Last weekend I attended the 2019 Heart Mountain Pilgrimage, an annual event that takes place in Cody, Wyoming, and at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center. I took my mom and we met many former incarcerees (nearly 50 attended, many in the their nineties) and their family members, saw several films, attended workshops, toured old and restored facilities, and met many dignitaries.

I am still processing the experience, and I anticipate writing several entries inspired by this trip. This is the first.


When we study the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII, we encounter numerous euphemistic terms used to describe the experience and those impacted.

I perceive a generational and cultural difference in how people refer to this history and experience. Generally speaking, the older a person is, the more likely he or she will employ the terms the government and history books used.

I also notice people outside the Japanese-American community generally accept and use these terms without considering the impact of the words and the possible motivation behind their selection in the first place.

I want to list the euphemisms and their definitions, explain why I reject them, and offer alternatives I believe are more accurate. I did not come up with these myself, and discussion and debate over these terms are ongoing within the Japanese-American community.

Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga, photo by Maria Reyes/Rafu Shimpo

I’ve relied heavily on the excellent document “Words Can Lie or Clarify: Terminology of the World War II Incarceration of Japanese Americans” by Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga.

She was the tireless researcher who uncovered the missing copy of a 1943 government report that refuted the Pentagon’s claim that the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans was a military necessity.

Assembly Centers

When tens of thousands of Japanese Americans were forced from their homes, the eventual “camps” where they were to be incarcerated had not yet been built. So they were sent to so-called “assembly centers.”

Puyallup Assembly Center, Washington, 1942 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection)

These were makeshift concentration camps located at fairgrounds, barracks, racetracks, horse stalls, and livestock pavilions.

The word “assembly” is benign, and the term belies the fact that thousands of people were forced into cramped and often unsanitary conditions, surrounded by barbed wire, and guard towers with armed guards and powerful searchlights.

Guard tower at the Fresno assembly center, possibly the one my mother remembers

My mother remembers the search lights being so powerful at night that even through her closed eyes she could see the light every time they passed over and shined in the window of her barrack. The impact was so powerful that it stayed with her when her family was moved to another camp that had no such light. The searchlight flash kept crossing through her mind when she tried to sleep.

Recommended alternative terms: temporary detention center, temporary prison camp

Evacuee, Evacuation, Relocation

About 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry were forced from their homes on the west coast. They are still called “evacuees” in many history books and documents. “Evacuation” refers to when people are removed from or leave a dangerous place. We typically see this term used when people are fleeing a natural disaster (flood, fire, etc.) or violence, war, disease, or famine.

Evacuation of Japanese Americans from West Coast areas under a 1942 executive order. Photo: Library of Congress

Although some have argued Japanese Americans were removed from the west coast “for their own safety,” I strenuously reject this narrative. Written word and actions clearly indicate the motivation was fear, racism, and greed that drove the removal of Japanese Americans. Although some were indeed threatened with violence from racist neighbors, that was clearly not the primary reason for their forced removal.

Relocation” is also benign. It doesn’t conjure up images of armed soldiers wielding bayonets, police officers, and FBI agents ordering people from their homes, families compelled to bring only what they can carry, and train rides of unknown duration to unknown destinations during which the passengers were compelled to keep the blinds closed and every car guarded by armed soldiers.

Recommended alternative terms for “evacuee”: inmate, prisoner, or incarceree
Recommended alternative terms for “evacuation” and “relocation”: mandatory or forced removal, banishment, eviction, or exile

Regarding “alien,” racist immigration laws prevented Asians from becoming naturalized citizens. My grandparents had lived peacefully and lawfully for more than thirty years as legal aliens in the U.S. before Pearl Harbor was bombed. Not until McCarran-Walter Act (aka The Immigration and Nationality Act) was passed in 1952 could they legally become naturalized U.S. Citizens. By that time, by grandfather was 72 years old, and my grandmother 60.

My grandparents

My grandparents had no allegiance to Japan or the Japanese emperor, nor did they have any intention of returning to Japan. They were and considered themselves American regardless of racist laws.

So although the term “alien” is technically accurate, it is essential to consider the unique situation in which tens of thousands of Japanese Americans like my grandparents found themselves during WWII.


The posters that announced “Instructions to all persons of Japanese ancestry” referred to “all Japanese persons, both alien and non-alien.” What is a non-alien?

A citizen!

There is no justification for using the unambiguously racist term to identify US citizens, which represented two-thirds of the 120,000 people forced from their homes and unconstitutionally incarcerated during WWII.

Recommended alternative terms: US citizen, American citizen

Internment, Internees

These are the most common terms used to describe the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII. Internment means confinement or imprisonment for political or military reasons and has traditionally been used for “enemy citizens in wartime or terrorism suspects.”

Since the term “alien” in the context of Japanese American (see above) is already problematic, and two-thirds of the imprisoned Japanese Americans were US citizens, neither term is accurate.
Recommended alternative terms for “internment”: incarceration, imprisonment

Recommended alternative terms for “internee”: prisoner, incarceree, inmate

Relocation Center, Internment Camp

There were 10 so-called “relocation centers” in which Japanese Americans were held. They are still commonly referred to “internment camps” today. I’ve already discussed the problems with the terms “relocation” and “internment” above. So what should we call them?

I call them concentration camps, and in doing so I acknowledge the charged nature of that phrase and the controversy both within the Japanese-American community and outside it with regard to the term.

Heart Mountain “Relocation Center”

Merriam-Webster defines a concentration camp as “a place where large numbers of people (such as prisoners of war, political prisoners, refugees, or the members of an ethnic or religious minority) are detained or confined under armed guard.”

Some definitions make direct reference to mass execution. Apart from the sometime reference to execution, the definition fits the camps in which tens of thousands of Japanese Americans were incarcerated.

It is true, when one hears the term “concentration camp,” the first image for most people is the camps into which Nazi Germany forced so-called “undesireables,” including Jews, political prisoners, Romani, disabled people, clergymen, and gays.

It is also true there are members of the Jewish community that vigorously object to the term being used to describe the 10 so-called Japanese-American “relocation centers”; they correctly point out that although there were deaths and shootings in the latter, those were relatively few. The Japanese-American camps were not designed or intended to exterminate people.

However, with deep respect and compassion for my Jewish brothers and sisters, I must point out that concentration camps existed before the Holocaust and have been created since. I suggest that camps in the Holocaust be distinguished as “death camps” or “extermination camps,” an extreme and gruesome subset of the more general classification of concentration camps.

In numerous instances, the phrase “concentration camp” was used by members of the US administration and military at the time. President Franklin D. Roosevelt called the 10 camps in the US “concentration camps” in 1942 press conferences. Attorney General Francis Biddle referred to our “concentration camps” in a December 1943 letter to FDR. Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy referred to “placing American citizens, even of Japanese ancestry, in concentration camps” in a 1942 memo to Eisenhower.

Concentration camps existed well before WWII (for example, in the Boer War, US Civil War, Ten Years’ War in Cuba) and after (Bosnia, Cyprus, Croatia, etc.). I feel avoidance of the use of the term “concentration camp” minimizes the real suffering and inhumanity, and increases the likelihood it can be repeated (and ignored or minimized) in the present and future.

Update: Code Switch, and excellent NPR podcast which discusses race and identity has an episode which dives into the controversy over calling anything other than the death camps of the Holocaust “concentration camps,” including a meeting between Jewish and Japanese Americans to discuss the term, what it means, and whether that term can or cannot be defined by the people directly affected. It is called “America’s Concentration Camps?

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