How Language Shapes Perceptions
Examine the language of the Japanese American incarceration and how terminology can shape our perceptions.
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.
Note that in many of the captioned photos, there will be quotation marks placed around out-of-date terminology that was used during that time.
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
Miné with open newspaper, surrounded by anti-Japanese slogans, Berkeley, CA, 1941.
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?
A Japanese family returning home from an "internment camp" find their home and garage vandalized in Seattle, WA, 1945.
Image: pi28084. Photo by Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Source:
Museum of History & Industry, Seattle (MOHAI)
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.
How do the terms “internment camp” and “concentration camp” differ in your mind? Do they conjure different emotions, images, or connotations?
"Evacuation" of Japanese Americans from West Coast areas under U.S. Army war emergency order, Los Angeles, CA, 1942.
Field laborers of Japanese ancestry stand in front of a Wartime Civil Control Administration site, seeking instruction in regards to their "evacuation," Byron, CA, 1942.
Photo by Dorothea Lange. Identifier: 210-G-C456. Source: National Archives and Records Administration
When it issued eviction orders to Japanese American families, the U.S. government referred to Japanese citizens living in the United States as “aliens” (i.e., non-citizen), and it referred to American citizens of Japanese descent as “non-aliens.”
What do you think of the term “non-alien”?
Have you heard it used in other contexts? What emotions, images, or connotations does it conjure? Why do you think this term was used?
Department of Justice Notice to Aliens of Enemy Nationalities to apply for identification, February 2, 1942.
“I always ask people, when was the last time you stood on your chair and beat your chest and said, 'I’m a proud non-alien of the United States of America'. The likelihood is that you never have.”
- Former U.S. Secretary of Commerce and Transportation Norman Mineta, who was incarcerated at 10 years old.¹
Courtesy of Mineta Family
Liz Ohanesian, “Reflecting on the Japanese Internment that Began 75 Years Ago Feels Frighteningly Necessary Today,” L.A. Weekly, 13 February 2017, https://www.laweekly.com/arts/reflecting-on-the-japanese-internment-that-began-75-years-ago-feels-frighteningly-necessary-today-7920484 [31 July 2020].