February 13, 2012

Since it had been a while, the Densho staff took some time to review our terminology policy and the “A Note on Terminology” statement on our website. Issues on terminology in general go back at least to the 1970s, when a series of landmark articles by Raymond Okamura noted the euphemistic quality of the official terms used by the government to describe the “relocation” of Japanese American aliens and “non-aliens” during World War II to “relocation centers,” all of which connoted a benign process undertaken for the benefit of the “evacuees,” “residents,” and “colonists.”

Since that time, the Japanese American community has pushed to enforce the use of more fitting terminology: “mass forced removal,” “exclusion,” “inmates,” and so forth with various levels of success. There were notable battles over the use of the term “concentration camp” in the historical markers at Manzanar and Tule Lake in the 1970s and another waged by the Japanese American National Museum in 1990s when they took their “America’s Concentration Camps” exhibition on the road. In recent years, an effort called “The Power of Words” has taken on the terminology issue anew. At Densho, the terminology policy and statement was put together when the organization started in the 1990s. When we reviewed it, we found that little really needed to be changed. The policy mostly points out the euphemistic terminology that had once been used and recommends that it not be used any longer except as part of a direct quote or when trying to make a point about the terms themselves. It also explains the distinction between “internment” and “internment camps” and what was done to the vast majority of Japanese Americans, cautioning about the proper usage of these terms.

For the most part, the policy doesn’t state that this or that term must be used, as opposed to pointing out which terms should not be used or should be used with great caution. The policy did indicate a preference for referring to both the temporary and longer-term camps in which Japanese Americans removed from their West Coast homes were held. Because no alternative term has come to be widely accepted, we had decided to use the euphemistic term “assembly center”—in quotes when referred to by itself and in capital letters when used as part of a proper noun, e.g. “Pomona Assembly Center.” For the long-term camps run by the War Relocation Authority, we had decided to use “incarceration camp” internally (most notably in the tagging of items in our archive) in part to stay away from any controversy that surrounded the use of the term “concentration camp.” We had hoped that that term would eventually be one that would become more widely used in the community. This is the one thing we did decide to change. Since the term “incarceration camp” has not caught on the last decade plus—we seem to be the only ones using it—we have decided to go with “concentration camp” as our preferred term and the one that we will use internally.

As before our “Note on Terminology” won’t be prescriptive—as in everyone connected with Densho must use it all the time—but it will move to the top of the list of the terms we prefer. We did decide to keep the policy on “assembly centers” even while recognizing the inconsistency (“Turlock Assembly Center” versus “Gila River concentration camp”) between the ways we refer to these two types of camps. What are your thoughts on this change and on the terminology issue in general? Is there something else that we need to consider? Is there any good reason not to do this? We’d be interested in hearing your thoughts.