September 14, 2009

Anyone who writes about what happened to 120,000 Japanese Americans during WWII immediately enters a debate about terminology, whether they know it or not. “Internment” is the most common designation. Scholars say “internment” can’t apply to U.S. citizens for legal reasons. (Some 70,000 Nisei, U.S. citizens, were confined in the camps.) Officials euphemistically called the camps “relocation centers” at the time. A growing number today maintain that “concentration camps” is more accurate, if controversial.

So where does this leave us? This article contains 1940s examples of authorities’ words that betray their unease: Camp administrators referred to the U.S.-citizen Nisei as “Japanese non-aliens.” They declared, “People will be confined in the relocation area for the duration but in no other aspect will Minidoka resemble a concentration camp.”

Densho’s “Note on Terminology” cites historian Roger Daniels’s fine article “Words Do Matter.” We agree, historically accurate language matters. But how to determine what is accurate language? Tell us what you think.