Do you remember in history class the Holocaust? Hearing the horrible things done in concentration camps? What would you say if right here in America we had some similar characteristics? I was talking with a friend about how I feel trapped. We continued talking and she says internment camps.
The Holocaust was the World War II genocide of the European Jews. Between 1941 and 1945, across German-occupied Europe, Nazi Germany and its collaborators systematically murdered some six million Jews, around two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population.
The internment of Japanese Americans in the United States during World War II was the forced relocation and incarceration in internment camps in the western interior of the country between 110,000 and 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, most of whom lived on the Pacific Coast. Approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans were illegally incarcerated during the war; their only crime was looking like the enemy. The majority of those incarcerated were American citizens. When most people refer to where the Japanese American were held, they use the term: internment camp. But the term is not only inaccurate but also hides what they really were: concentration camps.
Before someone becomes angry or offended, let me explain. According to the Merriam Webster, a concentration camp is “a camp where persons (as prisoners of war, political prisoners, or refugees) are detained or confined.” The definition of a concentration camp describes exactly what happened to the Japanese Americans during WWII, where they were political prisoners confined into a camp. One of the reasons people are reluctant to use the term is because they don’t want to imply what happened in the United States was similar to what happened to Jews and others in Europe. But I believe what happened in Europe was not a concentration camp but much much worse. A more accurate term would be “death camp,” because the main purpose of the European camps was to torture and kill its prisoners.
If concentration camps are the historically most accurate term, is saying internment camps wrong? Yes, because internment camp is a euphemism. A euphemism is “the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant.” A good example of a euphemism is saying someone was “eliminated” versus “killed.” Think it doesn’t make a difference between a concentration and internment camp? What images are evoked when you hear concentration camp versus when you hear internment camp? Internment seems benign at worst while concentration camp is always construed negatively. That difference is intentional.
Mako Nakagawa, a former teacher and Japanese American activist, spoke about the negative effects of the euphemism on the general perception of the World War II experiences of Japanese Americans:
Government-created euphemistic language led to some people actually believing that the Japanese Americans were being protected and even pampered in the camps. The use of inaccurate terms can, and too often does, distort facts into outright fantasies.
What is the difference between concentration camps, internment camps, and detention camps?