AP Stylebook Switch to “Incarceration” Is Just A Step in the Right Direction

The new 56th edition of the AP (Associated Press) Stylebook which will be published on June 1, 2022, will include an important terminology update.

In a pre-publication e-mail, their “Style Tip of the Month,” the AP stated, “Though ‘internment’ has been applied historically to all detainments of Japanese Americans and Japanese nationals during World War II, the broad use of the term is inaccurate…many Japanese Americans find it objectionable. It is better to say they were ‘incarcerated’ or ‘detained,’ and to describe the larger event as the ‘incarceration of Japanese Americans.’” [emphasis added]

This is a welcome change, and a step in the right direction, because words matter. The blatant manipulation of language, especially these past few years, has driven home the importance of using accurate terminology.

The AP stated, “internment” is an inaccurate term because the majority of those locked up behind barbed wire were citizens. “Internment” is defined as the imprisonment of foreign nationals or enemy aliens in a war context.

Not only is this language inaccurate, it is a euphemism that obscures the severity of the forced removal and incarceration of our families.

It is a step forward that the AP, even in May 2022, made this change. However, Barbara Takei, in an e-mail about the AP’s new recommendation, reminded us that in 1979, Professor Roger Daniels made clear that “internment” wasn’t an accurate term to describe the forced removal brought about by Executive Order 9066. He did this while providing counsel to Senator Daniel Inoyue on the creation of the Commision on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC).

The debate over terminology was not the central issue during the congressional hearings in 1980-81, as much more pressing issues needed to be settled. Even though the very name of the Commission embedded two euphemisms—“relocation” and “internment”—those testifying pushed ahead with honest and damning stories that clearly destroyed any myths that camps were merely “relocation” or “internment centers,” set up to protect our families from a hostile America.

The testimony at the CWRIC hearings unleashed a righteous anger from those who bore witness and from the survivors from this “most traumatic experience” as my mother described it, and propelled the efforts to redress this injustice forward in a most dramatic manner.

Over the years, there has been much discussion about the need to use correct terminology and retire euphemistic language. Professor Lane Hirabayshi, Mako Nakagawa, my mother, Sue Kunitomi Embrey, and Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, among others, spoke and wrote extensively about how euphemisms distort what happened, and stunt the development of a more accurate analysis of camp.

The debate over how to describe what happened to our families during World War II, had actually unfolded in the years leading up to the CWRIC hearings. The debate over terminology, with those inside and outside of our community, dates back nearly a decade before Congress convened the hearings.

One of the earliest examples of this debate was the Manzanar Committee’s campaign to designate Manzanar as a California State Historic Landmark. In 1970, my mother, Warren Furutani and Amy Ishii applied to the State Department of Parks and Recreation to make Manzanar a State landmark.

In 1972, after two years of lobbying and tense and confrontational meetings, the State relented and granted the landmark status. The plaque was officially dedicated at the 1973 Manzanar Pilgrimage, placed by master stonemason and builder of the I rei to cemetery monument, Ryozo Kado.

The bronze plaque that is now set in stone outside of the Visitor Center at the Manzanar National Historic Site is one of the first expressions of community-based analysis of camp*. Written by those who had lived behind barbed wire, the words were direct: racism, economic exploitation and concentration camp were all used. Winning this concession from the state of California required a clearly worded proposal and determination. Further, it required a unified approach of community-based organizations, led by the actual stakeholders—survivors of America’s concentration camps and their descendants. It was only then that outside institutions—governmental bodies and major media organizations—began to change. It is worth noting that in their recent announcement, the AP states that “many Japanese Americans” object to using the term “internment.”

Clearly, what we think and what we fight for continues to matter today.

We learned much from the struggle to win landmark status for Manzanar. We learned that terminology—the words we use to name places and experiences—shape how we see, understand, and relate to our history. We learned how words and racist monuments can be symbols of erasure and subjugation, and we learned that euphemisms had to be replaced so that sites of injustice like Manzanar can be reclaimed as life-affirming, civil rights sites that symbolize resilience and conscience.

The lessons that we, in the Japanese American community, gained from our own experiences naturally leads us to support others who are working to undo the colonial and racist thinking in America’s psyche. We have a stake in supporting all efforts to decolonize place-names on federal lands by removing racist names and symbols from our national parks and sites. This means concretely supporting those seeking to topple Confederate and colonial monuments (like the Spanish missions), to decolonize museums, and to overhaul school curricula. It is time that we recognize that many of these sites are indigenous lands, and begin to talk openly about the control and stewardship of these places.

Correcting the record on the use of “internment” to describe the forced removal is a good step forward. But replacing other misleading, incorrect terms and euphemisms like “evacuation” and “relocation centers” with “forced removal” and “concentration camps” is important as well. Perhaps most importantly, the need to correct the historical record of how our families went willingly, with few complaints, and that virtually no resistance unfolded while in camp, remains an outstanding task.

Nevertheless, we are glad that the AP has recognized how words can bias a discussion and serve to create barriers to an accurate understanding of complex events like the forced removal and incarceration of 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry during World War II. We expect other media, academic and social institutions will do the same.


*NOTE: In 1975 Sue Kunitomi Embrey delivered a talk entitled Concentration camp, Not Relocation Centers, directly challenging the hegemonistic view that the War Relocation Authority set up relocation centers for evacuees.

LEAD IMAGE: Social media image released by the Associated Press, announcing their terminology update.

Bruce Embrey is Co-Chair of the Manzanar Committee. He writes from Los Angeles, California.


The Manzanar Committee’s Official web site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. You may copy, distribute and/or transmit any story or audio content published on this site under the terms of this license, but only if proper attribution is indicated. The full name of the author and a link back to the original article on this site are required. Photographs, graphic images, and other content not specified are subject to additional restrictions. Additional information is available at: Manzanar Committee Official web site – Licensing and Copyright Information.

One thought on “AP Stylebook Switch to “Incarceration” Is Just A Step in the Right Direction

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  1. “Incarceration” implies confinement following due legal process.

    I have always cut to the chase, calling it IMPRISONMENT.

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