“The Power of Words” 2.0

Mako Nakagawa and Andy Noguchi
Mako Nakagawa of Seattle and Andy Noguchi of Florin, CA, shortly after the JACL National Convention adopted their revised handbook

As producer/director of Conscience and the Constitution, I finally signed on late this week as a community supporter for the revised “Power of Words” handbook.

I never understood why this was still an issue seething within the Japanese American Citizens League. In the film we freely refer to the camps as “American concentration camps” and point out, “Even the President called them concentration camps.” PBS approved the script and aired the film in 2000. I thought the issue of terminology was settled long ago.

The JACL National Convention came to town this weekend, so I finally had a chance to hear first-hand what the fuss was about. For whatever reason, the first version of the JACL’s handbook — the underlying purpose of which was to assert the legitimacy of using the term “concentration camps” — buried reference to the correct language. Instead, it incredibly and meekly recommended relocation camps — in quotation marks, as in wink-wink, nod-nod “relocation camps” –as the term to promote. Talk about a step backward. Activists from Seattle and Florin, CA, went ape, and spent the past year trying to rewrite it. That there was even opposition to their campaign inside JACL, is telling.

Early yesterday morning at around 8:00 am at the Hyatt Regency Bellevue, the activists finally succeeded, and national JACL unanimously ratified the Power of Words 2.0 handbook.

Still, I wondered, why the need for a handbook? Lillian Baker is gone. “Concentration camps” as the proper name was established more than 30 years ago with the state landmark at Manzanar, with the titles of groundbreaking books by Roger Daniels and Michi Weglyn, and with four previous handbooks by Roger, Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, Jim Hirabayashi, Sue Embrey, and the granddaddy of camp-euphemism-rejecting papers, “The American Concentration Camps:  A Cover-up Through Euphemistic Terminology,” by Ray Okamura.

From the follow-up workshop, it seems the real value of having a national organization like JACL coalesce behind a simple statement of fact lies with work still be done by the National Park Service and other agencies that will be erecting monuments and landmarks to the camps, or to use the new term of art, confinement sites.  At places like Tule Lake and elsewhere, there will always be neighbors and revisionist historians who will want to turn back the clock and soften the truth, and agency staff need verifiable facts, documentation, and unified community support to get their wordings cast in bronze.

Seventy years after the fact it’s still a fight, so congratulations to all those who persisted on behalf of the power of words this weekend.

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