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Words Do Matter: A Note on Inappropriate Terminology and the Incarceration of the Japanese Americans - Part 4 of 5

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Even as the mass round-up of West Coast Nikkei began, with an isolated group on Bainbridge Island, a short ferry ride from Seattle, the government’s wordsmiths were inventing new language. A “Civilian Exclusion Order” dated March 24, 1942, signed by Gen. John L. DeWitt and ominously numbered “No. 1,” directed all “Japanese persons, both alien and nonalien” to report to the ferryboat landing on March 30 for “temporary residence in a reception center elsewhere,” bringing with them only what they could carry, including “blankets and linens…toilet articles…clothing…knives, forks, spoons, plates, bowls, and cups for each member of the family.” 35 Unlike most later orders, which moved persons first to neighboring, temporary enclosures called “Assembly Centers,” the 257 Bainbridge Islanders were sent by train to Manzanar in southern California, as no camp in the Pacific Northwest was ready for occupancy.36

Thus began the wartime incarceration of the West Coast Japanese Americans, an incarceration that would last, for some, almost four years. Begun under military auspices and subject to some military control throughout its existence, the incarcerated people whom I have called prisoners without trial were, during the course of the spring and summer of 1942, turned over to the civilian War Relocation Authority. The WRA was staffed at the top and in most of its middle management by persons who would not have instituted the kind of repressive program that they were called upon to execute. Its second and last director, Dillon S. Myer, who was less liberal than many of his staffers, wrote in his memoir that:

I believed, and still believe, that a selective evacuation of people of Japanese descent from the West Coast military area may have been justified and feasible in early 1943 [sic—he surely meant 1942], but I do not believe that a mass evacuation was ever justified; furthermore I believe that there was no valid argument for the continuation of the exclusion orders beyond the spring of 1943, as indicated by our letter to Secretary Stimson in March of 1943.37

The WRA accepted the army’s nomenclature and generally tried to put the best possible face on what it did. The captive Japanese had been “evacuated,” a word associated with rescue. The people who were in “relocation centers” were “residents,” not inmates. Like other government agencies, it conducted a public relations campaign that tried to emphasize the positive aspects of what it did. Its photographs show “happy campers”; its press releases hailed military volunteers and ignored, as much as possible, the protesters and especially the draft resisters. So relatively successful was this wartime government propaganda that, as late as 1969, two liberal authors thoroughly opposed to the incarceration and exile could identify Heart Mountain, where the draft resistance began, as a “happy camp.” 38 The WRA and its administrators particularly resisted the notion that they were in charge of “concentration camps.”

The first WRA director, Milton Eisenhower, in his 1974 memoir, is explicit about this. A specialist in “information”—his next assignment would be to the Office of War Information—he wrote:

We called the relocation centers “evacuation centers.” Never did we refer to them as concentration camps. 39

Similarly, his successor, Dillon S. Myer, like Eisenhower, also from the Department of Agriculture, wrote in his 1971 memoir that:

Relocation centers were called “concentration camps” by many writers and commentators, but they were very different from the normal concept of what a concentration camp is like.40

Lower down in the WRA hierarchy the same kinds of postwar views existed. One of the most determined literary attacks on the notion that Japanese Americans were placed in concentration camps came from Harold S. Jacoby, a member of the sociology faculty at the College of the Pacific who, in March 1942, concerned by what he saw as unjust treatment of Japanese Americans, sought and achieved employment with the WRA, first at Tule Lake and then in Chicago as assistant supervisor of resettlement there. He was clearly one of what psychiatrist Alexander Leighton called approvingly the “people-minded” WRA administrators.41 In his 1996 memoir he attacked vigorously the notion that the WRA establishments were concentration camps. Part of his argument was that the concentration camps of the Nazis and the Soviets were much worse places. Another is that only the books published after 1967 called them concentration camps. And, finally, he argued that inmates were sometimes allowed to leave for work.42 (He might have added that others were allowed to leave the camps to go shopping in nearby towns, etc.)

Language usage was not just a postwar concern of WRA leaders. Thomas Bodine, a Quaker activist who was an important and effective staff member of the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council, remembered in May 2000 that during the war “we couldn’t use the [term concentration camps] during the work we did or the Government might have cut off granting leaves to the students we were helping.” 43

But higher up in the government hierarchy there were people who were willing to call a spade a bloody shovel. Franklin Roosevelt himself called the camps for Japanese concentration camps on more than one public occasion, 44 and Associate Justice Owen J. Roberts, dissenting in the Korematsu case, which, in effect, said the incarceration of American citizens was constitutional, insisted that:

This is not a case of keeping people off the streets at night as was Hirabayashi…It is a case of convicting a citizen…for not submitting to imprisonment in a concentration camp solely because of his ancestry…45

More prosaically, an anonymous cataloguer at the Library of Congress established the subject heading “Concentration Camps— United States of America” which, so far, contains only items about the wartime incarceration of the Japanese Americans and its sequelae.46

But the general practice, especially after the liberation of the Nazi death camps, was to avoid the blunt term. Before the spring of 1945 the term concentration camp was not synonymous with death camp. The term was first applied to camps set up for noncombatants—as opposed to prisoners of war—by the British during the Boer War of 1899–1902.47 The reason that Eisenhower, Myer, Jacoby, and others associated with administering the camps reacted so strongly against using the term concentration camps is that such usage made them, by extension, concentration camp keepers and seemed to put them in the same category as notorious Nazis and Japanese, and, eventually, Adolf Eichmann.48

Incarcerated people themselves sometimes used the term concentration camp while they were in confinement, especially while protesting against aspects of government policy. For example, in a meeting at Heart Mountain in February 1943 during the “registration crisis,” one speaker said:

Although we have yellow skins, we too are Americans. We have an American upbringing, therefore we believe in fair play. Our firm conviction is that we would be useless Americans if we did not assert our constitutional rights now; for, unless our status as citizens is cleared and we are really fighting for the perpetuation of democracy, especially when our fathers, mothers, and families are in concentration camps, even though they are not charged with any crimes.49

I suspect that the term was not commonly used, but since the major sources for contemporary inmate perceptions, the camp newspapers, were published under the watchful eyes of WRA staffers, its nonuse there is not significant. I have read a large number of letters written from the camps. My distinct impression is that the term was not much used in them, but since the question of nomenclature had not yet become significant to me when I was reading them in various archives, I did not keep track of its occurrence.

What is clear is that once the war was over and for decades afterwards the prevailing term among the mainland Nisei was “camp,” although “evacuation,” “relocation,” and, to a lesser degree, “internment” were all used more or less interchangeably. When two Nisei met for the first time, an all but inevitable question was “What camp were you in?” When the past was discussed, two parameters were constant: “before the war” and “after camp.” The ambiguity of the word “camp” makes it possible to argue that it was short for “concentration camp,” but I am certain, but cannot demonstrate, that in the vast majority of cases it was short for “relocation camp” or “evacuation camp.” In nearly a thousand interviews and conversations with Nikkei before the redress campaign began, I can remember only a few instances in which the term “concentration camp” was used by a community member. On the other hand the only Nikkei I can remember complaining about my use of the term was Mike Masaoka in 1971 or 1972. On several occasions Caucasian Holocaust survivors similarly complained. This ambiguity, plus the notorious reluctance of the Nisei to talk about their wartime experiences with their children and grandchildren, led more than one Sansei to believe that “camp” stood for some kind of summer vacation that their parents used to go on.50

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35. Civilian Exclusion Order No. 1 and accompanying instructions are reprinted in Daniels, American Concentration Camps , vol. 1.

36. War Department. Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast, 1942 . Table 47, 363. One additional Bainbridge Islander is reported as being sent to an unspecified relocation center.

37. Dillon S. Myer, Uprooted Americans (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1971), 285-86.

38. Audrie Girdner and Anne Loftis, The Great Betrayal: The Evacuation of the Japanese-Americans during World War II (New York: Macmillan, 1969), 247. For the best account of Heart Mountain, see Douglas W. Nelson, Heart Mountain: The Story of an American Concentration Camp (Madison: Wisconsin State Historical Society, 1976). Eric Muller’s Free to Die for Their Country: The Story of the Japanese American Draft Resisters in World War II (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), is a fine legal history. See also the 2000 video “Conscience and the Constitution” by filmmaker Frank Abe. Its web site is:

39. Milton S. Eisenhower, The President Is Calling (New York: Doubleday, 1974), 122.

40. Myer, Uprooted Americans , 291. The WRA photographs used in Myer’s book illustrate nicely the comment about “happy campers” in the text above.

41. Alexander H. Leighton, The Governing of Men (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1946), 81-88.

42. Harold S. Jacoby, Tule Lake: From Relocation to Segregation (Grass Valley, Calif.: Comstock Bonanza Press, 1996), xii, 9, 54-57, 60-61.

43. Thomas Bodine to Allan W. Austin, 17 May 2000. Austin shared this letter with me. A revised version of his excellent doctoral dissertation, “From Concentration Camp to Campus: A History of the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council, 1942-1946” (University of Cincinnati, 2001), is forthcoming from the University of Illinois Press.

44. See, for example, Press Conference 982, November 21, 1944, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, New York.

45. Korematsu v U.S. , 323 U.S. 214.

46. There is also what the Library of Congress calls a “narrower heading”: “Japanese Americans Evacuation and Relocation, 1942-45.”

47. Both the Oxford English Dictionary , 2nd edition, and the Merriam Webster 10th Collegiate Dictionary give 1901 as the first usage. But utilization of a digitalized database of the New York Times to examine all issues during 1898 produced eleven “hits” for the phrase “concentration camps.” All, however, were without pejorative implication and described camps in which various U.S. Army units were concentrated before deployment overseas. One such example, on June 1 began: “The Quartermaster General’s Department, in response to the complaints coming from the various concentration camps of the delay in securing supplies and equipment. . . .” For the latest scholarship on the South African concentration camps, see the essays by Shula Marks and Elizabeth van Heyningen in Greg Cuthbertson et al., Writing a Wider War: Rethinking Gender, Race, and Identity in the South African War, 1899-1902 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2002).

48. It may well be that Dillon Myer’s negative reaction to being so characterized in Richard Drinnon’s Keeper of Concentration Camps: Dillon S. Myer and American Racism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), drove him into the arms of Lillian Baker, a vociferous opponent of any kind of amelioration for the wartime and postwar injuries that Japanese Americans endured. Too ill to appear at the CWRIC’s Washington hearings, Myer authorized Baker to read a statement opposing the idea of an apology. For Baker, see her Dishonoring America: The Falsification of World War II History (Medford, Oreg.: Webb Research Group, 1994).

49. As quoted in Myer, Uprooted Americans , 73, no source given, but probably from government surveillance of the speaker (Kiyoshi Okamoto?).
50. A book by Prof. Alice Yang Murray, which is to be published soon, reveals that internal WRA memoranda warned against the use of the term “camp.”


* 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