Why all the fuss over language?



Cast-in-Bronze“At what point are we, as Americans of Japanese ancestry, going to resist having our history written for us by others?” Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, a Nisei survivor of the World War II incarceration, asked this question. She is revered as the researcher who found the document that proved the government claim of “military necessity” as the reason for the forced wartime removal and incarceration was a lie.

“Is our empowerment so weak that we must capitulate and surrender our right to state our own history in our own words?”

Herzig-Yoshinaga’s frustration came from the exhibit on the wartime incarceration of persons of Japanese ancestry, “America’s Concentration Camps,” held in 1998 at the National Park Service’s Ellis Island Immigration Museum. There, critics forced the Japanese American National Museum to defend its reasoning and right to use the term “concentration camps.”

Her in-depth research into the incarceration’s documents and language led Herzig-Yoshinaga to begin a list of “words that lie” — words the government used to cover up and minimize the unjust wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans. This list, gathered over several decades, developed into her 2010 paper, “Words Can Lie or Clarify,” a personal biography and discussion of terminology, found at: www.nps.gov/tule/forteachers/suggestedreading.htm.

Herzig-Yoshinaga’s views on terminology paralleled those of the Japanese American activists in the 1970s, who recognized the wartime incarceration as a shocking violation of the civil and human rights of an unpopular racial minority. Their views remain, cast in bronze on California State Historic Landmark plaques that describe Manzanar and Tule Lake as “concentration camps.” Yet, in the new millennium, the National Park Service, the federal agency tasked with preserving the Japanese American incarceration story, remains hesitant to call the War Relocation Authority sites “concentration camps,” citing the need for greater public consensus.

Working toward such consensus, delegates to the 2010 National JACL convention passed overwhelmingly (80 votes for, two against) a resolution that urged accurate and non-euphemistic terminology when describing the Japanese American wartime experience. After this victory, however, the JACL wrote an implementation guide that advised using the euphemisms — in quotation marks. When members protested, the JACL invited Jewish organizational lobbyists to pressure JACL delegates over the term “concentration camps.” This was not persuasive.

After more maneuvering, the majority of delegates voted (55 for, 17 against and three split) to block adoption of the flawed implementation guide. A revised guide will be prepared for approval at the JACL National convention in Seattle in 2012. JACL’s leaders will then choose whether to align with its grassroots members who overwhelmingly supported the resolution to use accurate and non-euphemistic terminology, or with those aligned with other organizational interests.

Lamentably, after decades of community advocacy over what to call the places where 120,000 persons of Japanese descent — most of whom were American citizens — were stripped of their rights and their freedom, this issue of self-definition remains unsettled. Some survivors say that terms such as “prisoner” or “concentration camp” seem uncomfortably harsh, raising images of pain and victimization. Yet, what good would come of minimizing the public’s understanding of the traumatic violation of rights and human dignity suffered by persons of Japanese descent during World War II? If the goal is to ensure, “Never again!” — the truth is the best place to start.

If you have questions or wonder how you can help ensure future generations will get a more honest picture of the wartime experience of Japanese Americans, please join us this Saturday, Oct. 22 in San Francisco’s Japantown. We’ve gathered a stellar group of scholars and activists who can help you and your organizations to aptly name the Japanese American World War II experience.

Barbara Takei, a writer and researcher based in Sacramento, Calif., is a board member of the Tule Lake Committee and an organizer of the upcoming symposium, “Cast in Bronze: Terminology and Memory of the Japanese American WWII Incarceration Experience,” to be held on Oct. 22 in San Francisco’s Japantown. The views in the preceding commentary are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.


WHAT: “Cast in Bronze: Terminology and Memory of the Japanese American WWII Incarceration Experience” — A community-wide symposium to discuss the government euphemisms used to minimize and conceal the involuntary and racial nature of its exclusion and imprisonment of the West Coast Japanese American community.

WHEN: Saturday, Oct. 22, from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sign-in at 9 a.m.

WHERE: Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, 1840 Sutter St. in San Francisco’s Japantown.
Admission: Free, includes lunch.

RSVP: Space is limited; RSVP required before Friday, Oct. 21 at 12 a.m. to Hiroshi Shimizu at (415) 566-2279 or hshimizu@pacbell.net.

Event organizers: Tule Lake Committee, Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, Japanese American National Library, and Lane Hirabayashi, Asian American Studies at UCLA. Event sponsors are Lane Hirabayashi and the Aratani Endowed chair, Asian American Studies at UCLA and the Tule Lake Committee.

Scheduled Speakers

9:30 a.m.:
Chris Lehnertz, Pacific West Regional Director of the National Park Service, which includes Manzanar, Minidoka and Tule Lake sites.
Tetsuden Kashima, professor of American ethnic studies at University of Washington and author of “Judgment Without Trial: Japanese American Imprisonment During World War II,” which examines the system of imprisonment of persons of Japanese descent in Department of Interior WRA concentration camps and internment at the Department of Justice camps.
Roger Daniels, emeritus professor of history at University of Cincinnati and seminal authority on the Japanese American wartime incarceration. Daniels is one of the earliest proponents of the term “concentration camps” to describe the WRA camps that incarcerated Japanese Americans during World War II.

11:20 a.m.: Community discussants Karen Kai and Steve Doi.

12:45 p.m.:
Don Hata, former Gardena City Councilman, emeritus professor of history at CSU Dominguez Hills, co-author of “Japanese Americans and World War II: Mass Removal, Incarceration, and Redress.” Hata served as editor for “Words Can Lie or Clarify,” Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga’s paper on terminology.
Karen Ishizuka, filmmaker and independent researcher, author of “Lost and Found: Reclaiming the Japanese American Incarceration,” which recounts the 1998 Japanese American National Museum exhibit, “America’s Concentration Camps” and negotiations with Jewish organizations over terminology used at the NPS’ Ellis Island museum exhibit.
Mako Nakagawa, president, Mako & Associates, educational consulting, Seattle, and primary author of the “Power of Words” resolution passed by the JACL National Council in 2010.

2:30 to 3:30 p.m.:
Community discussion — Small groups facilitated by Satsuki Ina, Ph.D., psycho-therapist and filmmaker, “From a Silk Cocoon ” and “Children of the Camps.”


One response to “Why all the fuss over language?”

  1. Frank Abe Avatar

    Glad you’re doing ths.

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