Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Aloha, Densho

Densho is supporting a bill submitted by Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii to have the Secretary of the Interior conduct a study of internment camp sites in Hawaii. The idea is to determine whether they are eligible to be listed as historic sites under the National Park System (like Manzanar, etc.).

"During World War II, over 1,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated in at least eight locations on Hawaii," said Senator Inouye. "In a report completed in 2007, the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii documented these sites that include Honouliuli Gulch, Sand Island, and the U.S. Immigration Station on Oahu, the Kilauea Military Camp on the Big Island, Haiku Camp and Wailuku County Jail on Maui, and the Kalaheo Stockade and Waialua County Jail on Kauai. These camps also held approximately 100 local residents of German and Italian ancestry.

Hawaii is suddenly on Densho's agenda. We received funding from the Tateuchi Foundation to conduct a dozen interviews in Honolulu. Our mainlander interview team is going into research overdrive to prepare for a facet of the incarceration that we're less familiar with. The Hawaii interviews fit perfectly with our goal of expanding Densho's collection of video oral histories to tell the full story of the World War II incarceration. Strangely, I'm not hearing any complaints about the team having to set up temporary shop in the Islands.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Back to School!

This week for the first time, I got to see how Densho's teaching materials are used in the classroom. It was an eye-opening experience. Our education consultant, Sarah Loudon, and I visited the first of a half-dozen schools to observe the teaching of our Social Studies lessons that incorporate interview clips and documents from the Densho collection. We're carrying out a grant-funded assessment of our elementary, middle school, and high school units on Constitutional and immigration issues.

The portable classroom at Washington Middle School was full of squirmy, eager, sleepy, goofy, serious, and mostly curious middle school students. Teacher Kathryn Ellison guided the diverse students through viewing a government newsreel that explained what a good idea the World War II incarceration was. The kids laughed at the blatant propaganda tricks. These "pioneers" were happily moving to a "fertile desert"? They wanted to know, "Were there snakes?" They called out, "That's so not fair!" when the teacher told them Japanese Americans had to live in horse stalls.

I was surprised at some of their questions. For instance, the students kept asking "Why didn't they try to escape?" "To where?" asked the teacher. "Over the Rockies." " To Canada." No, they are told, Canada sent their people of Japanese ancestry into captivity too. [Silence.]

Watching the kids work through assignments, Sarah and I realized some of the written questions in our curriculum need to be sharpened. And in talking with the teacher afterward, we agree that more work needs to be done in helping the students understand an important point. When the teacher asked one boy how he would feel if his family was locked up for looking like the enemy, he replied, "But the Japanese attacked us." Right. It seems some lessons need to be taught, and retaught, and retaught.

Washington Middle School sits in an urban, multicultural neighorhood. The next test school is across Lake Washington in a prosperous suburb. Other schools participating in the evaluation project are in rural areas. I have no doubt we will gather surprising and highly useful data for improving Densho's message. This will be more than interesting.

Densho thanks the Washington Civil Liberties Public Education Program for a grant supporting this curriculum evaluation project. We are grateful for additional funding from the City of Seattle Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs, Civic Partner program.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Fred Korematsu Center for Law and Equality

Yesterday, on a sunny spring day in Seattle I attended the launch event for the new Seattle University Law School’s Fred Korematsu Center for Law and Equality. I have very high hopes for this new center based on the quality of the event, the people attending, and the people organizing. The event was an all day conference examining the historic coram nobis cases, their present day relevance, and how the new center could work with advocacy groups.

What made this conference really special was the quality of the presentations. For example, the first panel was extraordinary in its perspectives and insights as it gave an engaging overview of the 1980s coram nobis cases that vacated (overturned) the WWII convictions of Fred Korematsu, Min Yasui and Gordon Hirabayashi. Professor Roger Daniels started the panel with a thoughtful historic perspective of the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans. SU Professor Lorraine Bannai, one of the lawyers from the Korematsu coram nobis team gave a clear and concise overview of the three cases. Professor Peter Irons gave a personal and often humorous accounting of the many “chance” events that led to winning the cases. Dale Minami, lead counsel of the Korematsu team talked about how a group that “looked like a bunch of teenagers” came together with a well-thought out strategy and formed three pro bono legal teams in San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. Peggy Nagae, lead counsel of the Min Yasui coram nobis legal team talked about the “case of a lifetime” in being able to work with and represent Min Yasui. Rod Kawakami, lead counsel of the Gordon Hirabayashi coram nobis legal team talked about the teamwork needed as they were the only team that had to prepare for a full trial. and then when the trials were complete, Gordon Hirabayashi being happy that they won but also disappointed that they didn't lose so they could appeal and go to the Supreme Court to reverse the decision.

I am excited about this new center in Seattle and look forward to working with them. Kudos to founding director Professor Bob Chang and assistant director Professor Lorraine Bannai for a great start!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Separated by generations, united in history

I have mixed reactions to this week's Seattle Times article about our Nisei vets. Densho admires their phenomenal courage, as documented in many interviews in our Digital Archive. Also documented are the insults they suffered upon returning home, like not being permitted to join the Veterans of Foreign Wars because of their racial ancestry.

The Seattle Times story about the Minnesota National Guard's 34th "Red Bull" Division honoring the Nisei vets is touching. I didn't know the two units served together. It seems soldiers have a sense of history. But the story's headline is what gives me pause. "Iraq-bound soldiers honor Nisei vets"? As a descendant of Mennonite pacifists, I have to ask myself why yet another generation of Americans is going off to war. War without end?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

One step forward...

Just when we are starting to feel optimistic about race relations in this country (who in Densho's extended family isn't thrilled with the diversity of the Obama cabinet?), we hear an anti-Asian news story that brings back that old sickening sensation. When will people learn that an American face does not necessarily have European features?

A friend on the medical school faculty of Dartmouth College told me about this story:

Dartmouth's new president, Dr. Jim Yong Kim, a Seoul-born Korean American, last month was named the first Asian American president of an Ivy League school. The list of Dr. Kim's accomplishments is too long for a blog. Very briefly, he's a world-renowned physician-anthropologist who teaches medicine and human rights at Harvard and leads global health efforts in poor countries.

So what does an anonymous student call this brilliant educator and humanitarian? "Chinaman."

Circulated in a daily enews was this "humorous" bit: "Yet another hard-working American's job will be taken away by an immigrant...Unless 'Jim Yong Kim' means 'I love Freedom' in Chinese, I don't want anything to do with him. Dartmouth is America, not Panda Garden Rice Village Restaurant...I for one want Democracy and apple pie, not Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen."

Right. Now, to get that nasty taste out of your mouth, here's an encouraging video of diverse Dartmouth students and faculty joyfully welcoming their new president. Meanwhile, it seems Densho needs to keep writing those civil liberties lessons.

Congratulations to Dr. Jim Yong Kim. A great American.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Raising Awareness

The front page article of yesterday's Seattle Times about Don Wakamatsu, the Mariner's new head coach and first Asian American major league baseball coach, was both remarkable and inspirational for several reasons. First of all, here it is the beginning of baseball season, the Mariners have a brand new coach and the return of the ever-popular Ken Griffey Jr. and yet, the front page article is all about the new coach's family history and especially his grandparents and their incarceration experience. What a great way to raise awareness of this chapter in our nation's past and show how it affected so many people's lives.

I take my hat (or cap) off to the new coach when I see the way he embraces his heritage and history and brings the incarceration issue to the forefront. With his position and notoriety, especially when it comes to sports, he could easily choose to highlight a number of other aspects of his life. His choices so far are showing signs of becoming an inspirational role model for speaking out on important issues.

One of the things that struck me in the article is the fact that Don admits he didn't know much about the WW II incarceration up until about 5 years ago. This comes from someone whose own family members were subjected to the forced exclusion, who you might expect would have learned something about it growing up. So imagine the chances of those who were not directly affected having learned about it in school.

Something we unfortunately hear far too often is what Don points out, "I didn't learn about internment in history class, that's for sure." This succinctly illustrates the importance of Densho's mission, to not only capture and preserve an archive of visual histories, but to help raise awareness so it is not forgotten and left out of history books.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

A New Resource

A few months ago the creator of a personal website asked for permission to use excerpts from the Camp Newspaper Collections. The camp papers have been a popular item ever since we introduced them into the Densho Digital Archive in 2007 with the help of a California Civil Liberties Public Education Program grant.

A recent visit to the site treated me to an inspiring glimpse into what someone with an enthusiastic interest in the subject might do with the information they collect from the archive. I was delighted to find myself oblivious to time as I navigated my way through this dynamic website.

The site creator is in the process of reading ALL of the camp newspapers in the Densho archive. As the camp papers are read, indexes and summaries are posted highlighting points of interest and including excerpts from the newspapers in a section titled Important Topics.

A larger section of this site is devoted to extensive information about the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII. Exploring this section titled Japanese American Internment Camps Index Page is like spending time with a well-informed friend who wants to share their research and spark your interest about this part of American history. What you will find here is a distillation of expansive sources of information resulting in an impressive presentation of facts, essays, reviews and synopses of books and films, and document summaries, all presented by a reporter who is not shy about offering an occasional opinion on the information being shared with you. You will also find a wealthy resource of links that will help you find your way to your own particular areas of interest.

Regarding citations or lack thereof in the presentation of the material, the webmaster clearly states that this is an informal site that has been created out of personal interest. People who need to cite resources are encouraged to conduct their own research and numerous links and book titles are provided, to be investigated by anyone motivated to do so.

It is mind boggling to consider just how much time has been and continues to be devoted to the collection and presentation of information for this thoughtful and ever expanding history portal. Warning: if you choose to visit this site, arrive with time to spare. Grab a snack, sit back in your chair and go to