My parents, Shigeo and Joanne Watanabe, were American citizens born and raised in Seattle: she, a party-loving and red-nailed Seattle University student, he, an aspiring accountant with a gold glove and a killer smile.
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, they they were incarcerated in an incarceration camp, not an internment camp.
Internment. Imprisonment. Not many people make a distinction between the two terms or understand why it is so important to do so. But in a landmark move aimed at accuracy and reconciliation, the Los Angeles Times announced Thursday that it would drop the use of “internment” in most cases to describe the mass incarceration of 120,000 people of Japanese descent during World War II.
Instead, The Times will generally use “imprisonment,” “prison,” “detention,” or their derivatives to describe this government action that destroyed so many innocent lives.
The decision comes eight decades after The Times fiercely campaigned to jail Japanese-Americans during the war, questioning their loyalty, an action unauthorized six years ago with a formal editorial apology.
“We are taking this step as a news organization because we understand the power of language,” Times executive editor Kevin Merida said. “We believe it is vital to more accurately depict the wrongful imprisonment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s, and to do so in a way that does not diminish the actions our country took against its own citizens and the experience of those who were held captive. .
“The Los Angeles Times itself supported incarceration at the time, and this stylistic change reflects our commitment as an institution to better represent the communities we serve. We hope this helps bring closure to the families of those wrongfully imprisoned and deepens our society’s understanding of that period.”
Some journalists at the Times have long pushed for a change in how they describe what has been commonly called internment, with the late Henry Fuhrmann, our former assistant managing editor and self-described word nerd, at the helm.
“’Internment’ is a euphemism that trivializes the government’s actions,” he said. argued in a 2020 Twitter thread. “Officials used such mild language to hide that the United States was jailing Americans whose only ‘crime’ was that they looked like the enemy.”
My family experienced the clear difference between those two terms.
My grandfather, Yoshitaka Watanabe, was the subject of internment, a term more accurately used to describe the imprisonment of enemy aliens during war. He was held in a US Army internment camp in Louisiana with other enemy aliens from the Axis powers of Japan, Germany, and Italy for most of the war. As a Japanese immigrant, he was not allowed to become a US citizen under US law at the time.
he was my ji-chan, my grandfather, who immigrated to the United States in 1908 to flee a militarized Japan and earn money for his family near Mount Fuji. Settling in Seattle, he ran a produce stand, wrote poetry under the name Willow Rain, and raised five children, including my father.
In March 1942, three months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, three FBI agents came to the family’s home in Seattle and ransacked the house, my aunts and uncles told me.
Agents found no contraband, seizing only Japan Chamber of Commerce membership cards and two magazines that “appeared to contain pro-Japanese propaganda,” according to FBI records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. It doesn’t matter that no FBI special agent at the time could read or speak Japanese, according to a US war intelligence specialist I spoke with.
The agents arrested Jichan and took him away, leaving his children and invalid wife alone to face a terrifying future.
But at least the Department of Justice gave him a hearing before an Enemy Foreign Hearing Board under the Geneva Convention. It turned out that her arrest was based on her subscription to a Japanese magazine that then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover labeled subversive.
My grandfather told the three-member panel that he had only subscribed to help a friend sell subscriptions and had barely read the magazine. He said that he only wanted peace between the United States and Japan. Despite his clean record and no evidence of subversion, the hearing board concluded that he offered “no final or convincing assurance of loyalty to the United States,” according to a summary of the proceedings.
Three months later, in July 1942, the US Attorney General issued an official internment order for Jichan, calling him “potentially dangerous to the peace and public safety of the United States.” He was transferred from an Immigration and Naturalization Service facility in Montana to the center for interned enemy aliens in Louisiana. He was released in September 1945 after Japan surrendered and a special hearing board gave him a favorable review, noting that two of his sons, including my father, had volunteered to serve in the armed forces of Japan. The USA.
My parents, on the other hand, were not “inpatients”. They were not enemy aliens. They were American through and through. My mother, Joanne Misako Oyabe at the time, followed typical American fashions (bulky hairstyles and all) and Christianity, becoming a devout Roman Catholic and attending Maryknoll schools. My father, Shigeo Watanabe, was an avid fan of that quintessential American sport of baseball, Glenn Miller, and swing dancing.
Like their fellow Americans imprisoned for having just “a drop” of Japanese blood, my parents were not informed of any charges against them or allowed to answer before them in any court hearing. They and their families were forced to leave their homes, schools, jobs and communities in a short time with only what they could carry.
My father, aunts, and uncles would later speak about the devastating impact of imprisonment: the shame and humiliation, the damage to family ties and loss of parental authority, interrupted careers, and unfulfilled aspirations. A lively intellect with eclectic reading interests, my mother never had the chance to finish her education, though Seattle University posthumously awarded her an honorary degree years later.
No, my parents were not admitted. They were not “evacuated” or “relocated”, even worse euphemisms. They were jailed. They were imprisoned in remote Idaho facilities surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers manned by armed soldiers who were their fellow Americans.
The Times’ decision to formally adopt a policy to call this World War II action against Japanese Americans is a victory for accuracy of language. It’s another gratifying step in making amends for our news organization’s racist past. And it is an acknowledgment of the terrible evil suffered by my parents and so many others.