Manzanar Committee: Intent of ‘Power of Words’ Must Be Honored

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The plaque designating Manzanar as a California Historical Landmark was placed in 1973. After much debate, the wording included both “relocation centers” and “concentration camps” to describe the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans.

Editor’s note: In recent weeks, there has been a great deal of online discussion about the JACL’s “Power of Words” handbook. The Manzanar Committee, the Tule Lake Committee, and other organizations and individuals, including JACL members, were concerned that the handbook might be changed to accommodate those uncomfortable with the term “concentration camp.” During its quarterly meeting on Feb. 23 in San Francisco, the JACL National Board reaffirmed its support of the handbook as written, and the organization said on March 5 that no changes were ever planned. Following are statements from both sides.

Manzanar Committee Statement

On Feb. 21, the Los Angeles-based Manzanar Committee reiterated its ongoing support for the use of accurate, non-euphemistic terms to describe the unjust incarceration of over 110,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry during World War II.

The committee, which has advocated for the use of non-euphemistic terms since 1971, remains steadfast in its resolve to ensure that the injustices the Japanese American community had to endure during World War II will not be cheapened or sanitized by the use of euphemisms.

“We believe that the injustices the Japanese American community had to endure during World War II should not be obscured by the use of euphemisms,” said Manzanar Committee Co-Chair Bruce Embrey. “Failing to be historically accurate undermines our effectiveness, and prevents us from achieving our objectives.

“One need only look back at the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians hearings during early 1980s to see this,” added Embrey. “Once the true nature and full effects of Executive Order 9066 were known to the world, the Japanese American community found its voice, and obtained the moral authority to demand and win redress.”

On May 27, 2012, the Manzanar Committee endorsed the ratification of the Power of Words Handbook and Implementation Ideas by the National Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) Council. The handbook urged the JACL to help bring an end of the use of misleading language that, as Florin JACL member Andy Noguchi wrote, “…[were]created by the government to cover up the denial of constitutional and human rights, the force, oppressive conditions, and racism against [more than 110,000]innocent people of Japanese ancestry locked up in America’s World War II concentration camps.”

When the National JACL Council ratified the Power of Words Handbook and Implementation Ideas on July 7, 2012, by an overwhelming, unanimous 86-0 vote, our community took a giant step towards that goal.

However, some seven months later, we join with others in the greater Japanese American community who are gravely concerned that the spirit of the Power of Words handbook is being circumvented, and that the final product will be watered down and, in the end, ineffective.

These concerns stem from remarks made by JACL Executive Director Priscilla Ouchida on Feb. 4, 2013, that were published in “A Fork in the Road” on the JACL executive director’s blog.

In her blog post, Ouchida indicated, in rather strong, blunt fashion, that the term “American concentration camp” could be rejected by the JACL in favor of other terms, because they fear opposition by other civil rights organizations, in particular, those representing the Jewish community.

Embrey pointed out that our community has been down this road before.

“That there is opposition to using terminology that accurately captures our experience is not a new development,” Embrey noted. “In fact, the very first project the newly formed Manzanar Committee took on centered on how best to describe the ‘camp experience.’ In 1972, debate over the use of the term ‘concentration camp,’ which was to be used in the plaque designating Manzanar a California State Historic Landmark, became a stumbling block.”

“Some within the Japanese American community, and the State Landmarks Commission, vehemently opposed the use of the term,” Embrey added. “That debate went on for a year before a compromise was reached, and the term the committee chose to describe this tragic chapter of American history was cast in bronze on a plaque that is the first official marker for any War Relocation Authority or Department of Justice confinement site. This bronze plaque remains at the entrance to the Manzanar National Historic Site.”

The compromise resulted in the following wording:

“In the early part of World War II, 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry were interned in relocation centers by Executive Order 9066, issued on February 19, 1942.

“Manzanar, the first of ten such concentration camps, was bounded by barbed wire and guard towers, confining 10,000 persons, the majority being American citizens.

“May the injustice and humiliation suffered here as a result of hysteria, racism and economic exploitation never emerge again.”

“The wording on the plaque represents one of the earliest efforts, possibly the first effort, by Japanese Americans to come to grips with the incarceration experience,” said Embrey. “The words chosen for the plaque proved to be profoundly resilient, not because they echo what presidents, Supreme Court Justices, and other fair-minded people from all walks of life have said over the years. These words capture the actual reality, the whole truth, brief as they are.”

Embrey stressed that our community cannot sacrifice its principles, core values, or its right to self-determination, simply to appease others.

“We should not allow fear of upsetting or alienating anyone to dictate our actions,” Embrey emphasized. “There is no shame in being honest, accurate and truthful. Indeed, in the experience of the Manzanar Committee, it is only when an accurate, honest appraisal of the forced removal and incarceration of the Japanese American community is clearly articulated do people understand the nature of our experience.”

“While those outside of the Japanese American community may be driven by their own particular agendas or objectives, we, as survivors or the descendants of those who endured the American concentration camps, must remain focused and determined to tell the whole truth, regardless of what others may think,” Embrey added. “It is our obligation to our community and to our country.”

Embrey urged Ouchida and the National JACL to live up to the language and the spirit of the Power of Words Handbook and Implementation Ideas, as ratified.

“The Manzanar Committee was very pleased when the JACL adopted the Power of Words resolution at its 2012 convention, and we urge them to implement the resolution as it was intended,” Embrey stressed. “We will not accept attempts to weaken it simply to placate others.”

“We look forward to the day when all Japanese American community organizations will speak with one voice, using the same framework to sum up our history.”

JACL Statement

During the past several weeks, the Japanese American Citizens League has received numerous questions and comments from members and external partners within the Japanese American community about the organization’s position and plans regarding implementation of the Power of Words Handbook.

JACL remains committed to fully implementing the Power of Words resolution and terminology handbook, as approved by the National Council, without removal of any terminology or edits to their recommended use.

While some internal briefings and opinions on our website have circulated and raised concerns in the community, no proposal or resolution to remove or redefine terminology has been developed or brought before the JACL National Board for consideration. At the last JACL National Board Meeting in February 2013, the board reaffirmed its support for the Power of Words handbook and implementation as approved at the 2012 National Convention.

JACL staff has been engaging in conversations with its partners outside of the Japanese American community to listen to their feedback and explore partnership opportunities that may help the handbook receive broader support and visibility. Some groups have indicated that their constituents may have difficulty supporting a term in the handbook, but acknowledged the Japanese American community’s right to define its own experience.

No official partnership or coalition currently exists. Moreover, JACL will not recommend or propose the removal of or edits to the terminology handbook as a condition of participation in a broader coalition.

JACL, its leadership, staff and individual committees have been actively promoting and distributing the handbook to elected officials, members of Congress, federal agencies and organizations, without reservation. As part of the implementation strategy, the Education Committee of JACL has also been developing a broader outreach and distribution plan for the Power of Words handbook.

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