Japanese American Incarceration in WWII

During World War II, the United States government forcibly imprisoned more than 120,000 Japanese Americans simply for being of Japanese descent. This lesson plan focuses on this often overlooked chapter of U.S. history when teaching about World War II in the classroom. It uses books to help students learn more about the time period and the effects of the incarceration, and helps facilitate discussions about prejudice and injustice.

Student Activities for Japanese American Incarceration in WWII

Essential Questions for Japanese American Incarceration during WWII

  1. How did the forced evacuation and incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII impact their lives?
  2. What would you do if you and your family were suddenly forced from your home, school, and livelihood to live in a concentration camp?
  3. Was the internment of Japanese Americans an abuse of power by FDR or an essential act to protect America?
  4. What are some examples of prejudice and injustice in today's world? How can we make sure that such travesties of justice like what was committed against Japanese Americans never happens again?

Japanese Internment in WWII

The racist policy of forcibly removing Japanese Americans to concentration camps was enacted by Franklin D. Roosevelt, who signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. It was ordered three months after Pearl Harbor was bombed by Japan. It was an act of war that thrust the United States into World War II, where they fought on two fronts: Europe and Japan. The hysteria of anti-Japanese sentiment was fueled by decades of anti-Asian racism as well as racist laws and policies. Prior to 1942, the United States had a long history of excluding Asian immigrants, denying full citizenship to people of Asian descent, anti-Asian housing policies, and hate crimes. Despite these obstacles, there were hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans living and thriving in the United States and Hawaii at the start of the war, with families, farms, and businesses. Executive Order 9066 gave sweeping powers for the military to "exclude" residents from the West Coast, including Washington, Oregon, California, and southern Arizona. Japanese Americans living in this area were forced from their homes. They were given only days notice to leave, meaning they had a very short time in which to sell their homes, farms, businesses, and possessions. The short time frame meant that things were sold at far less than their value, financially devastating families.

Aside from losing their livelihoods and possessions, Japanese Americans lost their freedom. They were forced into trains that took them to far away "detention centers" and concentration camps. The camps had meager facilities. Some were converted horse stables on race tracks while others were uninsulated barracks. There were ten large camps that housed about 120,000 Japanese Americans for the duration of the war from 1942 to 1945. Housing was cramped and diseases spread quickly. Many were in the desert with extreme heat or cold. The camps were surrounded by barbed wire, watch towers, and guards with machine guns. Any person trying to escape could be shot, and some were killed.

When the war ended, many Japanese Americans were left with no place to go and no resources. They had to rebuild their lives amid poverty and racism. Over 40 years after the incarceration in 1988, President Ronald Regan issued a formal apology and reparations to those impacted. In his speech, he said: "We gather here today to right a grave wrong. More than 40 years ago, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry living in the United States were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in makeshift internment camps. This action was taken without trial, without jury. It was based solely on race, for these 120,000 were Americans of Japanese descent." It is so important for students to learn about injustices from our past to ensure that they are never forgotten or repeated.

Teachers can use WWII photos, oral histories, and personal accounts/memoirs of Japanese Americans to learn about how their lives were forever impacted by the forced evacuation mandated by Executive Order 9066. Three helpful resources include the books Write to Me by Cynthia Grady, Fred Korematsu Speaks Up by Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi, and They Called Us Enemy by George Takei.

The book Write to Me by Cynthia Grady, tells the true story of Clara Breed, a librarian in San Diego, and the Japanese American families that she advocated for during their incarceration during World War II. It is a compelling look at the travesty of justice that was committed by the United States government against Japanese Americans. Students will feel empathy for the young children writing letters to Miss Breed about their experiences while studying the beautiful illustrations and learning about this often forgotten and important chapter in U.S. history.

Fred Korematsu Speaks Up is part informational text with timelines and primary sources and part colorful memoir of Fred Korematsu, an American-born young man of Japanese descent who was living in the San Francisco Bay area in 1942. He was 23 years old and working as a welder. Fred did not want to comply with the order to report to incarceration camps, and in doing so he was arrested. Fred enlisted the help of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) to assert his rights. He sued the United States government on the grounds that he was an American citizen and he had a right to live in peace wherever he desired. The case went to the United States Supreme Court and was struck down. The Court ruled that incarcerating Japanese Americans during the war "for the purposes of military necessity" was, in fact, constitutional. This was a travesty of justice. In his dissenting opinion, Justice Frank Murphy stated that incarcerating Japanese Americans "goes over the very brink of constitutional power and falls into the ugly abyss of racism ... I dissent, therefore from this legalization of racism. Racial discrimination in any form and in any degree has no justifiable part whatever in our democratic way of life. It is unattractive in any setting, but it is utterly revolting among a free people who have embraced the principles set forth in the Constitution of the United States." In 1984, Fred Korematsu's conviction was overturned and in 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded Korematsu the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian honor.

The book They Called Us Enemy by George Takei of Star Trek fame is a thrilling graphic novel that tells the true story of Takei's experience being incarcerated as a child along with his family. It is a moving memoir and intimate look at the concentration camps which students will not only enjoy reading but also come away with a better understanding of the effects incarceration had on children and families. Students will see the joys, the sorrows, and the immeasurable resilience behind the barbed wire. George Takei is an actor, activist, and supporter of LGBTQ rights. He founded the Japanese American History Museum and often gives lectures and speaks out about his experience in the incarceration camp. Takei also uses this perspective to fight against racist policies that target any ethnic or racial group, particularly Muslims today.

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