Monday, February 13, 2012

Terminology Redux

Since it had been a while, the Densho staff took some time to review our terminology policy and the “A Note on Terminology” statement on our website. Issues on terminology in general go back at least to the 1970s, when a series of landmark articles by Raymond Okamura noted the euphemistic quality of the official terms used by the government to describe the “relocation” of Japanese American aliens and “non-aliens” during World War II to “relocation centers,” all of which connoted a benign process undertaken for the benefit of the “evacuees,” “residents,” and “colonists.” Since that time, the Japanese American community has pushed to enforce the use of more fitting terminology: “mass forced removal,” “exclusion,” “inmates,” and so forth with various levels of success. There were notable battles over the use of the term “concentration camp” in the historical markers at Manzanar and Tule Lake in the 1970s and another waged by the Japanese American National Museum in 1990s when they took their “America’s Concentration Camps” exhibition on the road. In recent years, an effort called “The Power of Words” has taken on the terminology issue anew.

At Densho, the terminology policy and statement was put together when the organization started in the 1990s. When we reviewed it, we found that little really needed to be changed. The policy mostly points out the euphemistic terminology that had once been used and recommends that it not be used any longer except as part of a direct quote or when trying to make a point about the terms themselves. It also explains the distinction between “internment” and “internment camps” and what was done to the vast majority of Japanese Americans, cautioning about the proper usage of these terms. For the most part, the policy doesn’t state that this or that term must be used, as opposed to pointing out which terms should not be used or should be used with great caution.

The policy did indicate a preference for referring to both the temporary and longer-term camps in which Japanese Americans removed from their West Coast homes were held. Because no alternative term has come to be widely accepted, we had decided to use the euphemistic term “assembly center”—in quotes when referred to by itself and in capital letters when used as part of a proper noun, e.g. “Pomona Assembly Center.” For the long-term camps run by the War Relocation Authority, we had decided to use “incarceration camp” internally (most notably in the tagging of items in our archive) in part to stay away from any controversy that surrounded the use of the term “concentration camp.” We had hoped that that term would eventually be one that would become more widely used in the community.

This is the one thing we did decide to change. Since the term “incarceration camp” has not caught on the last decade plus—we seem to be the only ones using it—we have decided to go with “concentration camp” as our preferred term and the one that we will use internally. As before our “Note on Terminology” won’t be prescriptive—as in everyone connected with Densho must use it all the time—but it will move to the top of the list of the terms we prefer. We did decide to keep the policy on “assembly centers” even while recognizing the inconsistency (“Turlock Assembly Center” versus “Gila River concentration camp”) between the ways we refer to these two types of camps.

What are your thoughts on this change and on the terminology issue in general? Is there something else that we need to consider? Is there any good reason not to do this? We’d be interested in hearing your thoughts.


ekoyama said...

While growing up my parents used the term "concentration camps" when they referred to their time at Gila River. In my mind they will always be concentration camps, even though they were not in the same danger as the Jews in Europe.

Pernicious Panda said...

As I continue to develop a website that focuses on the experience of Japanese-American families in the White River Valley prior to WWII, I have kept your terminology policies in mind when choosing appropriate wording to refer to their experiences during the War. I am grateful that Densho has published such a policy as it appears to be the only resource available on this important topic. Although I’m sure I haven’t followed the Densho policy to the letter in all cases, it has made me conscious of the euphemisms that are commonly used—often, even by the people those lived through these experiences—for the policies and practices of our government during WWII. I do my best to avoid them in favor of more accurate, if harsher, terms.

In particular, I try to avoid the words “intern” or “internment.” In part, this is because mine is a cemetery website, and the similar terms “interred” and “inurned” already appear there frequently. But aside from this practical consideration, the word “intern” is probably most frequently associated with the college experience in modern times, and simply doesn’t do enough to describe the nature or consequences of the Exclusion Act.

That being said, I think it is unfortunate that you are abandoning the phrase “incarceration camp” in favor of “concentration camp.” My position is that, in the minds of most Americans, the term is entirely synonymous with “death camp” and the experience of Jews in the Holocaust in Europe. Although “concentration camp” might be applied correctly to the American camps in its literal sense, I think it invites an immediate comparison between the Japanese experience and the Jewish experience during the war. The unintended consequence is that people will begin to think of the atrocities committed here only in comparison to what happened in the Nazi camps, and while that could be an interesting topic, it is entirely beside the point when it comes to recording the deplorable decisions our own government made under war-time pressure. It invites an “at least” type of thinking—“at least we weren’t exterminating our citizens;” “at least there were no mass crematoriums,” etc. I think encouraging this type of comparative thinking, even unintentionally, would be counter-productive to Densho’s goals.


Jim and Karen Little said...

I agree with incarceration camp. Sometimes our reality is, in fact, others' perceptions. Concentration camp is synonymous with the Jewish experience and I wouldn't want to imply that, and take it away in any form from that particular experience in human history. Internment seems rather inert, watered down, and polite; I don't think the US government should be let off that easily. We, in time, can desensitize America, and then suddenly we may have similar reaction to our Arab Americans. As Americans continue to polarize, and they are, we are in greater danger of repeating past mistakes.

By the way, what a great lesson for students --- internment, concentration, death camp, incarceration terms by compared and discussed! Do you take volunteer lesson writers?