Japanese American Internment

Asian Americans and U.S.-Asia Relations

A banner posted by a Japanese American store owner the day after Pearl Harbor.

A role-playing and discussion exercise on the Japanese American Internment in the 1940s.

Students will:

  • examine events and determine the factors which led to Japanese American internment
  • become aware of what took place during the Japanese American internment experience
  • discuss the impact of the internment experience on Japanese American families and individuals
  • develop a sense of empathy by simulating the situations which Japanese American children faced

Do you think that something similar to the Japanese American internment can happen again? Discuss current events—weren't individuals from Iraq suspected of espionage and watched closely during the Persian Gulf War? Do you think those fears could have escalated and resulted in serious action?

Why do you think Japanese American citizens were interned while citizens of Italian and German descent (who also looked like the enemy) were not?
Do you think Japanese Americans were fairly compensated by the U.S. government for their experience?


    This lesson is divided into four parts. Prior to each section, do not give an explanation of why or what students are doing. If students are curious, tell them they will find out later. Choose a few questions from the list in each section, or assign certain questions to different sections of the class.

    Part I: Writing Exercise

    Students will write a list of things we often take for granted—things that the Japanese Americans were deprived of during internment. Give students a few minutes to answer each question.

    • Write a list of all your possessions (including things like toothbrushes, underwear, etc.)
    • Write a list, by name, of all the people you enjoy spending time with, or people you see regularly (family members and other relatives, freinds, classmates, etc.).
    • Describe your daily routine - things you do regularly on a weekly or daily basis. (What, where, when, with whom do you do these things?)
    • Describe your bedroom. How big is it? Do you share it with anyone? What is in it?
    • How far is it (minutes/seconds, feet/yards or number of steps) from your bedroom to a) the bathroom; b) the kitchen; c) the dining room or place you eat?
    • How long does it take you to get something to eat in your house? Name some of your favorite foods.
    • What do you hear/see/smell outside the front door of your house?
    • Describe your pets, if you have any. Write something funny or interesting about your pet.

    Part II: Discussion

    Ask students to respond to situations similar to what Japanese Americans faced.

    Imagine you were going away—you don't know where, how long, or under what conditions. Out of the list you have made take anything you want and need, as long as you can carry them.

    • What would you take?
    • How would you feel?
    • Was it difficult/easy to decide what to take?
    • How would you feel about the things you had to leave behind?

    Imagine that you will not be able to see any of those special people again?

    • What would you do?
    • How would you feel?
    • Who will you miss the most and why?

    You cannot take your pet with you where you are going.

    • What do you do with it?
    • How do you feel?

    In your new "home," you smell horses and manure. You notice a barbed wire fence surrounds the buildings you and other people like you live in. And you see that you cannot get out.

    • What do you do or say?
    • How do you feel?

    Your new "home" is one room, where all of your family must live. There are only some cots to sleep on, nothing else.

    • How do you feel?
    • How does your room feel/smell?
    • How do you feel about living in this room?

    In your new "home," you cannot do any of the things you do regularly.

    • What things would you miss the most?

    Imagine getting up in the morning. You have to go to the bathroom, but you have to walk about a half a block to get there.

    • Describe the bathroom (100 people in your block of houses must use the same bathroom as you)
    • How do you feel?

    It's breakfast time, served exactly at 7 AM. If you miss breakfast, you must wait until noon for food. (You have no refrigerator, nor is there a store nearby.) You must walk outside of your "house" again to the Mess Hall to eat. You have to wait in line, along with about half of the hundred people who live in your block of buildings. You have to eat what is served in the Mess Hall. This morning, it is the usual powdered eggs and powdered milk, or oatmeal mush.

    • What do you choose?
    • How does it taste?

    Part III: Simulation

    Students will imagine returning to the original neighborhood from which they were forced to move. They experience hostility or sympathy and friendship.

    Situation: Three years after their internment, Japanese Americans were allowed to return to the West Coast, where they often faced signs that told them to "go back where they came from" or graffiti telling them they were not welcome. Someone else often occupied their former house and was reluctant to leave. But many times, kind and generous people offered their homes or helped them to find one and to find jobs.

    Procedure: Two volunteers will enact the following drama. The first student is occupying the second student's desk, while the second student had stood in the hallway on the teacher's orders. He/she has returned.

    Student #1: I have come back. This is my seat. Please give it back to me.
    Student #2: No, this is my seat now. If you liked it so much, why did you leave?
    Student #1: I had to. The teacher told me to.
    Student #2: What for?
    Student #1: I don't know.
    Student #2: Didn't you ask?
    Student #1: No. I just did what she told me to do. So please give it back to me.
    Student #2: Well, I'll have to think about it.

    Ask the students the following questions:

    • Do you think Student #1 should have his/her seat back? Why?
    • Do you think Student #2 will give up his/her seat? Why?
    • Do you think there is a way to work this out?
    • What would you do if you were Student #1?
    • What would you do if you were Student #2?

    Part IV: Reading and Discussion

    The readings are excerpts from Japanese American Journey edited by Florence Hongo (teachers can obtain copy of this book in their local library or order a copy from JACP at 800-874-2242). For elementary level students, teachers should read aloud in class the excerpts noted. For intermediate level students, teachers may assign the reading either to be read in class or for homework.

    Reading: Read pp. 3-11 (beginning with the section "The Calm is Broken" to the section "Again to Move" in the Japanese American Journey. Also read "The Return," pp. 53-55.

    Students will now likely identify with the fact that Japanese Americans were stripped of their homes, possessions, friends and sometimes, families. They didn't know they where they were going, or how long they would stay. They had to adopt to a new routine and a new, restricted way of life. When they returned "home," three years later, they were often met with acts of dicrimination and violence. But some people who understood what they had gone through, treated them with kindness and sympathy.

    Show photographs of the Japanese American internment experience. Encourage students to ask questions and discuss the event.

    Conclude the discussion by telling the students that, after close to fifty years, the U.S. government decided they had made a terrible mistake in putting Japanese Americans into camps. Each of the survivors was sent an apology and a check beginning in 1990. (Only half of the original camp population are now living, the majority are in their late 60's and 70's.)

    Additional questions for discussion

    • Do you think that something similar to the Japanese American internment can happen again? Discuss current events--are individuals who are suspected terrorists watched closely? Do you think terrorism fears can escalate and result in another internment citizens without a trial?
    • Why do you think Japanese American citizens were interned while citizens of Italian and German descent (who also looked like the enemy) were not?
    • Do you think Japanese Americans were fairly compensated by the U.S. government for their experience?

    Students studying the U.S. Constitution can discuss the Bill of Rights in the context of Japanese American internment. While keeping in mind that virtually all internees were American citizens, students should determine which of their constitutional rights were violated during the internment. Follow with class discussion.

    Middle School Extension

    Ask students to write a paper or prepare a presentation on the suspension of habeas corpus, including the analysis of at least two case studies. What has history taught us?

    Special thanks to the Sonoma County's Japanese American Citizen's League Curriculum Guide, The Japanese American Wartime Experience 1941-1945

    You Might Also Like