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When I first started teaching 20th century US history, I struggled to find an engaging way to teach the topic of Japanese Internment.  I enjoy teaching controversial topics in American History and I like to give students an opportunity to take a look at an event from multiple perspectives.  I recently developed a historical-inquiry lesson that allowed students to investigate the causes and justification of Japanese Internment.  The goal of the inquiry is to situate students in the historical context of 1942, and allow them to uncover the startling realities of the time.  As students analyze the selection of sources, three distinct discoveries tend to emerge:

  • A vast amount of racism and animosity directed at Japanese-Americans unleashed itself after the attack on Pearl Harbor
  • A profound fear of an impending attack from the Japanese on the Pacific Coast of the United States existed in early 1942
  • With the possibility of Japanese relocation, an increased desire to acquire Japanese property manifested itself on the West Coast.

This lesson utilizes some shockingly racist primary sources from 1941 and 1942.  I think it is important to expose these sources to high school students.  They need to understand some of the emotions and fears that drove President Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 9066.  The sources also tend to surprise students and add to the sense of perplexity surrounding the investigation.

Within the sources themselves, I try to emphasize a few main points of analysis:

  • Pay close attention to the logic that John DeWitt uses in his message to Henry Stimson (Document E in the Lesson Plan).  He implies that because a massive Japanese spy network hasn’t been uncovered yet, it is further proof that there is probably a spy network in place and an impending attack is likely.  If I extended this logic into my own classroom, it would look something like this: Because I haven’t caught Student X cheating yet, it is further proof that they are likely engaging in cheating.
  • The stories that John Hersey uncovered in his New York Times article are heartbreaking (Document G in the Lesson Plan).  As the Japanese were given a deadline for relocation, and not allowed to retain ownership of their property, a vast amount of swindling occurred.  One woman was forced to sell a hotel for $300.  Another Japanese family could only obtain $25 for their vehicle.  Stories like this help to explain the decision to issue reparation payments for survivors of Japanese Internment in 1988.
  • If you have time in class, and you think your students are mature enough to handle the source, play the song, “We’re Gonna Have to Slap the Dirty Little Jap” (Document C in the Lesson Plan). Ask students to analyze the tone, emotions and intentions of the song.

There are many different routes history educators can take to extend the learning and continue the investigation of Japanese Internment.  Here are a few suggestions:

  • Play the song, Kenji by Fort Minor and discuss the legacy of Interment within the Japanese American community today.
  • Display these broadsides in the classroom, and help students make comparisons between the treatment of Japanese Americans in 1941-1942 and the treatment of Muslim-Americans after 9/11.
  • Contact your nearest Japanese-American organization or council to see if there are any survivors of Internment in your local area that would be willing to speak to your classes. If you do not live near any survivors, harness the power of the internet and utilize Skype to introduce your students to the survivors of this event.

Lesson Resources: