No, my Japanese-American parents were not “interned” during WWII. You have been locked up

My parents, Shigeo and Joanne Watanabe, were US citizens, born and raised in Seattle—she a Seattle University student who loved parties and nail polish, he an aspiring accountant with a gold glove and a killer smile.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 She were being held in a detention center – not in a detention center.

Internment. detention. Not many people differentiate between the two terms or understand why this is so important. But in a historic decision aimed at accuracy and reconciliation, the Los Angeles Times announced Thursday that it would refrain from using “internment” in most cases to describe the mass incarceration of 120,000 people of Japanese descent during World War II to describe.

Instead, the Times commonly uses “incarceration,” “prison,” “custody,” or their derivatives to describe this government action that has taken so many innocent lives.

The decision comes eight decades after The Times viciously advocated the jailing of Japanese-Americans during the war and questioned their loyalty — an action repudiated with a formal editorial apology six years ago.

“We’re taking this step as a news organization because we understand the power of language,” said Kevin Merida, editor-in-chief of The Times. “We believe it is critically important to detail the unjust imprisonment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s, and to do so in a manner that does not belittle our country’s actions against its own citizens and the experiences of the prisoners.”

“The Los Angeles Times itself supported the incarceration at the time, and this change of style reflects our commitment as an institution to better represent the communities we serve. We hope this will help close the families of those wrongly imprisoned and deepen our society’s understanding of this time.”

Some Times journalists have long been pushing for a change in the description of what is commonly referred to as internment – with the late Henry Fuhrmann, our former deputy editor and self-proclaimed word nerd, taking the lead.

“‘Internment’ is a euphemism that trivializes government actions,” he said argued in a 2020 Twitter Thread. “Officials used such benign-sounding language to cover up that the US was jailing Americans whose only ‘crime’ was looking like the enemy.”

My family experienced the distinct difference between these two terms.

My grandfather, Yoshitaka Watanabe, was interned, a term most aptly used to describe the imprisonment of enemy aliens during the war. He was held at a US Army detention center in Louisiana for most of the war, along with other enemy aliens from Axis powers Japan, Germany, and Italy. As a Japanese immigrant, he was not allowed to become an American citizen under US law at the time.

he was mine jichan, my grandfather, who immigrated to the United States in 1908 to escape militarized Japan and earn money for his family near Mount Fuji. He settled in Seattle, ran a vegetable 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 broke into the family home in Seattle and ransacked the home, my aunts and uncles told me.

The agents found no contraband and only seized Japan Chamber of Commerce membership cards and two magazines that, according to FBI records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, “appeared to contain pro-Japanese propaganda.” Never mind that not a single FBI special agent at the time could read or speak Japanese, according to a US war intelligence specialist I spoke to.

The agents arrested Jichan and dragged him away, leaving his children and disabled wife to face a scary future alone.

But at least he was heard by the Justice Department before an Enemy Alien Hearing Board 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 panel of three that he only subscribed to help a friend sell subscriptions and barely read the magazine. Despite his clean records and no evidence of subversion, the hearings panel concluded that, according to a summary of the proceedings, he offered “no clear or convincing assurance of loyalty to the United States.”

Three months later, in July 1942, the US Attorney General issued an official internment order for Jichan, describing him as “potentially dangerous to the public peace and security of the United States”. He was transferred from an Immigration and Naturalization Service facility in Montana to the Hostile Alien Internee Center in Louisiana. He was released in September 1945 after Japan surrendered, and a special hearing committee gave him a favorable assessment, noting that two of his sons, including my father, had volunteered for service in the US armed forces.

My parents, on the other hand, were not “interned”. They weren’t hostile aliens. They were Americans through and through. My mother, then Joanne Misako Oyabe, followed quintessentially American fashion—puffy hair and all—and Christianity, became a devout Catholic, and attended Maryknoll schools. My father, Shigeo Watanabe, was an avid fan of this quintessentially American sport of baseball, Glenn Miller, and swing dancing.

Like their fellow Americans who were imprisoned for having “a drop” of Japanese blood, my parents were not informed of charges against them or allowed to speak about them at court hearings. They and their families have been forced to leave their homes, schools, workplaces and communities at short notice with only what they can carry.

My father, aunts and uncles later spoke of the devastating effects of incarceration—the shame and humiliation, the damage to family ties and loss of parental authority, the disrupted careers and unfulfilled desires. My mother, a lively intellectual with eclectic reading interests, never had the chance to complete her education, although years later she was posthumously awarded an honorary doctorate from Seattle University.

No, my parents were not interned. They weren’t “evacuated” or “relocated,” worse euphemisms. You have been locked up. They were detained in remote Idaho facilities surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers guarded by armed soldiers who were their US citizens.

The Times’ decision to officially adopt a policy to call this World War II action against Japanese Americans what it was is a win for accuracy in the language. It’s another gratifying step in making amends for our news organization’s racist past. And it is an acknowledgment of the terrible injustice suffered by my parents and so many others.

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