Terminology and Glossary
At present there is no clear agreement about the most appropriate terminology for what Japanese Americans underwent during World War II. In the 1940s, officials of the federal government and U.S. military used euphemisms to describe their actions against people of Japanese ancestry in the United States. The deceptiveness of the language can now be judged according to evidence from many sources, notably the government's own investigation, as documented in Personal Justice Denied (1982-83) the report of the U.S. Congressional Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC).
In early 1942, Japanese Americans were forcibly removed from the West Coast and forbidden to return. The government called this an "evacuation," which implies the forced move was done as a precaution for Japanese Americans' own safety, as in a natural disaster. In fact the CWRIC found that the true motivations were "race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership." An additional factor was a desire for economic gain. "Exclusion" and "mass removal" are more apt terms, because Japanese Americans were expelled from the West Coast and subject to arrest if they returned.
The commonly used term "internment" is misleading when describing the concentration camps that held 120,000 people of Japanese descent during the war. "Internment" refers to the legally permissible detention of enemy aliens in time of war. It is problematic when applied to American citizens; yet two-thirds of the Japanese Americans incarcerated were U.S. citizens. Although "internment" is a recognized and generally used term, Densho prefers "incarceration" as more accurate except in the specific case of aliens detained in a separate set of camps run by the army or Justice Department. "Detention" is used interchangeably, although some scholars argue that the word denotes a shorter time of confinement than the nearly four years the Japanese American camps were in operation.
The Nisei ("second generation") were U.S. citizens born to Japanese immigrant parents in the United States. The accurate term for them is "Japanese American," rather than "Japanese." In public documents, the government referred to the Nisei as "non-aliens" rather than "citizens." Their parents, the Issei ("first generation") were forbidden by discriminatory law from becoming naturalized American citizens. By the 1940s, most Issei had lived in the United States for decades and raised their families here. Many had no plans for returning to Japan, and would have become naturalized citizens if allowed. (They remained aliens until 1952, when immigration law was changed.) To reflect this condition, Densho and other sources use the term "Japanese American" to refer to the Issei as well as the Nisei.
At first, Japanese Americans were held in temporary camps that the government called "assembly centers," facilities surrounded by fences and guarded by military sentries. For purposes of identification, Densho uses this euphemistic term as part of a proper noun, for example, "Puyallup Assembly Center," and in quotation marks when referring to this type of facility.
Japanese Americans were later confined within longer-term camps that the government called "relocation centers." In fact, they were prisons--compounds of barracks surrounded by barbed wire fences and patrolled by armed guards--which Japanese Americans could not leave without permission. "Relocation center" inadequately describes the harsh conditions and forced confinement of the camps. As prison camps outside the normal criminal justice system, designed to confine civilians for military or political purposes on the basis of race and ethnicity, these so-called relocation centers also fit the definition of "concentration camps." As such, Densho's preferred term is "concentration camps," e.g. "Minidoka concentration camp." We do also use other terms, such as "incarceration camp" or "prison camp."
Should euphemistic language from an earlier era be used today? This is an important question for students, teachers, and all people concerned with historical accuracy. Many Japanese Americans, some scholars, and other credible sources use the terminology of the past, which they believe is true to that era and unlikely to invite controversy. In contrast, many Japanese Americans, historians, educators, and others use terminology that they feel more accurately represents the historical events. Densho encourages individuals to think critically about the language used during the 1940s by the U.S. government in its punitive treatment of American citizens and legal resident immigrants based on their ancestry.
Densho's terminology conforms with the "Resolution on Terminology" adopted by the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund (see http://www.momomedia.com/CLPEF/backgrnd.html).
For examples of these linguistic questions found in the Densho Digital Archive, see: http://densho.org/archive/fromthearchive/200902-fromthearchive.asp.
See also: Roger Daniels, "Words Do Matter," a 5-part article on the Discover Nikkei website:
Alien land acts: laws enacted by various Western states that prevented Japanese (and other Asian) immigrants from purchasing land. First enacted in the 1910s, the laws generally remained in effect until well after World War II.
"Aliens ineligible to citizenship": a phrase used in the wording of alien land law legislation. This phrase was a way to make sure the legislation applied to people of Asian ancestry without specifically mentioning them as the targeted group. Until 1952, existing federal naturalization laws discriminated on the basis of ancestry. The right to become a naturalized U.S. citizen was given only to "free white persons and to aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent."
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU): a private organization dedicated to fighting civil liberties violations. The ACLU has often defended the civil rights of unpopular groups or individuals--those who need the protection of the Bill of Rights the most. Given its purpose of defending civil liberties, it is not surprising that the ACLU was one of the only organizations to come to the defense of the Japanese Americans who were forcibly removed and detained during World War II.
American Friends Service Committee (AFSC): a Quaker organization committed to social justice, peace and humanitarian service. One of the few organizations that provided help to the Japanese American community during World War II, especially through the student relocation program.
Assembly centers: temporary incarceration camps that imprisoned Japanese Americans who had been forcibly removed from the West Coast in the early months of World War II. By mid-1942, Japanese Americans were transferred to more permanent "relocation centers," also known as concentration camps. The terms "temporary incarceration camps" or "temporary prison camps" better convey the nature of these facilities. Densho's policy, however, is to still use the term "assembly center" as part of a proper noun, e.g. "Puyallup Assembly Center," and in quotation marks: "assembly center" when referring to the facilities. The reason for this is to avoid confusion, since many people would not associate "temporary incarceration camps" with "assembly centers."
Buddhahead: a term for Japanese Americans from Hawaii, vis-a-vis "Kotonks," a term for Japanese Americans from the mainland. The term was popularized during World War II when nisei from Hawaii interacted with nisei from the mainland while in military training. Although it can be considered derogatory, the term 'Buddhahead' later became used by some Hawaiian Japanese Americans to identify themselves with pride.
Civil rights: the freedoms and rights that a person has as a member of a given state or country.
Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC): a Congressional commission charged with studying the mass removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II and recommending an appropriate remedy.
Concentration camps: euphemistically called "relocation centers" by the War Relocation Authority (WRA), the concentration camps were hastily constructed facilities that housed Japanese Americans who had been forcibly removed from their homes and businesses on the West Coast during World War II. This term was also used to refer to the Justice Department internment camps where enemy aliens were detained. See internment camps for definition.
Evacuation: forced removal of Japanese Americans in early 1942 from the West Coast. They were forbidden to return. The government called this an "evacuation," a euphemism that implies it was done as a precaution for Japanese Americans' own safety, when in fact, it was motivated by economic greed and racial prejudice. "Mass removal" and "exclusion" are better terms for the event, because Japanese Americans were expelled from the West Coast and forbidden to return.
Executive Order 9066: this order, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, authorized the War Department to prescribe military areas from which "any or all persons may be excluded." This provided the basis for the exclusion and mass incarceration (or "internment") of all Japanese Americans from the West Coast.
522nd Field Artillery Battalion: part of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team--an all-nisei U.S. Army regiment that served in Europe during World War II. The 522nd had the distinction of liberating survivors of the Dachau concentration camp from the Nazis on April 29, 1945.
442nd Regimental Combat Team: a segregated U.S. Army regiment made up of nisei that saw heavy action during World War II. The 442nd fought in Italy, France and Germany. The 442nd rescued the "Lost Battalion," liberated survivors of the Dachau concentration camp, and was the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in U.S. military history.
Gentlemen's Agreement: the 1908 agreement between Japan and the United States that halted Japanese labor migration to the United States.
Gosei: a Japanese term meaning American-born great-great grandchildren of Japanese immigrants; fifth generation Japanese Americans.
Gothic Line: the last important defense of the German army in Italy during World War II.
Hakujin: "white person" in Japanese. This term is used to refer to a person of European descent.
Hoshidan: informal name for pro-Japanese group in Tule Lake incarceration camp. Short for Sokuji Kikoku Hoshi Dan ("Organization to Return Immediately to the Homeland to Serve").
Immigration Act of 1924: legislation that restricted overall immigration to the United States and banned further Japanese immigration.
Incarceration: the state of being in prison, or being confined.
Incarceration camps: camps administered by the U.S. War Relocation Authority to detain Japanese Americans during World War II. These were prisons surrounded by barbed wire fences and patrolled by armed guards, which inmates could not leave without permission. The U.S. War Relocation Authority called these camps "relocation centers." Because "relocation center" inadequately describes the harsh conditions and forced confinement of the camps, terms such as "incarceration camp" or "prison camp" are more accurate. As prison camps outside the normal criminal justice system, designed to confine civilians for military or political purposes on the basis of race and ethnicity, they fit the definition of "concentration camps."
Internment camps: camps administered by the Justice Department for the detention of enemy aliens (not U.S. citizens) deemed dangerous during World War II. Most of the several thousand people in these camps were issei and kibei who had been rounded up after the attack on Pearl Harbor because they were perceived as "dangerous." Japanese Latin Americans were also placed in these camps. "Internment camp" is used by some to describe the "incarceration camps." The term "internment" is problematic when applied to U.S. citizens. Technically, internment refers to the detention of enemy aliens during time of war, and two-thirds of the Japanese Americans incarcerated were U.S. citizens. Although it is a recognized and generally used term even today, we prefer "incarceration" as more accurate, except in the specific case of aliens.
Inu: "dog" in Japanese. This term was used in the incarceration camps to refer to Japanese Americans who were suspected of informing authorities about "suspicious" incarcerees.
Issei: the first generation of immigrant Japanese Americans, most of whom came to the United States between 1885 and 1924. The issei were ineligible for U.S. citizenship and considered "enemy aliens" during World War II.
Jap: a derogatory, hostile term used to refer to Japanese and Japanese Americans.
Japanese American: two-thirds of those imprisoned during World War II were nisei born in the United States and thus U.S. citizens. The proper term for them is "Japanese American," rather than "Japanese." Their parents, the issei, were immigrants who were legally forbidden from becoming naturalized citizens. While they were technically aliens, the issei had lived in the U.S. for decades by the time of World War II and raised their children in this country. Many of them considered themselves to be culturally Japanese, but were committed to the United States as their home. Calling the issei "Japanese American" as opposed to "Japanese" is a way to recognize that fact.
Japanese American Citizens League (JACL): a Japanese American civil rights organization that has emphasized assimilation and Americanization. The JACL is the largest and most influential Japanese American political organization, and has been controversial, particularly during World War II.
Kanji: a Japanese term for the Chinese characters used in Japanese writing.
Kibei: American-born person of Japanese ancestry sent to Japan for formal education and socialization when young and later returned to the United States.
Kotonk: derogatory term for Japanese Americans from the mainland, vis-a-vis "Buddhaheads," a term for Japanese Americans from the Hawaii. The term was popularized during World War II when nisei from Hawaii interacted with nisei from the mainland while in military training.
Lost Battalion: the Texas battalion of 211 men surrounded by German troops in eastern France and rescued by the all-nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team during World War II.
"Loyalty questions": two questions on questionnaires distributed to Japanese Americans in incarceration camps. Despite serious problems with the wording and meaning of the questions, government officials and others generally considered those who answered "no" to the two questions to be "disloyal" to the United States. "Yes" answers to these questions made internees eligible for service in the U.S. Army, and some became eligible for release and resettlement in areas outside of the West Coast exclusion zones.
McCarran-Walter: the immigration statute passed in 1952 that gave the issei the right to become naturalized U.S. citizens. Also known as the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952.
Military Intelligence Service (MIS): a U.S. Army branch in which many Japanese Americans served during World War II, utilizing their language skills in the Pacific War. Japanese American soldiers in the MIS translated enemy documents, interrogated Japanese prisoners of war, intercepted enemy communication, and persuaded enemy units to surrender.
NCJAR: National Council for Japanese American Redress.
NCR: National Committee for Redress.
NCRR: National Coalition for Redress/Reparations.
Nihonmachi: Japan Town.
Nikkei: a person of Japanese ancestry.
Nisei: American-born children of Japanese immigrants; second generation Japanese Americans. Most mainland nisei were born between 1915 and 1935; in Hawaii, large numbers were born about a decade earlier. Many nisei share a common background. Many grew up in a rural setting; were part of a large family; attended both a regular public school and private Japanese language schools; and had their lives dramatically changed by events stemming from World War II (which nearly all see as a key turning point in their lives).
Non-alien: the government sometimes referred to nisei as "non-aliens," a way of evading the fact that they were U.S. citizens.
"No-no boy": a term that refers to Japanese Americans (both male and female) who refused to answer the "loyalty questions" or answered in the negative. Many were unfairly stigmatized as being "disloyal" to the United States and were segregated to the Tule Lake camp.
100th Infantry Battalion: a U.S. Army battalion made up of nisei from Hawaii that saw heavy action during World War II. The 100th carved out an exemplary military record during their service in the European Theater, paving the way for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which arrived later.
Picture bride: issei women who participated in marriages that included the exchange of photographs between them or their families in Japan and their prospective husbands in the U.S. This was an affordable way for issei men to marry and begin families without the cost of returning to Japan.
Power of attorney: a legal instrument authorizing one to act as the attorney or agent of the grantor.
Redress and reparations: two terms used to refer to Japanese American efforts to get compensation from the U.S. government for being wrongfully detained in incarceration camps during World War II. While often used as synonyms, "redress" can imply an apology; "reparations" specifically refers to monetary compensation.
"Relocation centers": a term used by the U.S. War Relocation Authority to refer to the camps in which most Japanese Americans were detained during World War II. These were prisons surrounded by barbed wire fences and patrolled by armed guards, which inmates could not leave without permission. Because "relocation center" inadequately describes the harsh conditions and forced confinement of the camps, terms such as "incarceration camp" or "prison camp" are more accurate. As prison camps outside the normal criminal justice system, designed to confine civilians for military or political purposes on the basis of race and ethnicity, they fit the definition of "concentration camps."
Resettlement: a term used by the War Relocation Authority to refer to the migration of Japanese Americans from the incarceration camps in which they were imprisoned during World War II. Those who were allowed to leave the camps for resettlement could not return to the West Coast; they were told to move to the eastern and northern areas of the United States.
Sansei: American-born grandchildren of Japanese immigrants; third generation Japanese Americans.
Shin-Issei: new issei; newcomers to the United States after World War II.
War Relocation Authority (WRA): the U.S. government agency charged with administering the incarceration camps in which Japanese Americans from the West Coast were imprisoned during World War II.
Writ of error coram nobis: a legal term meaning "error before us." Legal petitions were filed on behalf of Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi, and Minoru Yasui in 1983 to reopen their cases, claiming that the courts had made major errors when their cases were decided during World War II.
Yellow peril: a term used by anti-Japanese agitators in the early 1900s to describe the "threat" of Japanese immigration as a precursor to a Japanese invasion.
Yonsei: American-born great-grandchildren of Japanese immigrants; fourth generation Japanese American.
*Many definitions were adapted from Brian Niiya, ed. Japanese American History, (New York: Facts on File, 1993).
Copyright ©1997-2015 Densho. All Rights Reserved.