THE POWER OF WORDS REVISITED: ‘Concentration Camps’ and ‘Internment Camps’


Note: The following is the second part of a series on the terminology used to describe the incarceration of Nikkei during WWII. The first piece, which focused on two specific terms — “evacuation” and “relocation” — appeared in the Nichi Bei Times Weekly July 23-29, 2009 (

Some people have told me the problem with using the term “concentration camp” to describe where Nikkei were incarcerated during WWII, is that it is a harsh term. I totally agree. It is a harsh term. The Nikkei experience within the camps can also accurately be described as being harsh. Thus the harshness of the term reflects that it is an accurate fit.

I also agree with those who recognize this Nikkei experience cannot be compared to that of the Jews in the Nazi camps in Europe. In the Nazi concentrations camps horrendous atrocities including inhuman use of prisoners for their labor, experiments on the human body, and the wholesale slaughter of millions of human beings took place. The outrageous brutality in the Nazi camps deserves the infamous distinction of being designated as slave labor camps, death camps and killing centers. The term “concentration camps” was used as a euphemism to minimize the horrifying reality of the Nazi-run “death camps.”

I propose we not shy away from the term “American Concentration Camps,” nor the terms “Nazi death camps and killing centers.” Quite simply — that is what they were.

Internment Camps

“Internment” is a specialized legal term used to indicate the disposition of persons who are not American citizens. The Geneva Convention legitimizes the internment of citizens of a country who are present in another country in a time of war between those countries.

My father was an Issei. — He was a citizen of Japan and thus ineligible from applying to become an American citizen. He was taken and initially interned at the Missoula, Montana internment camp run by the U.S. Department of Justice. The terms “intern,” “internment,” and “internee” are properly used in his case and for the more than 17,000 other people of Japanese ancestry who were interned in U.S. Department of Justice camps such as the camp in Missoula.

The other nearly 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry were incarcerated in the camps run by the Army Wartime Civil Control Administration (WCCA) and the War Relocation Authority (WRA). In these cases, the terms “intern,” “internment” and “internee” are misnomers. Lumping all the prisoners under the term “internment” beclouds the issue of legal jurisdiction.

The term “American Concentration Camp” remains uncomfortable to a number of people. It is hoped that this very discomfort will serve to remind us of the need to keep vigilant so such occurrence does not happen again.

Of the term American Concentration Camp (ACC), one can say the following:

by dictionary definition ACC accurately describes the facility that held prisoners of Japanese ancestry during WWII.

was widely used by the news media, films, ads, and government officials of the time, throughout the populace.

replaces the euphemisms i.e., relocation camps, assembly centers (Isn’t it ironic that these same two euphemisms were used by the Nazis to describe their concentration/death camps?).

if avoided in lieu of more ‘gentle’ terms, distortion of this history will continue misleading people.

replaces the frequently used but totally incorrect term “Japanese Internment Camps.”

was championed by civil rights activist, Edison Uno, as early as April 1974.

is key to the drive to replace euphemisms and misnomers, with accurate terminology and spur a higher standard of learning history.

has slowly become increasingly more acceptable term within the American public in the decades following camps closures.

I strongly urge the Japanese American Citizens League to take on the reins of leadership in promoting the action needed to erase euphemisms and misnomers leading to faulty education and replace them with honest and accurate terms that will present a truer picture of what occurred in 1942. Let us stand firm and united in speaking the unabashed truth with uncompromising accuracy. I believe the benefit of our action would be a giant step in assuring there will never be a repetition of this sad chapter of American history.

Mako Nakagawa is a retired educator with the Seattle Public Schools, past president of the Seattle chapter of the JACL, and a specialist in multicultural and diversity workshop training. She has conducted workshops across the state of Washington and to many other states on the incarceration of Nikkei people into concentration camps during WWII.

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