Lately I’ve been thinking about the language we use to describe and discuss the “experiences of people of Japanese ancestry” during World War II. Even this phrase is a mouthful. Using “Japanese” is misleading because it wasn’t the people living in Japan that were rounded up and forcibly evicted from their homes. Growing up my Nisei parents and relatives also used the word “nihonjin.” Speaking about Japanese people in English took away the sense of intimacy and inclusion they felt with other Japanese.
Of course, “Japanese Americans” would a complete lie since immigrants were prohibited by law from becoming citizens of the US. Did you know this exclusion of all Asian people from being citizens dates back to 1790? The U.S. Congress, in the Act of March 26, 1790, states that “any alien, being a free white person who shall have resided within the limits and under the jurisdiction of the United States for a term of two years, may be admitted to become a citizen thereof.” It wasn’t until 1953 that Japanese could become citizens.
Some people use the word, “nikkei” to denote any one of Japanese ancestry–from Japan, from the US, from Brazil etc. This was meant to be an inclusive term. The only problem is that no one outside of the Japanese community has ever heard of this word. I asked a noted professor of Asian American Studies when this term came into being. He said it came in vogue in the 90’s. In Hawai’i they use the term “AJA” Americans of Japanese Ancestry, and that works in Hawai’i where the Japanese population is 16% and they are politically dominant.
Which brings me to the language we use to describe the incarceration during World War II.