Historical Perspective: Words Matter — Why Saying ‘Japanese Internment’ Distorts History

Two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States began ordering Japanese Americans living along the West Coast to leave their homes. Fairgrounds and other facilities were hastily established as “assembly centers” where families and individuals were detained for months at a time while waiting to be sent to remote camps where armed guards and barbed wire prevented escape. 

Some argue that 1940s government propaganda continues to influence the language used to describe these events, thereby distorting history. Densho, an organization that collects firsthand accounts from this time period, offers a glossary of terms that speak directly to “the harsh realities of Japanese American WWII incarceration.” A few are explained below:

Forced Removal > Evacuation

The government originally referred to the mass removal of Japanese Americans as an evacuation, a term implying this action was for their own protection. 

Incarceration > Internment

Internment refers to the controversial but legal practice of arresting immigrants who are suspected of colluding against the U.S. Yet FBI records show that very few Japanese immigrants were seen as potential threats. Furthermore, two-thirds of those sent to “internment camps” were American citizens, making their detainment without cause illegal.

Japanese American > Japanese

Officials and journalists consistently referred to these actions as Japanese internment, to distance the notion that Americans were being forcibly held by their own country. 

Sources: Densho, Smithsonian, Library of Congress

Mariah Bohanon is the associate editor of DiversityIS. This article ran in the fall 2019 issue.