My parents, Shigeo and Joanne Watanabe, were American citizens born and raised in Seattle – she was a student at Seattle University and loved parties and painted red fingernails, he a budding accountant with a gold glove and a killer smile.
In the aftermath of the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, they were imprisoned in a prison camp – not an internment camp.
Internment. Incarceration. Few people distinguish between the two terms or understand why it is so important to do so. But in a landmark decision 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. Japanese ancestry during World War II.
Instead, The Times will generally use “incarceration,” “imprisonment,” “detention,” or their derivatives to describe this government action that shattered so many innocent lives.
The decision comes eight decades after The Times waged a vicious campaign to incarcerate Japanese Americans during the war, questioning their loyalties – an action disavowed six years ago with an official editorial apology.
“We are taking this step as a news agency because we understand the power of language,” said Kevin Merida, editor of The Times. “We believe it is essential to more accurately portray the unjust incarceration 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 change in style reflects our commitment as an institution to better represent the communities we serve. We hope this helps end families unjustly incarcerated people and to deepen the understanding of our society during this period.
Some Times reporters have long been calling for a change in the way we describe what is commonly called confinement – with the late Henry Fuhrmann, our former associate editor and self-styled word nerd, taking the lead.
“‘Internment’ is a euphemism that trivializes the actions of the government,” he said. argued in a 2020 Twitter thread. “Officials used such benign language to hide the fact that the United States was incarcerating Americans whose only ‘crime’ was that they looked like the enemy.”
My family knew the distinct difference between these two terms.
My grandfather, Yoshitaka Watanabe, was a subject of internment, a term used more accurately to describe the imprisonment of enemy aliens during wartime. He was held in a U.S. Army internment camp in Louisiana along 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 U.S. citizen under U.S. laws at the time.
He was my jichan, my grandfather, who immigrated to the United States in 1908 to escape militarized Japan and earn money for his family near Mount Fuji. Moving to 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 descended on the family home in Seattle and ransacked the house, my aunts and uncles told me.
Agents found no contraband, seizing only Japanese Chamber of Commerce membership cards and two magazines that “appeared to contain pro-Japanese propaganda”, according to FBI records obtained under the Act freedom of information. Never mind that no FBI special agent at the time could read or speak Japanese, according to a US wartime intelligence specialist I spoke with.
Officers arrested Jichan and took him away, leaving his children and invalid wife alone to face a scary future.
But at least he was heard before an Enemy Alien Hearing Board by the Department of Justice under the Geneva Convention. It turned out that his arrest was based on his subscription to a Japanese magazine that then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called subversive.
My grandfather told the three-member panel that he only subscribed to help a friend sell subscriptions and barely read the magazine. Despite his clean criminal record and no evidence of subversion, the hearing panel found he offered “no definitive or compelling assurance of loyalty to the United States,” according to a summary of the proceedings.
Three months later, in July 1942, the United States Attorney General issued a formal order of internment for Jichan, calling him “potentially dangerous to the public peace and safety of the United States”. He was transferred from a Montana Immigration and Naturalization Service facility to the Enemy Alien Internee Center in Louisiana. He was released in September 1945 after the surrender of Japan and a special hearing commission gave him a favorable opinion, noting that two of his sons, including my father, had volunteered to serve in the American armed forces.
My parents, on the other hand, were not “interned”. They were not enemy aliens. They were American through and through. My mother, Joanne Misako Oyabe at the time, followed typical American fashions – bouffant hairstyles and all – and Christianity, becoming a devout Roman Catholic and attending Maryknoll schools. My father, Shigeo Watanabe, was an avid fan of the quintessentially American sport of baseball, Glenn Miller and swing dancing.
Like their fellow Americans imprisoned for having only a “drop” of Japanese blood, my parents were not informed of any charges against them or allowed to answer before them in court hearings. They and their families were forced to abandon their homes, schools, jobs and communities on short notice with only what they could carry.
My father, aunts and uncles will later speak of the devastating impact of incarceration – the shame and humiliation, damage to family ties and loss of parental authority, disrupted careers and unrealized aspirations. . My mother, a keen intellect with eclectic reading interests, never had the chance to complete her education, although years later Seattle University awarded her, posthumously, an honorary degree.
No, my parents were not interned. They were not “evacuated” or “relocated”, even worse understatements. They were incarcerated. They were imprisoned in isolated facilities in Idaho surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers manned by armed soldiers who were their fellow Americans.
The Times’ decision to officially adopt a policy of calling this World War II action against Japanese Americans what it was is a victory for accuracy in language. This is another gratifying step in repairing our news agency’s racist past. And it is an acknowledgment of the terrible wrong suffered by my parents and so many others.