K-12 Education and WWII Incarceration

Fueled by the emergence of ethnic studies in the 1960s and the redress campaign in the 1970s and 1980s, scores of K-12 educational resources on the topic of Japanese American WWII incarceration have been developed in recent decades. Many of these materials have been produced and distributed by organizations such as the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), Densho, and the Japanese American National Museum (JANM), yet individual teachers, professors, and community activists across the U.S. have also contributed to an expansive array of resources for K-12 schools. [1]

Early Efforts

Professor and university administrator Edison Uno , a key figure in the redress movement, developed and taught some of the first post-secondary courses on Japanese American history. Searching for materials to use in his courses at San Francisco State University he became keenly aware that few if any K-12 curricular resources about Japanese American history existed. [2] Uno consequently contributed to the Japanese American Curriculum Project, Inc. (JACP). Formed in 1969, this group of Bay Area educators, concerned about "existing omissions and gross distortions in the story of Japanese Americans in present curriculum materials," began to develop "more realistic, honest, and relevant materials on Japanese Americans." [3] Geared to the elementary and middle school levels, JACP books included short stories, photos, a glossary of key terms, and a bibliography of suggested readings for teachers.

While conducting research for her book, Farewell to Manzanar , Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston noted a lack of "accessible," non-academic resources on the Japanese American experience. [4] Consequently, she sought to write a memoir that would "educate middle-class Americans and elicit feelings of empathy, compassion, and human responses." [5] Published in 1973, Farewell to Manzanar and its 1976 film adaptation received widespread critical acclaim and earned the filmmakers an Emmy nomination. [6] By the late 1980s, the book and film had taken up permanent residence on suggested resource lists for history and language arts teachers in California. [7]

WWII Incarceration in History Textbooks

During the late 1980s, the San Francisco chapter of the JACL (SF JACL) capitalized on momentum generated by the achievement of redress by moving forward with efforts to correct historical accounts of the incarceration in textbooks. Michael Omi, professor at UC Berkeley and chairman of the SF JACL Textbook Revision Committee, reported that the committee's study of textbooks used in San Francisco schools revealed major shortcomings with regards to representations of WWII removal and incarceration. By omitting crucial historical context, many texts left readers with the impression that the camps were justified by military necessity; Omi subsequently called on the California Superintendent of Public Instruction and the state's Curriculum Development and Supplemental Materials Commission to only adopt textbooks that adequately addressed WWII incarceration and that included references to the redress movement and Civil Liberties Act . [8]

In consultation with the JACL, California Assembly Member Jackie Speier introduced Assembly Concurrent Resolution (ACR) 37 in 1989 to urge state and local districts to adopt instructional materials that portray the incarceration as an abrogation of Japanese Americans' rights. Assembly Member Speier viewed education as playing a central role in the "shared responsibility to uphold the rights of all Americans at all times." [9] Although California adopted the measure on February 28, 1990, ACR 37 was not without its opponents; most notable was Assembly Member Gil Ferguson, who introduced his own bill, ACR 181, which denied that Japanese Americans were disproportionately impacted by wartime policies in comparison to citizens of Italian and German descent and highlighted "proof" of espionage during WWII. After a heated debate in the State Assembly, Assembly Member Ferguson's bill was rejected by a vote of sixty to four on August 28, 1990. [10]

Shortly after the ACR 181 controversy, the JACL decided to develop its own materials to provide to schools in California. Drawing from materials developed by various chapters in the mid-1980s, the JACL National Education Committee produced a comprehensive curricular guide that aimed to give teachers flexibility in creating lesson plans. It included a historical overview, sample activities, a bibliography of books and audiovisual resources, primary documents, and photographs. Now in its fifth edition, JACL's The Japanese American Experience: Curriculum and Resource Guide and other educational materials are available for purchase through the JACL website; the organization also continues to provide teacher training workshops throughout the U.S. [11]

In 1992, the National Japanese American Historical Society (NJAHS) issued its own teachers' guide with support from the Bill of Rights Education Collaborative, an initiative funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and coordinated by the American Historical Association and the American Political Science Association. NJHAS' The Bill of Rights and the Japanese American World War II Experience guide was complemented by a seminar series for twenty teachers and curriculum specialists from the San Francisco Unified School District. [12]

CLPEF Curriculum Summit

Among the various activities it funded from 1996 to 1998, the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund recognized that:

There is no place more logical to transmit the lessons learned from the incarceration than through our country's educational institutions... It is incumbent upon the Board [to] lay the groundwork for permanently infusing these lessons into the nation's education systems. Thus, the long-term objective of educating the public about the incarceration can continue in perpetuity, even after the CLPEF has sunsetted as a federal agency. [13]

Despite recognition that it was imperative for CLPEF to fund new teacher-friendly and high-quality curricular resources, its Board of Directors was troubled by the grant proposals submitted for the curriculum subtheme. In terms of demonstrating basic knowledge about the WWII incarceration, there was a "noticeable gap" between applicants from states with a sizable Japanese American population and those without. [14]

In response, the Board opted to organize a CLPEF Curriculum Summit. Open to the public and supported with a $50,000 budget, the two-day August 1997 event at San Francisco State University provided an opportunity for over fifty attendees to share strategies for teaching about WWII incarceration, and encouraged networking amongst K-12 teachers, university professors, and representatives from various Japanese American organizations. The conference also highlighted the need to establish a mechanism for disseminating the educational resources produced with CLPEF funding, as well as first-rate materials developed prior to or without support from the federal program. Subsequently, CLPEF awarded a contract to the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) in Los Angeles to establish a national clearinghouse for such educational materials; although CLPEF grant applications are archived in JANM's Hirasaki Resource Center and the museum established a "Civil Liberties Archive and Study Center" website, CLPEF curriculum projects are not currently available to the public. [15]

Japanese American National Museum Initiatives

Nevertheless, JANM has been involved in several major K-12 educational initiatives. In partnership with the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's Public History Program and funded by the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, "Life Interrupted: the Japanese American Experience in WWII Arkansas" offered a series of traveling JANM exhibits about WWII incarceration and produced a curriculum guide—developed by Arkansas public school teachers—that focused on the Jerome and Rower camps during WWII. [16] The conference in September 2004 drew over 1,300 people from thirty different states; the strong turnout was a particularly powerful experience for Japanese Americans from the West Coast who assumed that Arkansas residents would be apathetic to WWII incarceration history at best, and hostile towards Nikkei at worst. [17] JANM estimates that well over 70,000 students in the state have learned about WWII incarceration via this program. [18]

In 2005, JANM replicated the success of its Arkansas initiative by launching "Enduring Communities: The Japanese American Experience in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah" in partnership with Arizona State University's Asian Pacific American Studies Program; the University of Colorado, Boulder; the University of New Mexico; the University of Texas at San Antonio; and the Davis School District in Utah. [19] With support from a three-year grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services, JANM organized teams of professors, community members, and teachers who developed curricula tailored to each state's curricular content standards. [20] "Enduring Communities" culminated with a three-day national conference held in Denver, Colorado, in July 2008. "Whose America? Who's American? Diversity, Civil Liberties, and Social Justice" was attended by hundreds and featured speakers such as Anan Ameri, Director of the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan; Tom Ikeda of Densho; Senator Daniel Inouye ; and civil rights activist George Takei . [21]

Although "Life Interrupted" and "Enduring Communities" have since concluded, curricula produced for each state are still available online, and the museum plans to continue coordinating similar projects until all WWII confinement sites have adequate educational materials. Once that objective is met, JANM aims to develop resources and curricula that address post-war Nikkei resettlement outside of the West Coast, in cities such as Detroit, Minneapolis, and Chicago. [22]

JANM is also extending the museum's reach by way of its National Center for the Preservation of Democracy (NCPD). Established in 2005 with support from the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, Boeing, Toyota, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, IKEA, and others, the NCPD aims to "promote the principles of democracy, diversity, and civic involvement" by offering educational resources, including lesson plans written by Gary Okihiro, a professor of ethnic studies at Columbia University. [23] NCDP also assembled the exhibit, "Fighting for Democracy: Who is the 'We' in 'We, the People'?" which shared the WWII experiences of seven Americans from various ethnic backgrounds (including Japanese Americans). In 2011, the exhibit embarked on a ten-city national tour with stops including: the National World War II Museum in New Orleans; the Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site in Alabama; the National Archives in Washington, D.C.; the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis; and the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. [24] Developed by JANM, California public school teachers, and a facilitator from Facing History and Ourselves, the "Fighting for Democracy" Educator's Resource Guide was designed for school groups who visited the exhibit as it traveled across the country. [25]

Continuing Efforts

As JANM's recent activities suggest, post-redress efforts to educate the American public about WWII removal and incarceration continue in earnest today. While the era of federal programs such as the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund and state-supported initiatives such as the California and Washington Civil Liberties Public Education Program|Washington Civil Liberties Public Education]] programs may have concluded, those initiatives provided critical seed monies to individuals and organizations for subsequent campaigns. Financial support and administrative oversight provided by the National Park Service will ensure that important historical sites are not only preserved, but that they offer educational and interpretative services for students, teachers, and the wider public. In addition, at the federal level, the U.S. National Archives today offers extensive online resources about WWII incarceration, including photographs and primary documents, and lesson plans designed to meet the National History Standards. [26]

Smaller, local education initiatives carry on as well, as evidenced by Portland's Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center; the Omoide project at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Washington; and the Harada House in Riverside, California. The Seattle-based Densho remains heavily involved in educational activities; its Learning Center provides a variety of resources, including the "Sites of Shame," "In the Shadow of My Country," and "Civil Rights and Japanese American Incarceration" curricula. With support from the National Park Service's Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant Program , Densho has also funded a series of teacher training workshops around the country, and published a Seattle Times newspaper supplement aimed at educators. [27] Educational gaming is an emerging avenue for informing school children about WWII incarceration: for instance, projects like "Drama in the Delta," a role-playing video game about life in the Jerome concentration camp, holds the potential to boost millennial students' interest in history. Although the educators and activists who conceptualized and implemented these K-12 educational initiatives acknowledge that many Americans (particularly those outside of the West Coast) remain unfamiliar with the history of WWII incarceration, many remain committed to continuing the fight to ensure that its lessons are not forgotten.

Authored by Alexandra L. Wood , New York University

For More Information

California Assembly Concurrent Resolution 181, 1990. JACL Legislative Education Committee Collection, Japanese American National Library.

California Civil Liberties Public Education Program. Information Packet and Grant Application Fiscal Year 2000-2001 . Sacramento, CA: California State Library, 2000.

———. Notice to All: The California Conference on the Internment of Japanese Americans . Sacramento, CA: California State Library, 2005.

———. Project Catalog of the California Civil Liberties Public Education Program . San Francisco, CA: Asian American Curriculum Project, Inc., 2005.

———. Reading the Walls: Riverside Stories of Internment and Return . Riverside, CA: Riverside Metropolitan Museum, 2006.

Camicia, Steven P. "Deciding What is a Controversial Issue: A Case Study of Social Studies Curriculum Controversy." Theory and Research in Social Education 36, no. 4 (2008): 298-316.

Civil Liberties Public Education Fund. Final Report to the President and the Congress . Washington, D.C.: CLPEF, 1998.

Cornbleth, Catherine. "Controlling Curriculum Knowledge: Multicultural Politics and Policymaking." Journal of Curriculum Studies 27, no. 2 (1995): 165-185.

Chander, Anupam, Madhavi Sunder, and Angelia Loi. Fred Korematsu: All American Hero . Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2011.

Drama in the Delta. UC San Diego. http://dramainthedelta.org (accessed March 31, 2013).

Fred T. Korematsu Institute for Civil Rights and Education. "About Us." http://korematsuinstitute.org/institute (accessed March 5, 2012).

Harada, V. H. The Treatment of Asian Americans in U.S. History Textbooks Published 1994-1996 . Bloomington, IN: ERIC Document Reproduction Service, 2000.

Hess, Diana E. Controversy in the Classroom: The Democratic Power of Discussion . Vol. 4. New York, NY: Routledge, 2009.

Hongo, Florence M. Japanese American Journey: The Story of a People . San Mateo, CA: Japanese American Curriculum Project, 1985.

Go For Broke National Education Center. "History." http://www.goforbroke.org/history/history_historical_veterans.asp (accessed March 30, 2013).

Japanese American Citizens League National Education Committee. The Japanese American Experience: Curriculum and Resource Guide . San Francisco, CA: Japanese American Citizens League, 1996.

Japanese American National Museum and University of Arkansas at Little Rock Department of History. Camp Connections: A Conversation about Civil Rights and Social Justice in Arkansas . Los Angeles, CA: Japanese American National Museum, 2004.

Ko, Nalea J. "Japanese American Groups Appeal to Texas Board of Education." Pacific Citizen , May 7, 2010.

Mann, Kristin Dutcher, University of Arkansas at Little Rock Department of History, and Japanese American National Museum. Life Interrupted: The Japanese American Experience in WWII Arkansas - Curriculum Units for Secondary Social Studies . Little Rock, AR: University of Arkansas at Little Rock, 2004.

Minami, Dale. "Giving and Receiving: A Reflection on the Civil Liberties Fund." Pacific Citizen , December 1997.

National Japanese American Historical Society. Teacher's Guide: The Bill of Rights and the Japanese American World War II Experience . San Francisco, CA: National Japanese American Historical Society and San Francisco Unified School District, 1992.

National Park Service. "Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant Program." http://www.nps.gov/history/hps/hpg/JACS/downloads/newsletter_2010-11.pdf (accessed March 31, 2013).

Oppenheim, Joanne. Dear Miss Breed: True Stories of the Japanese American Incarceration during World War II and a Librarian Who Made a Difference . New York, NY: Scholastic, 2006.

Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center. "About Oregon Nikkei Endowment and Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center." http://oregonnikkei.org/aboutus.htm (accessed March 31, 2013).

"Over 50 Grantees Gather at CLPEF Curriculum Summit." Pacific Citizen , August 15-September 4, 1997.

Romanowski, Michael H. "Problems of Bias in History Textbooks." Social Education 60, no. 3 (1996): 170-173.

Shimasaki, Dale. "Redress Educator: A New Fund Established to Teach the Lessons of the Internment." Asian Week , June 20, 1996.

University of Arkansas at Little Rock Department of History and Japanese American National Museum. Life Interrupted: The Japanese American Experience in WWII Arkansas . Little Rock, AR: University of Arkansas at Little Rock, 2003.


  1. Although this article looks specifically at educational initiatives undertaken by individuals and organizations on the West Coast from the 1960s to the present, there is evidence of earlier efforts during the post-WWII resettlement period; similar educational endeavors have been launched across the U.S. as well, particularly in locations such as Hawai'i.
  2. See Jack Matsuoka, Camp II, Block 211: Daily Life in an Internment Camp (San Francisco, CA: Japan Publications, 1974), xii.
  3. Florence M. Hongo, Japanese Americans: The Untold Story (San Mateo, CA: Japanese American Curriculum Project, 1971), vi.
  4. Discover Nikkei, "Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston," http://www.discovernikkei.org/en/interviews/profiles/61/ (accessed March 31, 2013).
  5. Alice Y. Murray, Historical Memories of the Japanese American Internment and the Struggle for Redress (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008), 228.
  6. Discover Nikkei, "The Legacy of Farewell to Manzanar," http://www.discovernikkei.org/en/journal/2010/7/26/farewell-to-manzanar/ (accessed August 28, 2010).
  7. In 2002, California Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante announced that the state would provide educational kits containing the book and film, as well as study and teacher's guides, to every public middle and high school in the state.
  8. Michael Omi to Bill Honig, September 16, 1988, JACL Legislative Education Committee Collection, Japanese American National Library.
  9. Jackie Speier, "Finally... the Truth about the WWII Japanese American Internment Experience," Asian Week , May 12, 1989.
  10. Robert Gunnison, "Assembly Rejects Internment Measure," San Francisco Chronicle , August 29, 1989; Ralph Frammolino, "Ferguson Fights Labeling War Internment as Racist," Los Angeles Times , August 25, 1989.
  11. Greg Marutani, in discussion with the author, March 20, 2010.
  12. National Japanese American Historical Society, "Special Issue: Teaching about the Camps," Nikkei Heritage (1992): 17.
  13. CLPEF Board Meeting Agenda Item 2: Curriculum Initiative, April 5, 1997, in author's possession.
  14. CLPEF Board Meeting Agenda Item 2.
  15. Japanese American National Museum, "Civil Liberties Archives and Study Center," http://www.janm.org/projects/clasc/index.htm (accessed March 15, 2013).
  16. University of Arkansas at Little Rock Department of History and Japanese American National Museum, "Life Interrupted: The Japanese American Experience in WWII Arkansas - About Us," University of Arkansas at Little Rock. http://www.ualr.edu/lifeinterrupted/html/about_us.html (accessed March 31, 2013).
  17. Allyson Nakamoto, in discussion with the author, April 7, 2011.
  18. Japanese American National Museum, "Enduring Communities Project Overview," http://www.janm.org/projects/ec/about/ (accessed March 31, 2013).
  19. Japanese American National Museum, "Enduring Communities Partners and Sponsors," http://www.janm.org/projects/ec/about/partners/ (accessed March 31, 2013).
  20. Japanese American National Museum, "Enduring Communities Project Overview."
  21. Japanese American National Museum, "Enduring Communities 2008 Conference Speakers," http://www.janm.org/projects/ec/conference/speakers/14/ (accessed March 31, 2013).
  22. Allyson Nakamoto, in discussion with the author, April 7, 2011.
  23. National Center for the Preservation of Democracy, "Vision and Mission," http://www.ncdemocracy.org/node/1126 (accessed March 31, 2013).
  24. National Center for the Preservation of Democracy, "Fighting for Democracy Exhibition," http://www.ncdemocracy.org/node/1890 (accessed March 31, 2013).
  25. National Center for the Preservation of Democracy, Fighting for Democracy: An Educator's Resource Guide, Los Angeles, CA: National Center for the Preservation of Democracy (2005).
  26. National Archives and Records Administration, "Teaching with Documents: Documents and Photographs Related to Japanese Relocation during World War II," http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/japanese-relocation/ (accessed March 31, 2013).
  27. For more on Densho's curricula and ongoing educational activities, visit the Learning Center, http://www.densho.org/learning/default.asp (accessed July 6, 2014); see also "Densho Keeps Alive the Japanese American Incarceration Story," http://www.densho.org/assets/images/201304-PressRelease.pdf (accessed July 6, 2014).

Last updated Feb. 29, 2024, 10:46 p.m..