Concentration Camps?

Charles Mace, WRA. "Newell, Calif., Sept. 28, 1943" One of the many boundary signs posted around the Tule Lake Center. Photo from Executive Order 9066: The Internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans. By Maisie and Richard Conrat. Copyright 1972 California Historical Society.

"Concentration Camp" or "Relocation Center": What's in a Name?
by James Hirabayashi, Ph.D.

It was almost 20 years ago when I read an article by Dexter Waugh in the San Francisco Examiner titled "Semantic debates on war camps" (May 7, 1976). The issue revolved around the use of terminology on a plaque commemorating Tule Lake as a state historical landmark. At that time I exchanged several letters with the chair of the State Historical Resources Commission,a fellow anthropologist, who voted against the use of the term "concentration camp," saying that he did not believe in editorializing on these plaques. I argued that we should call them what they Webster calls them: "places where political prisoners are placed under armed guards." Furthermore, to use "relocation center" was actually editorializing as it is a euphemism used by those government officials who had stripped the Japanese Americans of their basic constitutional rights. The debate had begun in 1973, when Manzanar was established as a state historical site, in arguments before the State Historical Resources Commission. The late Edison Uno, as a spokesperson for the Japanese American Citizens League, appeared to state our case. Although the Commission voted against the plea of the Japanese Americans at these hearings, the State Director Parks and Recreation overruled the Commission and the term "concentration camps" appears on both plaques.

In 1981, Raymond Okamura submitted a comprehensive essay on the subject to the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians in Seattle. It was subsequently published as "The American Concentration Camps: A Cover-Up Through Euphemistic Terminology" (The Journal of Ethnic Studies 10:3, 1982). Terminological usage continued to be discussed in subsequent actions related to the incarceration of the Japanese Americans such as the annual pilgrimages, the repeal of Executive Order 9066, the Redress Movement and the coram nobis court cases (Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi, Minoru Yasui). In view of the discussion over the years, it seems strange that we are still debating the use of terms describing this event.

Let us review the main points of the debate. Over 120,000 residents of the U.S.A., two thirds of whom were American citizens, were incarcerated under armed guard. There were no crimes committed, no trials, and no convictions: the Japanese Americas were political prisoners. To detain American citizens in a site under armed guard surely constitutes a "concentration camp." But what were the terms used by the government officials who were involved in the process and who had to justify these actions? Raymond Okamura provides us with a detailed list of terms. Let's consider three such euphemisms: "evacuation," "relocations," and non-aliens." Earthquake and flood victims are evacuated and relocated. The words refer to moving people in order to rescue and protect them from danger.

The official government policy makers consistently used "evacuation" to refer to the forced removal of the Japanese Americans and the sites were called "relocation centers." These are euphemisms (Webster: "the substitution of an inoffensive terms for one considered offensively explicit") as the terms do not imply forced removal nor incarceration in enclosures patrolled by armed guards. The masking was intentional. Perhaps the most obvious circumlocution was the use of the term "non-alien." This phrase appeared on yellow notice sheets affixed to telephone poles announcing the removal orders: "Pursuant to the provisions of Civilian Exclusion Order No. 92, this Headquarters, dated May 23, 1942, all persons of Japanese ancestry, both aliens and non-alien, will be evacuated from the above area by 12 o'clock noon, P.W.T., Saturday, May 30, 1942."

Exactly what does "non-alien" mean? To whom does it refer? Of course, it is a euphemism for citizen! Since they were nullifying the constitutional rights of Japanese Americans, it is clear why the government officials did not want to use the term citizen. According to Okamura, euphemistic language accomplished a number of objectives for using the terms: (1) it sidetracked legal and constitutional challenges; (2) it allowed the government to maintain a decent public image; (3) it helped lead the victims into willing cooperation; (4) it permitted the White civilian employees to work without self-reproach, and (5) it kept the historical record in the government's favor. In spite of the official use of the euphemism "relocation center," however, many government officials actually used the term concentration camp including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, Attorney General Francis Biddle and Supreme Court Justices Owen Robert, Hugo Black and Tom Clark.

The harm in continuing to use the government's euphemisms is that it disguises or softens the reality which subsequently has been legally recognized as a grave error. The action abrogated some fundamental principles underlying the Constitution, the very document under which we govern ourselves. This erosion of fundamental rights has consequences for all citizens of our society and we must see that it is never repeated.

Reprinted from the Japanese American National Museum's Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 3. 1994 Japanese American National Museum.


A concentration camp is a place where people are imprisoned not because of any crimes they have committed, but simply because of who they are. Although many groups have been singled out for such persecution throughout history, the term "concentration camp" was first used at the turn of the century in the Spanish-American and Boer Wars.

During World War II, America's concentration camps were clearly distinguishable from Nazi Germany's. Nazi camps were places of torture, barbarous medical experiments and summary executions; some were extermination centers with gas chambers. Six million Jews were slaughtered in the Holocaust. Many others including Gypsies, Poles, homosexuals and political dissidents were also victims of Nazi concentration camps.

In recent years, concentration camps have existed in the former Soviet Union, Cambodia and Bosnia.

Despite all the differences, all had one thing in common: the people in power removed a minority group from the general population and the rest of the society let it happen.

From a brochure distributed as part of American Concentration Camps: Remembering The Japanese American Experience, an exhibit at the Ellis Island Immigration Musuem, April 3, 1998-January 5, 1999.


Historical References to Japanese American
"Concentration Camps"

"I'm for catching every Japanese in America, Alaska, and Hawaii now and putting them in concentration camps. . . . Damn them! Let's get rid of them now!"

CONGRESSMAN JOHN RANKIN, Congressional record, December 15, 1941

"In an experience of nearly three decades I have never found it harder to arouse the American public on any important issue than on this. Men and women who know nothing of the facts (except possibly the rose-colored version which appears in the public press) hotly deny that there are concentration camps. Apparently that is a term to be used only if the guards speak German and carry a whip as well as a rifle."

NORMAN THOMAS, Christian Century, July 29, 1942.

In response to a reporter's question about the West Coast "evacuation," the President called Nisei "Japanese people from Japan who are citizens," and went on to state ". . . it is felt by a great many lawyers that under the Constitution they can't be kept locked up in concentration camps."

PRESIDENT FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT, Press Conference, November 21, 1944, FDR Library, #982.

"I have made a lot of mistakes in my life. . . . One is my part in the evacuation of the Japanese from California in 1942. . . . I don't think that served any purpose at all. . . . We picked them up and put them in concentration camps. That's the truth of the matter. And as I look back on it--although at the time I argued the case--I am amazed that the Supreme Court ever approved it."

TOM CLARK, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, San Diego Union, July 10, 1966.

"They were concentration camps. They called it relocation but they put them in concentration camps, and I was against it. We were in a period of emergency, but it was still the wrong thing to do."

PRESIDENT HARRY S. TRUMAN, Interview with Merle Miller, 1961.


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