[HISTORY] Internment is Questioned
- Internment Lesson Plan Is Under Attack
A school program teaches that confining Japanese Americans was a
mistake. Some want it to include the opinion that it was just.
By Tomas Alex Tizon, Times Staff Writer
BAINBRIDGE ISLAND, Wash. More than six decades ago, this tranquil
island in Puget Sound became roiled in conflict after hundreds of
Japanese American residents were forced off the island into World
War II internment camps. Neighbors argued, sometimes violently, over
the rightness of targeting an entire population based on race.
The argument has surfaced here again, this time over a sixth-grade
social studies program that teaches, among other things, that the
internment of 110,000 to 120,000 Japanese Americans in the 1940s was
A group of residents is demanding that the school board change the
program so that it includes different opinions, including the view
that the internment was justified. The group also wants to omit
discussions that hint at parallels between the internment and the
U.S. Patriot Act. Some members say they are prepared to pursue legal
action, if necessary.
School officials would consider making "refinements" to the program,
but "the basic tenor would remain the same," said Bruce Weiland,
president of the Bainbridge Island School Board. The overall message
would continue to be that "the internment was a mistake, that it was
illegal and it was a tragedy."
Weiland and others said that view was shared by most scholars and
the U.S. government, which issued a formal apology and reparations
to surviving internees. For many supporters of the program, the
debate has long been settled.
The new conflict began after a social studies teacher at Sakai
Intermediate School (named after a local man who was interned) won a
$17,000 state grant to teach about the internment and how it
affected the residents of Bainbridge Island, which is a half-hour
ferry ride from Seattle and has a population of about 20,000.
The program, called Leaving Our Island, was first taught in February
as part of a U.S. history class. Students went to a museum, wrote
haiku, built an internment barracks and interviewed local Japanese
Americans who had been evacuated. The program was supposed to last
two weeks, but instead went on for about a month.
Early this year, some parents expressed concern that too much time
was being devoted to only one aspect of the war. Private discussions
between parents and teachers continued through the year. As
preparations were being made this summer for the start of the new
school year, the discussions heated up.
A handful of parents aired their concerns at a school board meeting
late last month, and the group attracted others, including some
World War II veterans, as news of the rift spread. A public meeting
Thursday drew a capacity crowd and elicited an outpouring of
arguments for and against the program. The majority of the estimated
40 speakers expressed support. But opponents drew the most
"I firmly believe that the teaching unit in question rises to the
level of propaganda," said Mary Dombrowski, who has a daughter in
the sixth grade. The program, she told the board, must "allow
students to hear from those who believe that internment was not a
Dombrowski cited a current bestselling book that defended the
internment, in part because the government believed at the time that
there was a network of Japanese spies on the West Coast. (A recent
statement signed by 39 historians and researchers, including faculty
from Stanford and Harvard universities, called the book "distorted"
and "historically inaccurate.")
Dombrowski said she had received many calls of support from the
island and all over the country, but that many were afraid to come
Resident James Olsen called the program "an example of an agenda-
based curriculum that is designed to lead our 11-year-old Sakai
students to hate America."
Olsen said the school's policy dictated that discussions of
controversial subjects must include opposite viewpoints. "A demand
will be made that they adhere to their stated process of dealing
with controversial issues," he said. "Otherwise, steps can be taken.
School districts and school boards sometimes find themselves in
Many supporters expressed incredulity that the issue was being
debated. "To me, the debate has already come to a conclusion," said
Clarence Moriwaki, a member of Bainbridge's Japanese American
Moriwaki, who heads a group that is working on building a $4-million
memorial to the island's internees, said some ideas, such as
slavery, are no longer debatable.
"No reasonable person today believes it's justified to have people
as property," he said. The internment of thousands of American
citizens who did nothing wrong "is the same kind of thing: it is no
Japanese began immigrating to the island in the late 19th century,
working as laborers, mill workers and farmers. At the outset of
World War II, Bainbridge had a thriving Japanese American
Executive Order 9066, enacted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt
shortly after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, was deemed a
military necessity to protect against domestic espionage and
On March 30, 1942, between 227 and 270 (the numbers are disputed)
Japanese Americans on the island became the first group in the
nation to be evacuated. Families were split. Many lost livelihoods,
homes and their life savings. Most of the Bainbridge evacuees were
sent to Manzanar War Relocation Center, a camp near California's
In 1976, President Gerald Ford declared the evacuation wrong.
A federal commission in 1983 concluded that the internment of
Japanese civilians, two-thirds of them born in the United States,
was "motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria and a
failure of political leadership."
In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill that awarded $1.2
billion in reparations to about 60,000 surviving detainees, who
received about $20,000 each. The bill also set up a $1.25-billion
trust fund. Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton issued
formal apologies to survivors.