The Power of Words: Internment Camp or Concentration Camp?

By Will Kaku

“They were concentration camps. They called it relocation, but they put them in concentration camps, and I was against it.

— President Harry S. Truman, in an interview with Merle Miller, 1961

“Crowded into cars like cattle, these hapless people were hurried away to hastily
constructed and thoroughly inadequate concentration camps, with soldiers with
nervous muskets on guard, in the great American desert. We gave the fancy name of
‘relocation centers’ to these dust bowls, but they were concentration camps
nonetheless.”

— Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes

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Phrasing and word usage are very important in shaping our attitudes about people, events, products, issues, and policies. For example, according to a CNBC 2013 poll,  more people were opposed to President Obama’s signature health care law when it was referred to as “Obamacare” rather than its official name, The Affordable Care Act. Similarly, in a 2017 IPSOS/NPR poll, more people felt that a particular tax should be abolished when it was referred to the “Death Tax” rather than the “Estate Tax,” which were common terms used during policy discussions.

In my recent post about my visit to the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center, I referred to the Heart Mountain camp as a “concentration camp.” Some people feel uncomfortable with that terminology and believe that designation is reserved for the camps of the Holocaust. The following commentary is extracted from a display at the Heart Mountain Interpretative Center.

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Additional information:

JACL Power of Words handbook
Manzanar Committee Member Joyce Okazaki: “Yes, It Was A Concentration Camp”
“Do Words Matter?” Densho Encyclopedia

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About JAMsj

The Japanese American Museum of San Jose's (JAMsj)mission is to collect, preserve, and share Japanese American art, history, and culture with an emphasis on the Greater Bay Area.
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