Weasel Words…that’s what my wordsmith husband calls euphemisms. He became a US citizen in 2011. In the citizenship test, they ask “What is the Rule of Law?” The answer is, “Everyone is equal under law.” Or put another way, no one is above the law.
Well, in law, words matter and that’s where euphemisms come in.
And the weasel words/euphemisms I’m talking about are the ones the government and the news media of the 1940s employed to turn the public against Americans of Japanese ancestry and their immigrant parents or grandparents.
Terms like immigrant became “enemy alien.”
Citizens were “non-aliens.”
Forced exclusion was called “evacuation” or “relocation.”
Incarceration or imprisonment called “housing.”
Which comes to the controversy over the use of the word “internment” rather than “concentration” to describe these camps where US citizens of Japanese ancestry were held. This is a legalese kind of euphemism.
First of all, the term “concentration camp” was the original term used by FDR and his cabinet to describe the ten War Relocation Authority (WRA) sites where Americans of Japanese ancestry were incarcerated in mass during WWII.
Two, the term “internment” is the legal detention and imprisonment of foreign nationals at time of war. As it is a legal process, those interned must face charges and be given a hearing.
The term “concentration camp” according to the American Heritage Dictionary means: "A camp where persons are confined, usually without hearings and typically under harsh conditions, often as a result of their membership in a group the government has identified as suspect."
Because Japanese who were US citizens were never charged or given a hearing, and confined merely for being identified as part of a targeted group, the camps used to incarcerate them were by definition “concentration” camps.
“Internment” was used to describe the legal imprisonment of non-U.S. citizens, aka as Issei*, in Department of Justice camps. These camps were where the Issei, who were the first to be rounded up along with individually charged German and Italian immigrants, were held. Ironically, these camps were protected by the Geneva Conventions, whereas the concentration camps for the US-citizen Nissei* were not.
The process of creating the “Other” often starts with words, and while Freedom of Speech is important, it’s when speech turns into government policy that targets or benefits a specific group rather than all individuals equally, it can slowly erode confidence in the rule of law.
*Issei were immigrants from Japan. Unlike Europeans, immigrants from Japan and China were not allowed to be naturalized, thus were prohibited from owning land or voting.
*Nissei were second generation born in the US and thus were US citizens according to the 14th Amendment. They were supposed to have all the rights and privileges of citizenship.
The terms Issei and Nissei do not exist in Japan. They were invented in the US to distinguish the difference in status among Japanese individuals within American society.
A majority of the those incarcerated in the concentration camps were US citizens. One third were children 17 years and younger.
For more detail on the controversy over “internment/concentration” camp, Barbara Takei, a long time scholar on Tule Lake, recommended this link.
Several friends sent me a link to this article that appeared in the Guardian: click here
For those of you who think that one cannot take what Mr. Trump says seriously, here is an example of his influence.
In November of 2015, I began my visits to all ten concentration camps, before the Republican primaries began in earnest. I was able to get to six of them.
In May of 2016, I went to visit the last four.
In between the two trips, both Donald Trump and the Mayor of Roanoke, VA, invoked FDR and his administration’s use of mass incarceration during WWII.
There was a distinct difference in attitude regarding the topic, before and after I went.
Before, there were just a handful of people who knew, cared and were working to make a difference. It seemed to me that the majority either didn’t know, didn’t care or just never thought about it. There were also the vocal few who believe that “Japs” deserved it and needed to tell you so.
But, after Trump’s suggestion, there has been a clear increase in the level of interest. More people were writing about it, talking about it. People were finally asking, “Was it truly American to incarcerate thousands of innocent citizens and take their homes and businesses away simply because of their race?” In fact, in January and February of this year, I was joking to friends that Mr. Trump may be the best thing to happen to the story of Japanese incarceration in a long time. His candidacy was raising awareness about the topic. But that awareness had a dark side it turns out — as I discovered on my visit to Tule Lake Camp in Newel, California.
Tule Lake, the most brutal camp of all, was where those who questioned the whole policy and said so in a “loyalty” questionnaire, were labeled troublemakers, segregated from those who were considered “loyal” and sent to a prison inside the prison.
When we arrived at the infamous jail, we found a group of students from a nearby Klamath Falls, Oregon, high school. As I approached the building to decide where I would place my bowls, I could hear voices from the group — boys saying “Jap” this and “Jap” that, “hashtag Jap” for a Twitter feed. The boys were making the girls laugh and clearly enjoying the naughtiness of being politically incorrect. I couldn’t hide my hurt, but made my way into the jail building where a park ranger was giving a tour of the inside.
When I came out, the students’ teacher came up to me with four or five boys in tow to say, "These boys would like to say something to you." One white boy stepped forward and said, “We are very sorry. We didn’t mean to be hurtful or disrespectful. We will not do it again.” Of the group, there were two who appeared non-white, one ethnically Mexican, the other perhaps south Indian. One of them stepped forward and said, “I, of all people, should not be saying things like that and I am deeply sorry.” I said I really appreciated it and gave the two a hug and went on to do my project.
Later, I talked more to the teacher. She said her students were not bad boys. She said she thought what they said was wrong and hurtful but that bringing them here was part of trying to teach them something different. “I really don’t think they meant any harm,” she said. I said I agreed.
However, there was something else more disturbing. Ranger Kenneth Doutt said that since mid-December, there has been a clear increase in the number of visitors trying to find out about “internment.” The problem he said was that they weren’t coming to uncover this dark part of US history. Rather, they were coming because “they wanted to know how internment worked” — and they were doing so “because they heard Trump and some mayor say it was an example the government might re-think to solve the Muslim-American problem.
My Yellow Bowl Project hopes to spur discussion around these questions: Who is an American? What does citizenship mean? How long do you have to be in the US to be considered a bonafide member of this group?