The Difference Between Internment Camps and Concentration Camps

[Author’s note: Although I am employed by the Japanese American National Museum, this article should not be construed as coming from the National Museum. Instead, this article is my personal opinion and should be taken as such.]

Over the last month, I have posted articles about my grandfather and what happened to him during the Second World War. Much of my grandfather’s story was not unique. 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 you get angry or offended, let me explain.

According to the Merrian Webster dictionary, 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 in 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.

In the book, Common Ground: the Japanese American National Museum and the Culture of Collaborations, the Museum curators addressed this debate:

A “concentration camp” is a place where people are imprisoned not because of any crimes they committed, but simply because of who they are. Although many groups have been singled out for such persecution throughout history, the term “concentration camp” was first used at the turn of the century in the Spanish American and Boer Wars.

During World War II, America’s concentration camps were clearly distinguishable from Nazi Germany’s. Nazi camps were places of torture, barbarous medical experiments and summary executions: some were extermination centers with gas chambers. Six million Jews were slaughtered in the Holocaust. Many others, including Gypsies, Poles, homosexuals and political dissidents were also victims of the Nazi concentration camps.

In recent years, concentration camps have existed in the former Soviet Union, Cambodia and Bosnia.

Despite differences, all had one thing in common: the people in power removed a minority group from the general population and the rest of society let it happen.

It should be noted that United States government and military officials (including the President) often referred to these places as concentration camps. It is also important to note that not all Japanese Americans agree with the use of the term. Some Japanese Americans would prefer to use the government terminology. Although I disagree with them, it is their right to do so.

If concentration camps is the historically most accurate term, is saying interment camp wrong? Yes, because internment camp is a euphemism. According to the Merrian Webster dictionary, 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? 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 in an interview with the Nichi Bei, a Japanese American newspaper:

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.

The old adage that “sticks and stones may break bones/But words will never hurt” is not true. Words have power. They can create and they can destroy. Every time I write anything, whether it’s a screenplay, blog, or email, I remember the following quote from Pearl Strachan to remind myself how important my words can be: “Handle them carefully, for words have more power than atom bombs.”

Internment camp wasn’t the only euphemism. Here is a short list of some of the other more egregious ones:

  • Evacuation/Relocation versus what it really was a forced removal.
  • Assembly Center/Relocation Center versus what it really was a prison.
  • The idea of a non-alien as referred to in the evacuation order versus the more common term citizen.

This last one is so unbelievable (and not very well known), I feel it is important to expand on it a little. In the evacuation order, it states:

All Japanese persons, both alien and non-alien, will be evacuated from the above designated area by 12:00 o’clock noon Tuesday, April 7, 1942.

If an alien is someone who is not a citizen, a non-alien is a citizen. But they couldn’t say, “All Japanese person, both citizen and non-citizen will be evacuated” because it would be too obviously unconstitutional. But if we say non-alien most people wouldn’t give it a second thought.

Hiding the truth of what happened behind euphemistic language doesn’t allow us as a country to learn from our mistake and make sure it doesn’t happen again. That’s why when people ask me about my family’s experience in World War II, I always make sure to start by saying that they were incarcerated for almost six years in America’s concentration camps.

If you want to learn more, I recommend reading Words Can Lie or Clarify: Terminology of the World War II Incarceration of Japanese Americans by Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga. (Aiko was one of the people responsible for proving that the incarceration of Japanese Americans was not based on a military necessity but racism.)

Finally, Mako Nakagawa will be speaking at the Japanese American National Museum on August 27, 2011 at 2pm. She will discuss euphemisms and the importance of using accurate terminology.

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About Koji Steven Sakai

Writer/Producer Koji Steven Sakai is the founder of Little Nalu Pictures LLC and the CEO of CHOPSO (, the first Asian English streaming video service. He has written five feature films that have been produced, including the indie hit, The People I’ve Slept With. He also produced three feature films, a one hour comedy special currently on Netflix, and Comedy InvAsian, a live and filmed series featuring the nation’s top Asian American comedians. Koji’s debut novel, Romeo & Juliet Vs. Zombies, was released in paperback in 2015 and in audiobook in 2016 and his graphic novel, 442, was released in 2017. In addition, he is currently an adjunct professor in screenwriting at International Technological University in San Jose.
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