Words matter when recounting WWII treatment of Japanese Americans

In her recent story, reporter Maleeha Syed learned how words like 'internment' gloss over the realities of life under Executive Order 9066.

Left: Atsushi Kiuchi poses for a portrait in front of the NVC Foundation Japanese American Memorial Wall; Right: Eileen Yamada Lamphere poses in a doorframe

Left: Atsushi Kiuchi poses for a portrait in front of the NVC Foundation Japanese American Memorial Wall that lists the names of Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during World War II or have served in the military, on Friday, March 4, 2022. Kiuchi was incarcerated in Idaho at the Minidoka facility from age 12 to 15. Right: Eileen Yamada Lamphere poses for a portrait outside her home in Kent. Lamphere’s parents, who were born in the U.S., were incarcerated before she was born. (Grant Hindsley for Crosscut)

As I planned my story on Executive Order 9066, the reporting seemed fairly straightforward. I remembered learning in high school about President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s wartime decree that forced Japanese Americans into camps during the 1940s. 

Any confidence I had in my knowledge evaporated minutes into my first interview. 

“Who in your family experienced internment?” I asked Eileen Yamada Lamphere, whose parents met in one of the camps. “And where were they living at the time when they were interned?”

“Can I just make a little correction for you?” she replied. “Right now we’re not using the word ‘internment.’” 

She explained the term is a euphemism for the incarceration that families, including hers, experienced during World War II. She recommended a guide that gives alternatives to outdated language: The “Power of Words" handbook from the Japanese American Citizens League. The handbook offers a roundup of preferable words to use when describing what people experienced under the executive order, issued after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. During the war, about 120,000 Japanese Americans, most of them U.S. citizens, were forced to live in 10 camps around the country. 

Rather than “internment,” the term “incarceration” better describes “the prison-like conditions faced by Japanese Americans as well as the view that they were treated as if guilty of sabotage, espionage, and/or suspect loyalty,” the league wrote.  

The handbook contrasts other euphemisms with their more accurate counterparts. Instead of “evacuation,” say “forced removal.” Drop the phrase “relocation center” and call it for what it really was: an incarceration camp, an illegal detention center, an American concentration camp.

That last one caught me off guard. I had heard “concentration camps” used only in the context of the Holocaust. After my story was published, a reader emailed me to advocate for using the phrase. 

“I wish you had used the more powerful term, ‘American Concentration Camp,’ rather than the benign sounding, euphemistic term, ‘internment camp,’ in your article,” the reader wrote.  

I looked back at my story, skimming it to find any mention of the word, which I had so intentionally replaced with “incarceration.” The only way I would have given “internment” the light of day would be in a quote or archival photo caption.

I scanned the piece to make sure that I had successfully avoided the term and … there it was, all 10 letters staring me in the face. Not in a quote. Not in a picture caption. In my writing. 

I had somehow glossed over it. In retrospect I wonder if it didn’t stick out because, not even two weeks prior, that was the way I was referring to Japanese incarceration. I took the word out and replied to the person who flagged it, telling them of the change and thanking them for reaching out. 

No matter how intentional I am, I predict that I’ll make mistakes like this throughout my journalism career. I won’t mean to, but that’s usually how mistakes work: You don’t plan to cause harm, yet it happens anyway. 

As humans, I think we try to distance ourselves from the unfathomable events in our recent history, like the incarceration of Japanese Americans. 

We put the years between us, saying it was a different time and assuring ourselves that something like that would never fly today. Sometimes we justify the ways communities were treated by pointing to circumstances like war.   

In reporting this story, I realized we also like to distance ourselves from such events by using language that makes us comfortable, watering down our words to relieve our guilt.

As readers, I hope you feel comfortable reaching out if you notice something that seems off in my stories. I’m not perfect, but I am receptive.

This story was first published in Crosscut's Weekly newsletter. Want to hear more from reporters like Maleeha Syed? Sign up for the newsletter, below.

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