Redefining the conversation: Using Japanese incarceration camp over internment camp

Writer Malia Ogawa takes us on her journey to explore the words she thought she knew about camps that held incarcerated Japanese Americans.
The author's family with friends posing for a photo in their internment camp.
The author’s family with friends posing for a photo in their internment camp. Photo submitted.

What’s the difference between incarceration and internment?

I grew up using the words “internment camp” to describe what Japanese Americans suffered when some 120,000 of them were imprisoned during World War II.

It was a term my family used for decades and something ingrained into me as a historical fact.

The term is part of our lexicon at the moment and is still the most popular term used by the general, mostly non-Japanese American media and public to describe the camps. 

Despite that, I discovered the term is more misleading than accurate, portraying a more euphemistic look at the prison camps that the Japanese American (JA) community were locked up in. 

A few months ago, I wrote a two-part article about my grandma’s time in the camps using the words internment camps.

I used the words “internment camp” to write the piece since I was unaware of the nuances in JA terminology. I used words like “incarceration,” “internment,” “relocation camp,” and others synonymously because I saw it used in the same way throughout my many sources while researching.

However, after publishing my second article, I was notified about the nuance and shift in narrative via comments on Instagram. I worked with Cold Tea Collective to revise the articles to add a disclaimer and change out the words “internment” for “incarceration.”

The comments were jarring to hear. At the same time, they inspired me to walk down a new path in my family’s history and explore the nuance and change of the terminology around the JA wartime experience.

Coming to terms with the terminology

I started with Densho, a leading organization that’s a powerhouse of information in the JA community. 

The organization’s mission is “to preserve and share history of the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans to promote equity and justice today.”

Densho suggests using forced removal instead of “evacuation;” incarceration over “internment;” Japanese American versus “Japanese;” and concentration camps over “relocation centers.”

These words reflect a more white washed narrative of these events, as I learned from the discussion surrounding “internment” within the JA community.

Why does it matter? Because it’s the victors who write the perception, narrative, and history. 

When you look at the common language surrounding what the Japanese Americans endured, it’s all euphemisms that fail to explain what the Japanese Americans suffered and lost.

Japanese Americans arrive at the Santa Anita, California Assembly Center before being moved inland to an incarceration camp. Photo credit: The National Archives and Record Administration

My initial reaction was shock. When you look up “internment,” the definitions given use the JA wartime experience as examples. 

I grew up using it my whole life and used it in my undergraduate senior thesis. Frankly it was a crisis of both my work in academia and my identity. How could it have changed like that? 

I decided my best move was to research more, get in touch with others in the JA community to talk about this, and learn everything I could. 

I got in touch with a large and diverse group of people in the JA community, JA organizations and museums, and even a group of Jewish friends.

I contacted people in the Jewish community to discuss their thoughts and feelings on the use of the term “concentration camp,” which can sometimes stir up conflict. 

From my personal experiences, I’ve seen the word “concentration camp” used more in reference to the Holocaust than anything else. This inevitably draws parallels that I do not wish to be drawn.

Digging for a definition

I tirelessly tried to find a definition for internment online that refers to the alien-only definition that Densho provides. 

However, all the definitions I find of internment say basically the same thing: The state of being confined as a prisoner, especially for political or military reasons. This is inaccurate.

People I spoke to about this terminology topic have looked up this definition and sent it back to me asking for an explanation.

“The term ‘internment’ is misapplied,” said Brian Niiya, Densho’s Content Director. “The camps that the Issei were kept in can properly be called internment camps, but the War Relocation Authority camps that imprisoned American citizens cannot be properly applied. Colloquially, people use internment interchangeably with incarceration.”

He reminded me that the question over terminology first sprang up in the 1970s during the early redress movement. 

“In general dictionaries, the definition will be non-specific,” he said. “Part of the problem is there hasn’t been a replacement term for internment as this broad term. It’s not ideal to replace internment with these terms that are associated with penal institutions that imply guilt.”

Leaders of the movement didn’t want people to use the euphemistic words during that time (i.e. relocation, evacuation). 

There’s been many levels to this terminology topic and the 1990s were a time when we saw a push for moving away from using “internment” to using “concentration camp.”

A crowd of Japanese American onlookers on the first day of being forced out of their homes in San Francisco, who themselves will be removed within three days. Photo credit: The National Archives and Record Administration

I asked Brian about people, like myself, who aren’t comfortable with using the term “concentration camp.”

He informed me that although it’s the best term to use, it’s okay if people don’t want to use it.

Some people are not comfortable using that term because of its ties to the Holocaust. Although the Nazi’s camps were death and extermination camps, they’ve come to be known as “concentration camps,” similar to the JA camps being known as “internment camps.”

The will and way of communities

When I was researching and writing my undergraduate senior thesis, the information presented about the camps was uniform and generalized. But I’ve grown to realize there’s a lot more nuance to it.

The Japanese Americans were generally all presented as well-behaved and well-mannered. 

They described their experience as “sho ga nai”/”shikata ga nai” (“it is what it is”/”it can’t be helped”), the model minority stereotype that America loved to force upon us. 

While part of that is true, that attitude is very Japanese. My family themselves didn’t complain about the camps, but they did discuss them and educate us.

I recently read the book No-No Boy by John Okada. 

It’s about the aftermath of the incarceration and the boys who refused to put their signatures on documents at the camps that signed them up for the draft and pledged allegiance to the U.S, the same country that had incarcerated them in camps. 

They were imprisoned and spent the rest of the war in jail. In addition, the Japanese American community ostracized them after they returned home. 

I’ve also recently learned about the cold-blooded murder of a man out walking his dog in one of the camps.

My resources from before said that there were no unnatural deaths in the camps or violence imposed upon the Japanese. This is now proving to be untrue. 

The inaccurate retelling in history books and lack of an Asian American history curriculum in schools is what led many of us to repeat the broken terminology surrounding the camps. 

Now when I see the words “internment camp,” I cringe.

I feel uncomfortable because it looks wrong to me. However, when I see the words “concentration camp” being used, I feel uncomfortable as well.

The latter term still holds a large tie to the Holocaust for me, which is a topic that I’ve spent a lot of my life studying as well.

Japanese Americans waiting for a bus to the incarceration camps on Bush Street in San Francisco. Photo credit: The National Archives and Record Administration

When asking my fellow Japanese Americans for their thoughts on the shifting terminology, most were surprised to hear about the move away from “internment.” 

Of the people I surveyed, the ones who weren’t were younger millennials who were active members in the community.

Out of the entire group of people, some are okay with moving away with “internment” and using “concentration camp” now, but with the proper education and knowledge spread to the public. 

Some don’t see any problem with using the word “internment” and will continue to do so. 

As a Japanese American, I believe continued learning about the terminology surrounding the JA experience is the next step of this nuanced journey.

While disagreements can and will occur, I believe the key is to learn from each other constructively and respectfully.

Words matter immensely.

They hold a subtle, quiet power to them that can inspire change, educate people, incite violence, topple empires, and dismantle archaic laws.

They evoke strong feelings and emotions from us as individuals. 

Words can reduce and dismiss important topics and events by using euphemisms and lesser words, or they can convey the importance of something by using direct and strong vocabulary.

This is why terminology is so important.

Living with the evolving terminology

Japanese Americans board trains to embark on a 250-mile ride to Manzanar, California after being removed forcefully from their homes. The incarceration camp was one of ten in the country. Photo credit: The National Archives and Record Administration

When I spoke to members of the Jewish community about this topic, all but one of them was OK with the word “concentration camp” being used. 

Many of them, however, did point out that they know people in the Jewish community who would be upset about it.


Dutch Jews board the train that is to take them to Auschwitz. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

From what I’ve discovered, it seems that the members of the JA community are more split on the terminology and the words they choose to use. 

Yet I’ve noticed that the JA organizations have moved away from using “internment camp” and use “concentration camp” instead. 

It’ll be interesting to see the evolution of this terminology in ten or twenty years from now, especially given that the remaining survivors of the camps are the elderly.

How will their legacy evolve after they’re all gone? How will it change when it’s only the descendants of the survivors remaining to educate the public and pass on their knowledge?  Perhaps most importantly, how will we shape that legacy with our own words?

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