What’s in a Word? History, Violence, and Erasure When the Words Are ‘Japanese Internment’ and ‘Muslim Registry’

When Trump supporters obliquely recall the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II and cite it as a possible precedent for monitoring Muslims in the United States, it's a profound misreading of history. But it also shows how much language matters.

The word “internment” is a euphemism for the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. And it should not be used. Not only is it inaccurate, but calling the wholesale abrogation of constitutional rights by a kinder, gentler term diminishes the magnitude of the injustices they experienced, from family separation to forced relocation. National Archives and Records Administration

In 1982, after extensive research, a congressional commission concluded that the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans—two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens—during World War II was a “grave injustice.” Almost a decade later, President George H. W. Bush issued a rare official apology to the survivors of what President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself called American “concentration camps.”

But that was then and this is now. Kris Kobach, one of President-elect Donald Trump’s top advisors on immigration, indicated last week that Trump’s transition team was considering reinstating a Muslim registry similar to the one he helped mastermind after 9/11.  The next day, former Trump super PAC spokesperson Carl Higbie seconded the idea, as if it was reasonable and customary practice. “We’ve done it with Iran back awhile ago. We did it during World War II with the Japanese.” When questioned about his statement on FOX News, Higbie resorted to the double-talk that Trump has made commonplace. He denied that it was a reference to the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans while claiming that he wasn’t saying he agreed with a Muslim registry, only that there was “a precedent” for it.

Higbie’s cavalier assumption that the racial profiling of Japanese Americans during World War II paves the way for subjecting Muslims to similar heinous treatment cuts deeply into the hearts of Japanese Americans and people with any sense of justice or sound judgment. 

Obviously, lessons from the past have gone unheeded. And, certainly, the deplorable and pervasive failure of our educational system is partly at fault. Not only is it a question of not learning from history, it begs the question of what becomes history—and from whose point of view.

The freezing of Japanese Americans’ bank accounts, physical and verbal assaults, loss of livelihood and possessions, forced separation of families, public demonization, and ultimate imprisonment without due process of law: The collective impact of these experiences cannot be conveyed by simply calling them part of a “dark chapter” in U.S. history.

Most critically, for all Americans, when innocent U.S. citizens—infants and elders, Republicans and Democrats alike—were so easily stripped of their constitutional protections, it was a failure of democracy that jeopardized everyone’s security. When thousands of U.S. residents and citizens were sentenced without charges, jury or legal protection, no U.S. citizen can ever safely stand behind the promise of being innocent until proven guilty.

Learning from history also requires critical thinking.  About what becomes history. About how we talk about human rights violations, past and present. Language defines and shapes our world.

Earlier this year, President Obama signed a bill—passed unanimously in both the House and the Senate—that eliminated such outdated and offensive words as “oriental” and “negro” from federal law.

The word “internment,” as a euphemism for the WWII mass incarceration of Japanese Americans, should also be retired. Not only is it inaccurate, but calling the wholesale abrogation of constitutional rights by a kinder, gentler term diminishes the magnitude of the injustice. The conventional use of the legal term “internment” renders other injustices more palatable.

One might ask: What’s in a word? Or, in the midst of the epidemic of murders of Black people across this country, does it really matter what you call a 75-year-old historical event?

Rejecting the false debate of moral equivalency, I answer yes for two very critical reasons.

First, the use of “internment” to refer to the imprisonment of 120,000 Japanese Americans is, at its core, incorrect. As historian Roger Daniels and others maintain, internment refers specifically to a legal process governing the treatment of nationals of countries with which the United States is at war. During World War II, such “enemy aliens,” as they were called—including German and Italian nationals—were picked up and held in internment camps, isolation centers, prisons, and Army and immigration facilities around the country in a separate and parallel system of detention.

Daniels later emphasized, “While ‘concentration camp’ is the preferred term, it is not mandatory. What is, in my view, mandatory, is not to use ‘internment.’ The United States, and most other powers, did intern ‘enemy nationals,’ something recognized in American law, and kept them in generally well-run camps run by the Department of Justice. To confuse those camps, which conformed to the Geneva Convention … with the camps set up under Executive Order 9066, which incarcerated primarily American citizens of all ages, is to muddy the waters quite seriously.”

The political danger of conflating “internment” for “incarceration” was made clear by Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, who served as lead researcher for the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, which held hearings across the country in 1981. During one hearing, Herzig-Yoshinaga witnessed a detractor testify that the allegation that 120,000 Japanese Americans were interned during WWII was a lie.

Alarming as it was, this antagonistic statement was technically true, Herzig-Yoshinaga realized. Although 120,000 Japanese Americans were in fact incarcerated, only 8,000 to 17,000 (including citizens and residents of Japanese ancestry deported from Latin America) were officially “interned.” The conflation of terms drove home to Herzig-Yoshinaga how perilous it was to substitute “internment” for the mass incarceration.

Second, in addition to being incorrect, using the more genteel and urbane term “internment” as a synonym for the harsher-sounding “mass incarceration” makes it a harmful euphemism—the substitution of a benign, indirect, or vague word to hide something offensive, unpleasant, or embarrassing.

During World War II, while four of my uncles were fighting and dying for democracy abroad in the U.S. Army, my grandparents, parents, aunts, and other uncles were held captive at home in what President Franklin D. Roosevelt, legislators, Supreme Court justices, journalists and scholars called concentration camps complete with barbed wire fencing and armed surveillance.

They were also imprisoned in a web of euphemisms that distanced them, as well as the public at large, from understanding the truth. Just as the corporate vocabulary of “downsizing” makes the reality of being fired more socially acceptable, what FDR initially called concentration camps were soon rebranded “relocation centers.” One official document described them as “pioneer communities with basic housing and protective services provided by the Federal Government.” The involuntary uprooting of people from their homes was called being  “evacuated,” as if they had been rescued from a natural disaster. Being forcibly moved from their homes was called “relocation,” like a job transfer. U.S.-born citizens of Japanese descent were even referred to as “non-aliens” instead of citizens.

By softening the totalitarian behavior unbefitting the leading country of the free world, euphemisms functioned to sidetrack legal and constitutional challenges as well. In the 1944 case Korematsu v. United States, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts contended that  “an ‘assembly center’ was a euphemism for a prison …. so-called ‘relocation centers,’ a euphemism for concentration camps.” Yet the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court accepted the terminology without examination and ruled Executive Order 9066 (which authorized the incarceration) constitutional.

More insidiously, false terminology functions to undermine and gain the cooperation of its victims. Former incarceree and social worker Amy Iwasaki Mass found that believing the propaganda and euphemisms was less painful for some affected Japanese Americans than admitting that their own government had turned on them. Another incarceree, Raymond Okamura, who was at the forefront of the campaign to repeal Title II of the 1950 Internal Security Act (also called the “concentration camp act”) remarked, “One indication of the emotional scars left by the incarceration is the continued use of government euphemisms …. If this practice persists, no one will be able to testify to the magnitude of the occurrence.”

Words can act as a venomous façade. “Registration,” in itself, is a benign word, conjuring up “registering” to vote or annually “registering” your car. But the registration of Muslims that is under reconsideration is anything but benign. The reinstatement of a post 9/11 immigrant registration and tracking systemwhich, it is important to add, was suspended in 2011 under criticism that it was discriminatory—could again consist of fingerprinting, interrogations, and parolelike check-ins to monitor the whereabouts of those on the list.

This is more than just a quibble over semantics. Framing is critical. As commentator and political scientist Melissa HarrisPerry expressed, “To define internment as mass incarceration suddenly makes it resonate with the existing Black Lives Matter movement in ways that are obscured when we don’t use that language.”

The persistent misuse of the legal term “internment” mitigates the outrage that should surround Japanese Americans’ WWII incarceration. And now more than ever, it normalizes violence and makes it easier for other human rights abuses—such as a Muslim registry—to occur.