Manzanar Committee Urges Japanese American Citizens League To Ratify Power Of Words Handbook

The California State Historic Landmark plaque at the Manzanar National Historic Site was dedicated in 1973 after a year-long debate over whether
or not the term, concentration camp should be included.
(click to view larger image)
Photo: Gann Matsuda

LOS ANGELES — On May 27, the Los Angeles-based Manzanar Committee announced that it has endorsed the Power of Words Draft Handbook that is expected to be voted on at the National Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) Convention in Seattle, Washington, July 5-8, 2012.

The Power of Words Draft Handbook is an attempt by some JACL members to address the use and acceptance of euphemistic language to describe the experiences of Japanese Americans during World War II.

“From government documents and propaganda, to public discourse and newspapers, many euphemisms have been used to describe the experiences of Japanese Americans who were forced from their homes and communities during World War II,” according to the handbook. “Words like evacuation, relocation, and assembly centers imply that the United States Government was trying to rescue Japanese Americans from a disastrous environment on the West Coast and simply help them move to a new gathering place.”

“These terms strategically mask the fact that thousands of Japanese Americans were denied their rights as US citizens, and forcibly ordered to live in poorly constructed barracks on sites that were surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers. Although the use of euphemisms was commonplace during World War II, and in many subsequent years, we realize that the continued use of these inaccurate terms is highly problematic.”

The Manzanar Committee has advocated for the use of non-euphemistic terms since 1971, when the Committee and the JACL began the process of applying to the State of California to have Manzanar recognized as a California State Historic Landmark.

In 1972, debate over the use of the term concentration camp on the plaque which would be placed at the site flared up, as Owens Valley residents, along with some within the Japanese American community, vehemently opposed the use of the term. That debate went on for a year before a compromise was reached that allowed for its use.

In 1976, the late Sue Kunitomi Embrey, one of the founders of the Manzanar Pilgrimage, and the driving force behind the creation of the Manzanar National Historic Site, wrote Concentration Camps, Not Relocation Centers, a scholarly paper that detailed the camp experience, and made the case for the use of concentration camp, as opposed to relocation camp, or relocation center.

36 years later, the Manzanar Committee remains steadfast in its resolve to ensure that the injustices the Japanese American community had to endure during World War II will not be cheapened or sanitized by the use of euphemisms.

“The Manzanar Committee has a long and consistent history of arguing for an unbiased, accurate interpretation of the forced removal of the Nikkei community during World War II,” said Co-Chair Bruce Embrey. “We have consistently been in the forefront, arguing for what were unpopular positions at the time, only to be adopted many years later as ‘common knowledge.’”

“Supporting this resolution is an important reaffirmation of the Manzanar Committee’s perspective,” added Embrey. “We first used the term concentration camp in 1971, when we argued that the incarceration was based on racial prejudice, economic greed and political opportunism. Furthermore, in 1991, with the publication of Reflections, the Committee again defended its use of concentration camp when describing Manzanar and the other War Relocation Authority camps, while allowing the National Park Service an opportunity to argue for the use of the term, relocation center.”

“We urge the JACL to act quickly at its upcoming convention, and adopt the Power of Words Draft Handbook.”

Embrey also said that the time has come for the Japanese American community to get past its fears when describing its own experiences, including the terminology used to describe the camp experience.

“We should not be fearful of upsetting or alienating anyone by being honest, accurate and truthful,” Embrey stressed. “We should not be ashamed. Rather, we should be proud that our community persevered being incarcerated in concentration camps, since that is, in fact, what happened.”

“It is quite perplexing to me, personally, that there is opposition to using terminology that accurately captures what happened all those years ago,” Embrey added. “Any serious examination of history, as evidenced in the scholarship done over the years, clearly reveals that the United States did indeed have concentration camps where some of its citizens, Japanese Americans, were incarcerated.”


The Manzanar Committee is dedicated to educating and raising public awareness about the incarceration and violation of civil rights of persons of Japanese ancestry during World War II and to the continuing struggle of all peoples when Constitutional rights are in danger. A non-profit organization that has sponsored the annual Manzanar Pilgrimage since 1969, along with other educational programs, the Manzanar Committee has also played a key role in the establishment and continued development of the Manzanar National Historic Site.

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5 Responses to Manzanar Committee Urges Japanese American Citizens League To Ratify Power Of Words Handbook

  1. Kathleen Fabry says:

    The plaque at Manzanar has the term correct….Concentration Camp. Our Japanese American citizens were herded like so many cattle to prevent them from doing anything against the government they had lived with, worked under, and made their own. No extermination was applied, unlike Hitler’s regime, but nonetheless concentration camps! Correct the verbiage and work toward it NEVER happening again.

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