My parents, Shigeo and Joanne Watanabe, were U.S. citizens born and raised in Seattle — she a student at Seattle University who loved parties and red painted fingernails, he an aspiring accountant with a golden glove and killer smile.
In the aftermath of Japan’s 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, they were imprisoned in an incarceration camp — not an internment camp.
Internment. Incarceration. Not many people make a distinction between the two terms or understand why it’s so important to do so. But in a historic 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 of 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 viciously campaigned to incarcerate Japanese Americans during the war, questioning their loyalty — an action disavowed 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 describe 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 the incarceration at the time, and this style change reflects our commitment as an institution to better represent the communities we serve. We hope this will help bring closure to the families of those unjustly incarcerated and deepen our society’s understanding of that period.”
Some Times journalists have long pressed for change in how to describe what has been commonly called internment — with the late Henry Fuhrmann, our former assistant managing editor and self-described word nerd, taking the lead.
“‘Internment’ is a euphemism that trivializes the government’s actions,” he argued in a 2020 Twitter thread. “Officials employed such benign-sounding language to obscure that the U.S. was incarcerating Americans whose only ‘crime’ was that they looked like the enemy.”
My family experienced the distinct difference between those two terms.
My grandfather, Yoshitaka Watanabe, was a subject of internment, a term most accurately used to describe the imprisonment of enemy aliens during wartime. He was held in a U.S. Army internment camp in Louisiana with other enemy aliens from the Axis powers of Japan, Germany and Italy during most of the war. As a Japanese immigrant, he was not allowed to become an American citizen under U.S. laws at the time.
He was my jichan, my grandfather, who immigrated to the United States in 1908 to flee a militarizing Japan and earn money for his family near Mt. Fuji. Settling in Seattle, he ran a produce stand, wrote poetry under the name Willow Rain and raised five children, including my dad.
In March 1942, three months after Japan’s Pearl Harbor attack, three FBI agents descended on the family home in Seattle and ransacked the house, my aunts and uncles told me.
The agents found no contraband, seizing only membership cards to the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and two magazines that “appeared to contain pro-Japanese propaganda,” according to FBI records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. Never mind that not one FBI special agent at the time could read or speak Japanese, according to a specialist in U.S. wartime intelligence I spoke with.
The agents arrested Jichan and hauled him away, leaving his children and invalid wife alone to face a frightening future.
But at least he was given a hearing before an Enemy Alien Hearing Board by the Department of Justice under the Geneva Convention. It turned out his arrest was based on his subscription to a Japanese magazine that then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover listed as subversive.
My grandfather told the three-member panel that he had only subscribed to help out a friend selling subscriptions and barely read the magazine. Despite his clean record and no evidence of subversion, the hearing board concluded he offered “no definite or convincing assurance of loyalty to the United States,” according to a summary of the proceedings.
Three months later, in July 1942, the U.S. attorney general issued an official internment order for Jichan, calling him “potentially dangerous to the public peace and safety of the United States.” He was transferred from an Immigration and Naturalization Service facility in Montana to the center for enemy alien internees 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 U.S. armed forces.
My parents, by contrast, were not “interned.” They were not enemy aliens. They were Americans through and through. My mother, Joanne Misako Oyabe at the time, followed typical American fashions — bouffant hairdos and all — and Christianity, becoming a devout Roman Catholic and attending Maryknoll schools. My father, Shigeo Watanabe, was an avid fan of that quintessentially American sport of baseball, Glenn Miller and swing dancing.
Like their fellow Americans incarcerated for having as little as “one drop” of Japanese blood, my parents were not apprised of any charges against them or allowed to answer to them at any judicial 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, aunties and uncles would later talk about the devastating impact of incarceration — the shame and humiliation, the damage to family ties and loss of parental authority, the disrupted careers and unfulfilled aspirations. My mother, a lively intellect with eclectic reading interests, never had a chance to finish her education, although years later Seattle University presented her, posthumously, with an honorary degree.
No, my parents were not interned. They were not “evacuated” or “relocated,” even worse euphemisms. They were incarcerated. They were imprisoned in remote Idaho facilities ringed with barbed wire and guard towers manned by armed soldiers who were their fellow U.S. citizens.
The Times’ decision to formally adopt a policy to call this World War II action against Japanese Americans what it was is a win for accuracy in language. It’s another gratifying step to make amends for our news organization’s racist past. And it’s a recognition of the terrible wrong suffered by my parents and so many others.