Forced Removal vs. Evacuation
In early 1942, Japanese Americans were forcibly removed from the West Coast and forbidden to return. The government called this an “evacuation,” implying the forced move was a precaution for Japanese Americans’ own safety, as in a natural disaster. In reality, this was a targeted exile of a single ethnic minority—carried out by armed soldiers, enforced by lawmakers and elected officials, and motivated, in part, by a desire to reap economic gains from the farmland and property Japanese Americans were forced to leave behind. “Exclusion” and “mass removal” are therefore more apt than euphemisms such as “evacuation” and “relocation,” because Japanese Americans were expelled from the West Coast and subject to arrest if they returned.
Incarceration vs. Internment
The commonly used term “internment” fails to accurately describe what happened to Japanese Americans during WWII. “Internment” refers to the legally permissible, though morally questionable, detention of “enemy aliens” in time of war. There were approximately 8,000 Issei (“first generation”) arrested as enemy aliens and subjected to what could be described as “internment” in a separate set of camps run by the Army or Department of Justice.* This term becomes a misleading, othering euphemism when applied to American citizens detained by their own government; yet two-thirds of Japanese Americans incarcerated during WWII were U.S. citizens by birth and right.
Although “internment” is a recognized and widely used term, we encourage the use of “incarceration,” except in the specific case of Japanese Americans detained by the Army or DOJ. “Detention” is used interchangeably—although some argue that the word denotes a shorter period of confinement than the nearly four years the camps were in operation.
*A smaller number of Nisei, mostly Kibei and mostly in Hawai`i, were also swept up in the DOJ internment system.
Japanese American vs. Japanese
Media outlets and other sources often refer to the more than 120,000* people of Japanese descent imprisoned by the U.S. government during WWII as simply “Japanese”—but this both erases their American identity and conflates Japanese Americans with Japanese citizens in Japan. The wartime government employed this strategy itself, inventing the orwellian term “non-alien” to describe Japanese American citizens in public documents.
The Nisei (“second generation”) were U.S. citizens born to Japanese immigrant parents in the United States. Many had never set foot in Japan. Their Issei parents were forbidden by discriminatory law from becoming naturalized American citizens, but by the 1940s most had lived in the United States for decades and raised their families here. Most had no plans of returning to Japan, and would have become naturalized citizens if allowed. By birth or by choice, Japanese Americans were just that—American.
*The oft-cited “120,000” figure comes from the War Relocation Authority’s official statistical compilation, The Evacuated People, which cites a total of 120,313 people in the WRA system. However, including DOJ/Army internees and those who were held in “assembly centers” but resettled before being transferred to WRA custody, that number is closer to 126,000.
Concentration Camps vs. “Relocation Centers.”
There is still some debate over the most appropriate terminology for the camps where Japanese Americans were confined during WWII. At first, Japanese Americans were held in temporary camps the government called “assembly centers”—facilities surrounded by fences and guarded by military police. This term is clearly euphemistic in nature, as the “assembly” was carried out by military and political force. Therefore, we recommend its use only as part of a proper noun (e.g. “Puyallup Assembly Center”) or in quotation marks for specific references to this type of facility.
Japanese Americans were later transferred to longer-term camps which the government called “relocation centers.” (Some officials, including the president, also referred to them as “concentration camps” in internal memos.) Despite the seemingly innocuous name, these 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” fails to convey the harsh conditions and forced confinement of these facilities. As prison camps outside the normal criminal justice system, designed to confine civilians for military and political purposes on the basis of race and ethnicity, these sites also fit the definition of “concentration camps.” As such, Densho’s preferred term is “concentration camp” (e.g. “Minidoka concentration camp”). We do also use other terms, such as “incarceration camp” or “prison camp,” but urge the avoidance of euphemisms such as “relocation center” and “internment camp.”
Our use of “concentration camp” is intended to accurately describe what Japanese Americans were subjected to during WWII, and is not meant to undermine the experiences of Holocaust survivors or to conflate these two histories in any way. Like many Holocaust studies scholars, we believe that “concentration camp” is a euphemism for the Nazi death camps where millions of innocent Jews and other political prisoners were killed. America’s concentration camps were very different from Nazi Germany’s, but they, and dozens more historical and contemporary examples, do have one thing in common: “people in power removed a minority group from the general population and the rest of society let it happen.”
Issei, Nisei, Sansei, Yonsei
Issei: Term for Japanese immigrants originating from the Japanese language term for “first generation.” In the American context, the term is generally understood to apply to those who migrated prior to the cessation of Japanese immigration to the US under the dictates of the Immigration Act of 1924, the bulk arriving after 1885. The vast majority of Issei were thus middle-aged or older during World War II. Postwar immigrants from Japan are understood to be a distinct group sometimes referred to as “Shin-Issei,” the prefex “shin” being “new” in Japanese.
Nisei: Term for the children of Japanese immigrants, originating from the Japanese language term for “second generation.” In the American context, the term is generally understood to apply specifically to the American-born—and thus US citizen—children of Japanese immigrants who arrived prior to the Immigration Act of 1924. The bulk of Nisei were thus children or young adults during World War II. “Nisei” also implies being raised in the US and speaking English as a first language, with a separate term—Kibei Nisei or just Kibei—applied to those who were born in the US but mostly raised or educated in Japan.
Sansei: Term for third generation Japanese Americans, originating from the Japanese language term for “third generation.” In the American context, the term is understood to refer to the grandchildren of Japanese immigrants who arrived prior to the Immigration Act of 1924. The vast majority of Sansei were born after the war, and their generational range parallels that of the baby boomers.
Yonsei: Term for fourth generation Japanese Americans, originating from the Japanese language term for “fourth generation.”
Gosei: Term for fifth generation Japanese Americans, originating from the Japanese language term for “fifth generation.”
Rokusei: Term for sixth generation Japanese Americans, originating from the Japanese language term for “sixth generation.”
Since the 1970s, Japanese Americans, historians, educators, journalists, and others have increasingly advocated for the use of terminology that more accurately represents this history. Rather than repeat the euphemisms used by the U.S. government and other defenders of WWII incarceration, we encourage individuals to think critically about the impact of words like “internment,” “relocation,” and “evacuation.”
In the words of Redress hero Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, “words can lie or clarify.”  When we use language that distorts the past, we lose our ability to recognize patterns of repeating history. But language that imparts truth and understanding can help us avoid repeating those same mistakes today.