of Japanese persons were the mid-December 1941 companion pieces in the two Luce news magazines, Time and Life, which purported to tell Americans “How to Tell the Japs from the Chinese” or “How to Tell Your Friends from the Japs.” 25 The Life article was illustrated by Milton Caniff, creator of the widely syndicated comic strip “Terry and the Pirates.”

Almost two months later, on February 13, 1942, just six days before FDR signed Executive Order 9066, another popular cartoonist, Theodor Suess Geisel (1904–1991), a.k.a. Dr. Suess, drew a particularly vicious editorial cartoon for the left-wing New York City newspaper PM showing an endless stream of identical, grinning Japanese men coming from the Pacific Northwest to a building on the California coast labeled “Honorable 5th Column” to receive packages marked “TNT,” while atop the headquarters another of what we would now call the clones looks out to sea through a telescope. The cartoon is captioned “Waiting for the Signal From Home . . .” Popular culture had so infused the complex image of the “Jap” into the American mind that no further explication was necessary. 26 It is possible to pile up similar examples ad infinitum. 27 Government officials were well aware of this. Geisel, for example, was later commissioned as a captain in the Signal Corps and sent to Hollywood to help film director Frank Capra make propaganda films and cartoons to indoctrinate American servicemen and women. 28 This well-established mind-set made it easy for government officials to use carefully chosen words to blind Americans to the fact that their government was systematically stripping some American citizens of their most basic rights by fiat.

Before examining that process in some detail, it might be well to remind ourselves of the conclusion of the CWRIC: 29

    The promulgation of Executive Order 9066 was not justified by military necessity, and the decisions which followed from it—detention, ending detention and ending exclusion—were not driven by analysis of military conditions. The broad historical causes which shaped these decisions were race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership. Widespread ignorance of Japanese Americans contributed to a policy conceived in haste and executed in an atmosphere of fear and anger at Japan. A grave injustice was done to American citizens and resident nationals of Japanese ancestry who, without individual review or any probative evidence against them, were excluded, removed and detained by the United States during World War II.

The stripping of rights began long before President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. Within hours of the attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle, in addition to arranging for and enforcing the statutory proclamations affecting “alien enemies” as set forth in sections 21–24 of the United States Code, also ordered that the borders be closed to alien enemies and “all persons of Japanese ancestry.” 30 Biddle, although he regarded himself as a protector of the rights of Japanese Americans and, at the eleventh hour protested ineffectively against mass incarceration, in practice allowed the rights of citizens of Japanese ancestry to be violated with impunity. Under pressure from the War Department and, according to his memoir, somewhat overawed by the elder cabinet colleague who headed it, Henry L. Stimson, the attorney general agreed, in memoranda exchanged between the departments on January 6, 1942, that, in effect, the Fourth Amendment rights of American citizens of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast to “be secure . . . against unreasonable searches and seizures” were null and void. The memoranda agreed that Department of Justice agents would make warrantless searches merely on verbal requests from military authorities. One short paragraph began by stating that “The term ‘mass raid’ will not be employed by the Attorney General” but ended with the statement “all of the alien enemy premises in a given area can be searched at the same moment.” A prior paragraph recognized that there were “mixed occupancy dwellings” inhabited by native-born citizens and their alien parents or other relatives and treated these as “alien enemy’s premises.” 31 Although Biddle and his deputy, Assistant Attorney General James J. Rowe, who signed the memorandum, would never say —as Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy did—that the Constitution was “just a scrap of paper,” what they agreed to, despite their protestations, effectively nullified it. 32

Executive Order 9066, drafted in the War Department sometime after February 11 when Roosevelt gave Stimson “carte blanche,” and signed in the White House on February 19, is a wonderful example of Aesopian language. It has neither ethnic nor geographic specificity, and were it to be discovered in the year 3001 without other documents giving its context, the future historian might reasonably conclude that it was a relief measure. Its official title, almost never used, is “AUTHORIZING THE SECRETARY OF WAR TO PRESCRIBE MILITARY AREAS.” After authorizing the Secretary of War and “Military Commanders” he might designate to create “military areas . . . from which any or all persons may be excluded,” it further authorized the secretary “to provide for residents . . . such transportation, food, shelter, and other accommodations as may be necessary . . . until other arrangements are made.”

We now know the whole chain of events which this order set off. A second executive order, 9106, established the War Relocation Authority on March 18, 1942, and ordered its director to “formulate and effectuate a program for the removal . . . of the persons or classes of persons [designated under Executive Order 9066] and for their relocation, maintenance, and supervision.” He was further ordered to “provide for the relocation of such persons in appropriate places, . . . provide for their needs [and] for the employment of such persons at useful work in industry, commerce, agriculture, or public projects. . . .”

Other parts of Executive Order 9106 authorized the use of the United States Employment Service and established a War Relocation Work Corps in which persons would be “enlisted.” The work corps proved to be a phantom that was never activated. 33 These words misled the first director of the War Relocation Authority, Milton S. Eisenhower, into believing, until he met with western governors at Salt Lake City on April 7, that the “relocation centers” 34 could evolve into something more like the New Deal’s subsistence homesteads and less like the concentration camps that they became. (It must be remembered that the mass expulsion and incarceration started only at the end of March.)

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24. Willi am L. Neuman, “Franklin D. Roosevelt and Japan, 1913-1933,” Pacific Historical Review 22 (1953): 143-53, at 148. FDR’s essay was published as “Shall We Trust Japan?” Asia 23 (1923): 475-78, 526, 528, and was sanguine about future relationships.

25. The Life version is first. Both are dated December 22, 1941, but were on the newsstands and in the mail the previous week. Despite prompt refutation, e.g., “No Certain Way to Tell Japanese from Chinese,” Science News Letter (December 20, 1941), this nonsense was widely believed.
26. This cartoon was, I believe, first republished in Paul Milkman, PM: A New Deal in Journalism, 1940-1948 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1997). For some two hundred of Geisel’s PM cartoons, see Richard H. Minear, Dr. Suess Goes to War (New York: The New Press, 1999). Those and two hundred others may be seen on a University of California, San Diego website: UCSD has a “Dr. Suess Collection” in its Mandeville Special Collections Library. The only book-length study of Geisel’s work, Ruth K. MacDonald’s Dr. Suess (Boston: Twayne, 1988), mentions his PM career in passing, noting only “his most notable contribution being his anti-Nazi cartoons ridiculing Hitler” (8).

27. See, for example, Dennis Ogawa, From Japs to Japanese: The Evolution of Japanese American Stereotypes (Berkeley, Calif.: McCutchan, 1971).

28. Charles W. Carey, Jr., “Geisel, Theodor Suess,” American National Biography Online , February 2000 (published by Oxford University Press), at:

29. CWRIC, Personal Justice Denied , 18. A 1997 University of Washington Press reprint is definitive as it contains important materials, including specific recommendations for redress, that were issued by the commission in 1983 and thus not included in the original. CWRIC, Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (Seattle: University of Washington Press and the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund, 1997).

30. Proclamations 2525, 2526, 2527. They may be conveniently consulted in Roger Daniels, ed., American Concentration Camps , vol. 1 (New York: Garland, 1989). Biddle’s comments on the internment process are in his autobiographical In Brief Authority (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1962), 207-9. Although he distinguishes between the selective internment and the program under E.O. 9066, he calls the latter “mass internment.” His statistical data are erroneous.

31. The memoranda may be found conveniently in United States. War Department. Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast, 1942 (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1943), 4-6.

32. For McCloy, see Roger Daniels, Concentration Camps, USA: Japanese Americans and World War II (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971), 55-56.

33. Both executive orders are reprinted in Daniels, American Concentration Camps , vol. 1.

34. It is not clear who dreamed up that innocuous term or its predecessor, assembly center, but the most likely suspects are Col. Karl Robin Bendetsen, the army lawyer who managed the expulsion of the Nikkei from the West Coast, and/or a Census Bureau bureaucrat, Dr. Calvert L. Dedrick. For the latter, see Roger Daniels, “The Bureau of the Census and the Relocation of the Japanese Americans: A Note and a Document,” Amerasia Journal 9 (#1 1982): 101-5. Work in progress by demographer William Seltzer and Margo Anderson, the leading historical authority on the census, will throw more light on Dedrick. See William Seltzer and Margo Anderson, “After Pearl Harbor: The Proper Role of Population Data Systems in Time of War” (paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Population Association of America, Los Angeles, March 2000), and Seltzer and Anderson, “The Dark Side of Numbers: The Role of Population Data Systems in Human Rights Abuses,” Social Research 68:2 (summer 2001): 481-513. The former is summarized in Steven A. Holmes, “Report Says Census Bureau Helped Relocate Japanese,” New York Times , 17 March 2000.


*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