Skip to Main Content

News and Stories

Righting (and Writing) Wrongs: Reparative Description for Japanese American Wartime Incarceration

by NYU Libraries Communications on 2021-01-11T10:39:00-05:00 | 0 Comments

by Shannon O’Neill, Curator for Tamiment-Wagner Collections, and Rachel Searcy, Accessioning Archivist


Language evolves over time. Think about once-common words or phrases that are no longer popular and are now critiqued as being harmful or offensive. Archivists consider the words we (or our predecessors) have chosen over time. We must think of our descriptive practices, such as creating finding aids and catalog records, as an iterative, active process whose goal is an accurate description. The language we use must represent how individuals, groups, organizations, and subjects describe themselves; the description must be respectful and aim to minimize or repair harm. 

Recently in the course of accessioning an addition to the Midori Shimanouchi Lederer Papers, archivist Rachel Searcy noticed euphemistic terms like internment and relocation in the collection’s finding aid, referring to the experiences of Japanese Americans during World War II. These deliberate, bureaucratic euphemisms belie the reality of State-sanctioned violence faced by Japanese Americans as a result of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. 

As archivists, we are responsible for creating accurate descriptions related to the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans and for repairing the harm of legacy terminology. Japanese American advocacy groups have been doing this work for decades. Our research process looked to the Japanese American National Museum (JANM), National Japanese American Citizen League (JACL) Power of Words II Committee, and Denshō. They have produced abundant resources on accurate terminology, such as the JACL’s Power of Words handbook. We also looked to our generous colleagues and community partners at NYU’s Asian/Pacific/American (A/P/A) Institute. Our reading, listening, conversations, and research revealed a clear pathway to reparative description.

Internment has a legal, international definition documented in the Geneva Conventions that stipulates the conditions under which a warring country may incarcerate soldiers or civilians of an enemy power. The majority of individuals removed from their homes and incarcerated during World War II were, in fact, citizens of the United States, not of an enemy power. The term is simply not accurate, and incarceration more appropriately describes their experience. Instead of internment camp, we will use the term concentration camp, or American concentration camp

Power of Words describes a concentration camp as “a place where people are imprisoned not because of any crimes they committed, but simply because of who they are.” That is what happened to Japanese Americans during World War II. In the late 1990s, the JANM created an exhibition called “America’s Concentration Camps”  that was met with public controversy due to the title. We use concentration camp in solidarity with this linguistic intervention to disrupt and confront the erasure of State violence.

Similarly, euphemistic terms like evacuation and relocation do not hold up under serious scrutiny. Relocation suggests a scenario like a hurricane or a wildfire in which people need to leave in response to an external threat to their own safety. Using this term falsely suggests that Japanese American lives alone constituted some kind of emergency or disaster.

So how do we apply this understanding and an intention to repair harm to our archival description? Here is an excerpt from the biographical note from the Michi Kobi Papers, before the redescription effort (bolding added for emphasis):

Michi Kobi (1924-2016), born Machiko Okamoto, was a Japanese American actress and activist. During World War II, she was sent to the Topaz War Relocation internment camp in Utah with other Americans of Japanese descent. She turned to acting while in the camp and after the war pursued an acting career in New York, appearing in film and Broadway productions. Kobi also worked to draw attention to the injustices of internment, and in 1980 served as the co-chairman of the East Coast Japanese Americans for Redress.

(Michi Kobi Papers, TAM 697; description written November 2016)

Distancing language, euphemistic terms, passive voice with no named agent of responsibility, and generic terms like “the camp” impact how we understand Kobi’s experiences. Here is our revision of the same excerpt:

Michi Kobi (1924-2016), born Machiko Okamoto, was a Japanese American actress and activist. During World War II, she, along with 110,000 other Nisei, was forcibly removed from her home and incarcerated at the Central Utah Relocation Center, a concentration camp (euphemistically referred to as an internment camp) in Topaz, Utah. She turned to acting while incarcerated and, after the war, pursued an acting career in New York, appearing in film and Broadway productions. Kobi also worked to draw attention to the injustices of Japanese American wartime incarceration, and in 1980 served as the co-chair of the East Coast Japanese Americans for Redress.

(Michi Kobi Papers, TAM 697; description revised September 2020)

This deliberate intervention into our legacy description recenters the lives of Japanese Americans by aligning with the community’s wishes to describe its own past and present. Our revision is a form of accountability, acknowledging the historical violence of the State and limiting the ongoing violence perpetrated through obfuscation of the truth.

As archivists, we have an ethical imperative to be transparent about our actions. Our work necessitates analytical sense-making and decision-making based on professional judgment and is undoubtedly informed by our own biases and positionalities. Fostering an environment of transparency and the ongoing nature of reparative work requires accountability to the communities who have been harmed. Accountability, simply put by anti-violence activists Kiyomi Fujikawa and Shannon Perez-Darby, is taking responsibility for one’s choices and their consequences. You can see accountability and transparency in our work: we describe what we’ve done and why in a collection’s Processing Information Note (listed in the “Administrative Information” section of the finding aid), and we are starting to include links to the finding aid’s Github version history so users can see the changes we have made. Our local policy brief for how we address Japanese American wartime incarceration represented in our holdings codifies the descriptive decisions we’ve made and the reasons we made them. This publicly accessible document acts as an institutional commitment for us to maintain these interventions and pursue future redescription for other collections in a consistent manner.

We have more work to do—we always will. We are reviewing the entirety of our archival holdings to develop a list of collections that utilize harmful legacy descriptions about Japanese American incarceration. Archivists in the Archival Collections Management (ACM) department will work through the list and revise the description for each of these collections. We are also evaluating approaches to address the problematic Library of Congress subject heading Japanese Americans — Evacuation and Relocation, 1942-1945. This work is taking place within a broader effort to embed reparative and inclusive principles in our archival practices. The Libraries’ new Authorities Working Group in KARMS, comprising catalogers and archivists and headed by Weatherly Stephan, is examining strategies to ask the Library of Congress to change its terminology for harmful subject and name headings, and exploring ways to remediate the usage of these headings within our local practices, metadata, and access and display technologies.

Language has meaning. As we work to repair the harm for events that took place decades ago, there is currently a debate over what to call immigration facilities on our southern borders. This is how certain narratives are shaped, disseminated, and enshrined. It is also how they can be dismantled: by rejecting terms that mitigate acts of injustice and obscure them from the public eye. Archivists have a role in the way that history is shaped, communicated, and made accessible. As our professional colleague, Jessica Tai offers, archivists can employ archival description that is community-centered. To do so, we must use critical self-reflection, hold ourselves and our institutions accountable, and be aware of power imbalances produced and reproduced in the archives. One action archivists can take is to remedy the use of oppressive language within our collection description.

Archivists, catalogers, and curators working in archives and special collections make decisions in, with, and about collections. It is therefore important that we recognize, as Michelle Caswell and Marika Cifor write, “that we are inextricably bound to one another through relationships, that we live in complex relations to each other infused with power differences and inequities, and that we care about each other’s well-being.” 

Through an iterative process, an ethic of care, and an attitude of cultural humility, we can support the revision and redescription of our collections over time—in a respectful manner and responsive to changes in language and how communities describe themselves.


The New York University Division of Libraries is a global organization that advances teaching, learning, research, and scholarly inquiry in an environment dedicated to the open exchange of information. Your support helps foster our vibrant programming, aids archival accessibility efforts, and much more. Join our growing community of benefactors by giving your gift today.

 Add a Comment



Enter your e-mail address to receive notifications of new posts by e-mail.


  Follow Us

  Return to Blog
This post is closed for further discussion.