The Power of Words resolution, three months later


It has been over three months since the National Council of the JACL passed the Power of Words (POW) resolution at the July 2010 National Convention in Chicago. It was amazing to have 80 chapters voting for the resolution with only two chapters voting against. As a devoted proponent of the proposal from its inception to the day it passed the National Council, I was absolutely delighted. Clearly, the movement to make our language more accurate and true to what really happened to the Nikkei people during WWII has gained momentum over the years. We thank a lot of people who paved the way for this successful vote.

The POW resolution, passed by the oldest and largest Japanese American civil rights organization, identifies the government euphemisms used to sugarcoat the injustice of the wartime incarceration.

POW preferred terms: Forced removal, Incarceration, American Concentration Camps

Targeted terminology: Evacuation, Relocation, Internment, Japanese Internment camps

Identified Euphemisms: Non-Aliens, Assembly Centers, Relocation Centers, Pioneer Communities

Misnomers: Internment, Interned, Internee (Correctly applied only when referring to suspect alien residents who are citizens of a country with which we are at war.)

There has been a flurry of activity on the terminology issue since the JACL convention. We have been informed of discussions with various views taking place in homes, social organizations, schools, governmental agencies, etc. We seek to encourage continued conversations with a wide range of people, hopefully conducted with mutual respect and open minds. Primarily we are interested in affecting change in the schools by introducing the WWII incarceration experience with more authenticity by replacing the misleading euphemisms and misnomers.

We believe the effort to look more critically at the terms used to describe the WWII incarceration experience will significantly improve the educational process and reduce the erroneous miss-education of the past.


Q & A

Recently, Kendall Kosai, a journalist for the North American Post, asked me three questions for an article he was writing to help clarify the terminology issue. Here are the questions he posed and my responses:

1. What is the importance of changing these words?

Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga chooses “Words Can Lie or Clarify” as the title of her paper on terminology. Government-created euphemistic language led to some people actually believing that the Japanese Americans were being protected and even pampered in the camps. The use of inaccurate terms can, and too often does, distort facts into outright fantasies. Use of accurate terminology in describing the Nikkei experience is vital in preserving the true history of this episode of history so that we can be vigilant in our resolve to protect our democratic way of life. The Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution failed us in our time of need. Let the legacy of our experience be that it never happens again to any group of people — “Ni do to nai yoo ni.”

2. Briefly, can you talk about the difference between incarceration, internment, and concentration camps?

The toughest part of answering this question is — being BRIEF! Let me cheat here and refer anyone interested to our Website, where eminent scholars and historians have dealt with this issue with much better writing than I would be able to produce. The Website is One can find excellent papers written by Raymond Okamura, James Hirabayashi, Roger Daniels and Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga. A quick and dirty from me:

Incarceration: Considered a “preferred term” by the POW resolution (particularly for those held in the WRA camps).

Internment: A legal term which should be limited in use to only citizens of a country with which we are at war and held in the Department of Justice camps. Imprisonment of identified aliens suspected of being a threat to national security is allowed under specified conditions.

Concentration camp: “A camp where civilians, enemy aliens, political prisoners, and sometimes prisoners of war are detained and confined, typically under harsh conditions.” (American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, 2000)


3. Do you think there is a certain amount of “spin” that is applied to these terms?

Absolutely! I would say more than a certain amount. In the early 1940s the word “spin” probably wasn’t known, but the government did not shy away from using the “spin” and used that strategy well. There is a 10-minute film made by the government that is narrated by Milton Eisenhower. It can be viewed at the Densho Website, Even middle school students are able to quickly identify many euphemisms and deliberate distortions of actual facts. An interesting note — some people are looking upon the term concentration camp as a euphemistic term as it is applied to the Nazi camps in Europe. Many use the term “death camps,” “killing centers” or “extermination sites” for those camps. These last three terms absolutely do NOT describe the American Concentration Camps.

We need many more articles on the subject of terminology in many more media outlets. However, in a few short months, we are pleased with the amount of attention the issue has already received. In addition to the several newspaper articles, I wish to share the following facts with you:

• The chairperson of the National JACL POW ad hoc committee, the National JACL director, and the National JACL president met with leaders of the national American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League and discussed the POW resolution.

• The Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, the UCLA Asian American Studies Program and the Japanese American National Museum sponsored a conference in Los Angeles in which Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga and I presented our position on the terminology issue. It was well received.

• The JACL Pacific Northwest District produced a brochure that was distributed at the Heart Mountain conference (mentioned above). It was a well-designed brochure and was quickly depleted from the tables by enthusiastic attendees. Many mentioned that the brochure was a good tool to get the word out to others.

• The Japanese American National Museum has invited Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga and I to return to the museum for another session on the terminology issue.

• Governor Schwarzenegger of California signed the Korematsu bill originated by Warren Furutani. This bill passed both houses of the state legislature unanimously. It dealt with the recognition and a tribute to Fred Korematsu, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. (This bill became a terminology issue when a Japanese American woman wrote the governor urging him to veto the bill until such time as the bill deleted the reference to “concentration camps.”)

• A number of organizations have agreed to have their names put on a list of “endorsers of the Power of Words resolution.”

• Planning has begun for an “all camp” summit sometime next year to gather consensus on the terminology used to describe the WWII experience of Japanese Americans.

A lot has been done in three months. When the National JACL ad hoc committee gets rolling, we can expect much more action. Many of us are hoping to see a significant increase in better educational practices being utilized in the schools and the noticeable reduction of misinformation being passed on as history. The excitement grows. Please help us keep the ball rolling.

Again, let the legacy of our WWII concentration camp experience be that it never happens again to any group of people. Ni do to nai yoo ni.

Mako Nakagawa is a retired educator with the Seattle Public Schools, past president of the Seattle 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. The views expressed in the preceding commentary are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

2 responses to “The Power of Words resolution, three months later”

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  2. […] general perception of the World War II experiences of Japanese Americans in an interview with the Nichi Bei, a Japanese American newspaper: Government-created euphemistic language led to some people actually […]

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