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Over the last ten years, Densho has collected hundreds of hours of video testimony and tens of thousands of historical images. From the Archive is a monthly feature that highlights primary sources from the Densho Digital Archive to illustrate themes in Japanese American history. We hope that it will give you a sense of the rich depth of materials in the Archive. To access the entire collection, simply register for a free user account.


October 2007 - Lessons in Democracy: The Education of Japanese Americans

Schoolchildren and teachers at Manzanar (from denshopd-i39-00038)
"It makes me a little teary-eyed because I think of the irony of learning the Pledge of Allegiance while being behind barbed wire fences."
   -- May Sasaki

Nisei students, the U.S.-born children of Japanese immigrants, carried their parents' language and customs into the classroom but absorbed American values from lessons taught in school. Like other young Americans, they studied the principles of democracy and learned the rights of citizenship, rights denied to their Issei parents because of discriminatory laws. Densho interviewee George Yoshida recalls the principal at Seattle's Bailey Gatzert Elementary School stressing his status as a U.S. citizen, even as he felt self-conscious about his Japanese heritage:


Bailey Gatzert was neat in that again, it was a place where there were friends there, Japanese faces where we didn't have to worry about what we ate or whatever. We, I guess we took sandwiches to, to school, peanut butter or sandwich meat with some lettuce and maybe fruit. We did not take rice balls, as many kids do nowadays because we were ashamed to take something like that because of the Americanization that started to take place slowly. Ms. Mahon was our principal. Rather short but very much -- I think she really enjoyed providing, not formal Americanization lessons but to teach us what we are, American citizens. And becoming more Americanized. And I didn't resent that at all. She didn't say, "You're not Japanese." But she encouraged us to speak English.

To their dismay, Nisei students of all ages discovered how worthless their citizenship was after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and President Roosevelt's executive order to remove them from school, home, and their very sense of themselves as Americans. By spring 1942, thousands of school desks were vacated as Japanese Americans were forcibly moved from the West Coast and into incarceration camps.

The quickly constructed "assembly centers," or first stage of detention camps, were not prepared to teach schoolchildren. Makeshift classrooms, improvised furniture, and volunteer Nisei teachers had to do. Teachers recruited from outside later worked side by side with detainees. One teacher interviewed by Densho, Helen Manning, recounts an awkward episode at Minidoka incarceration camp:

I don't think I'd ever confronted the issue head-on. But when we started the workshop of the faculty and the cadet teachers, the Nisei, who were to be assistant teachers, was the day they started blasting for the foundations of the watchtowers. Well, those dynamite blasts just reverberated through the building, and of course, it just underscored the humiliation of the cadet teachers. And we could see they were quite upset. Finally they asked us, "Well, what do you think about relocation, the evacuation?" And when the teachers said, "Well, we don't think they should have taken the American citizens," the tension was broken, and we could turn then to discussing education. So that was my first real confrontation of it.

Because the median age of the Nisei was seventeen, thousands were prohibited from attending college by the mass detention. Their futures were put on hold as they waited in uncertainty at remote incarceration camps. Concerned university officials and religious groups (primarily the Quakers) formed the National Student Relocation Council to transfer Nisei out of the camps and enroll them in colleges willing to accept Japanese Americans. The arduous process required the volunteer group to overcome both resistance in surrounding communities and bureaucratic hurdles set up by the War Relocation Authority. The government paid no expenses beyond transportation, and the Nisei students had to support themselves once admitted to colleges far from their homes. Eventually the program placed some 4,300 students in college.

Densho interviewee Louise Kashino left camp at seventeen to pursue curtailed plans for her education through the perseverance of her mother.

Well, this, again, it was my mother that had all these plans for me and she felt that I had already graduated and spent one year without doing anything except just working as a waitress. So she wanted me to get out and start my career or my education. And she would have wanted me to go to college, but I, with the uncertainty we had, I couldn't see going to a four-year college. And at that time had my, they had no, they didn't want me to be working if I'm going to go to school. So I think it was the same $2,000 that they got for the grocery store that they gave me, they must have withdrawn out of the bank. And I remember my mother had gotten a check and she pinned it onto my bra -- [laughs] -- and that's how I went out of camp…My mother wanted me to go to a four-year college, but I couldn't see going with the situation that they were in. I'd have no idea what, when they would be able to earn money to send me to school. So I made an agreement with my mother that I'll go for one year, business school. And that was what my goal was, at least, and if I learned how to type I could maybe find a job. So I tried at the Gregg Shorthand School to get in, and they wouldn't admit me because I was Japanese and then I got some other referrals and was able to sign up at this Chicago Commercial College. And being it was a small college, it was like one-to-one teacher and student. So I got a very good education as far as business courses. My shorthand -- I think in shorthand all the time.

An additional insult to their citizenship came for the Nisei in early 1943, when the government required them to fill out a questionnaire that would determine their designation as loyal or disloyal. Some declined - in anger or protest - to swear unqualified allegiance to the United States and to willingly serve in the military. Another 33,000 Nisei did serve, incurring nearly 10,000 casualties, even as their families remained behind barbed wire. Helen Manning comments on how the Nisei applied their lessons in democracy to this harsh test:

And I never met a high school student that didn't consider himself an American, and didn't look forward to going back out, at least among the older kids the first year. Now, after three years in camp, it changed a little bit. But never, even in the third year, did I get the feeling that any student of mine considered himself anything but an American citizen. And when I think about it, the assignment that we should be teaching "love of country" to students who had been uprooted from their homes, transferred from the green Northwest to the Idaho desert, plunked down in primitive conditions and kept behind barbed wire, and their older brothers told, classified by the military as mentally or morally unfit for service, who were we to teach them "love of country"? We didn't need to, because when it came time for the "loyalty oaths" and volunteering, even the people who refused to volunteer for the military did it on American principles. And then there was the other side who said, "If we volunteer, we'll prove our loyalty." What could the teachers do that would be better than that?


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