Use The Japanese American incarceration as a case study to examine how terminology can both reflect and influence people’s perceptions of certain policies or historical episodes. Suggested discussion points appear below.
The Power of Language
In this lesson, we have referred to the Japanese-American “incarceration.”
Many history textbooks and teachers may still refer to this episode as the Japanese-American “internment”—a term that was standard and widely accepted for many years, including by those in the Japanese-American community.
Over time, however, scholars, researchers, and members of the Japanese-American community began calling for the replacement of terms like “internment” that they consider euphemistic.
*Euphemistic language uses polite, pleasant, or neutral words and expressions to refer to things that people may find unpleasant, upsetting, or embarrassing.
The legally permissible detention of enemy aliens in time of war
the state of being confined in prison; imprisonment.
Consider the following (widely used) terms:
Do you feel these terms are euphemistic? Accurate? Appropriate? Explain your reasoning.
Scholars argue that the following terms may be more accurate and appropriate:
Do you feel these terms are more appropriate? Why or why not?
The facilities that many people now call “internment camps” were, at the time of use, referred to as “concentration camps” by the U.S. government.
*This was before the Nazi concentration camps were well known in the United States.
A place where large numbers of people, especially political prisoners or members of persecuted minorities, are deliberately imprisoned in a small area with inadequate facilities, sometimes to provide forced labor or to await mass execution.
A prison camp for the confinement of enemy aliens, prisoners of war, political prisoners, etc.
The legally permissible detention of enemy aliens in time of war.
How do the terms “internment camp” and “concentration camp” differ in your mind? Do they conjure different emotions, images, or connotations?
Note: For a thoughtful discussion on these terms, have students read Edward Schumacher-Matos and Lori Grisham, “Euphemisms, Concentration Camps and the Japanese American Internment,” NPR.org, 10 February 2012, https://www.npr.org/sections/ombudsman/2012/02/10/146691773/euphemisms-concentration-camps-and-the-japanese-internment [1 March 2018].
Field laborers of Japanese ancestry stand in front of a Wartime Civil Control Administration site where they are seeking instruction in regards to their "evacuation". Byron, California, 1942.
Department of Justice Notice to Aliens of Enemy Nationalities to apply for identification.
February 2, 1942.
 Liz Ohanesian, “Reflecting on the Japanese Internment that Began 75 Years Ago Feels Frighteningly Necessary Today,” L.A. Weekly, 13 February 2017, [19 September 2018].