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What Would You Bring: Living the Japanese-American Internment Experience

Created by:
Michelle McDonald
Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

TAH Teachers
Greater Egg Harbor Regional School District

Japanese American Internment

Grade Level:
6 to 8


On December 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. The next day, the United States and Britain declared war on Japan. Two months later, on February 19, 1942, the lives of thousands of Japanese Americans were dramatically changed when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. The order designated the West Coast as a military zone from which any or all persons may be excluded. Although not specified in the order, Japanese Americans were singled out for evacuation, and between 1942 and 1946, nearly 122,000 men, women, and children of Japanese ancestry were evacuated and relocated on the west coast of the United States.

This lesson uses a variety of primary documents to explore the impact of these events on individuals and their ways of life. These include: two letters from Louise Ogawa, a high school student in California whose family was forced to relocate to various internment camps; two watercolors by Estelle Ishigo, a European-American artist born in Oakland, California, who chose to be interned in Wyoming's remote Lone Heart Mountain Relocation Center with her Japanese-American husband rather than be separated; and two photographs by renowned photographer Ansel Adams, who documented the experiences of Japanese Americans in Manzanar, an internment camp in California now operated as a National Park Historic Site.

Historical Context

From March 1942 to 1946, the U.S. War Relocation Authority (WRA) had jurisdiction over Japanese and Japanese Americans and ordered them to evacuate their homes in California, Oregon and Washington. Evacuated families left behind homes, businesses, pets, land, and most of their belongings. Taking only what they could carry, they arrived by bus and train to assembly centers--which had been hastily constructed on such facilities as race tracks and fairgrounds. Here they awaited reassignment to "relocation camps."

The WRA operated ten camps in remote areas of California, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Texas, and Arkansas. Although official government photographs were careful not to show it, these facilities were fenced with barbed wire and guarded by armed soldiers. The majority of Japanese-Americans interned--nearly 70,000, or almost 60%--were American citizens. Many of the rest were long-time residents who had lived in the United States between 20 and 40 years.

The order to prepare for the move left little time for packing, selling household goods, or locating safe storage for precious personal possessions. Allowed to take only what they could carry, Japanese Americans heading for the camps left behind toys, precious heirlooms or other personal treasures. Family pets were sometimes also abandoned or, if lucky, left with neighbors. "We were told to take only as much as we could carry in our two hands. How much could you carry in your two hands? One big suitcase...well, how can you really manage with a big stuffed suitcase?"

Anonymous, cited in the Smithsonian Museum of American History's online exhibition, "A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans and the U.S. Constitution."

With thousands of residents, internment camps inevitably became communities where families carried on with the details of daily life, adults worked, and children went to school. Most lived in barracks that were cramped and small. Privacy was hard to find as entire families lived in one room; sometimes cloth partitions were used to try to create separate spaces. Meals were group activities as well, served cafeteria-style in mess halls, and bathrooms, or outhouse latrines, often served up to a hundred people at a time.

In December 1944, President Roosevelt rescinded Executive Order 9066, and the WRA began a six-month process of releasing internees and shutting down the camps. In August 1945, the war was over. By 1946, the camps were closed and all of the internees had been released to rebuild their lives.


evacuation, internment, personal possessions, living conditions, discrimination

Goals and Objectives:

After completing this activity, students will be able to:

1. Obtain historical data through the use of primary source images and documents.

2. Describe elements of Japanese-American internment during World War II, through discussion and writing.

3. Develop a sense of historical understanding of the internees' experiences during Internment.

4. Learn that artists use elements of art to convey messages.


STANDARD 6.1 (Civics): All students will learn democratic citizenship and how to participate in the constitutional system of government of the United States.

STANDARD 6.2 (Civics): All students will learn democratic citizenship through the humanities, by studying literature, art, history, philosophy, and related fields.

STANDARD 6.3 (History): All students will acquire historical understanding of political and diplomatic ideas, forces, and institutions throughout the history of New Jersey, the United States, and the world.

Equipment, materials and other technology needed:

Chalkboard or white board on which to record student responses.

Appendices A through F, primary source letters, watercolors and photographs for analysis (provided at the end of this lesson plan).

If teachers opt to complete the follow-up activity, the excerpt about packing from Estelle Ishigo's unpublished memoir, Lone Heart Mountain (provided as Appendix G).

Appendix H, chronology of Japanese-American internment.

Details of Activity

PART 1: The Things of Everyday Life (15 min.):

Ask the class to describe a time in their lives when they have moved or have left their homes for a length of time.

Who made the decision to leave?

What did they take?

What did they miss?

How did they get along in their new situation?

Next divide students into six groups and assign two groups to each of the following questions.

1. What do you own? Write a list of all your possessions (including things like toothbrushes, underwear, etc.).

2. Whom do you spend time with? Write a list, by name, of all the people you enjoy spending time with, or people you see regularly (family members and other relatives, friends, classmates, etc.).

3. How would you describe your daily routine, things you do regularly on a weekly or daily basis (include what, where, when, with whom do you do these things)?

PART 2: Hard Choices--What to Pack (20-25 min.)

Now ask students to imagine that they were going away but haven't been told where, how long or under what conditions. If you have not done so already, divide students into small groups and let them know they will be exploring three of the questions they just answered in more depth. They will also need to make some hard choices. Ask each group to consider all three sets of questions below. Out of the list of goods created by the class from Question #1 of this activity, which goods would students most like to bring with them and why? Remind students they have to travel light--these things will need to be carried (in other words, they have to be relatively small--no beds or television sets!).

Provide each pair of groups the following questions to help guide their decisions. For those two answered Question #1:

What would you take?

How would you feel?

Was it difficult/easy to decide what to bring with you?

How would you feel about the things you had to leave behind?

Next ask students to consider the list of people developed in Question #2, and imagine that they will not be able to see any of those special people again:

What would you do?

How would you feel?

How could you try to stay in touch?

Who will you miss the most and why?

Finally, groups answering Question #3 should think about their homes and how they live, and consider that their new home, the one they just prepared to pack for, is one room, where all of their family must live:

How do you feel?

How does your room feel/smell?

How do you feel about living in this room?

PART 3: Historical Context (25 min.)

Up to this point, students have not been provided with the historical context for their decisions. Briefly summarize the information about Japanese internment provided in the introduction and historical context sections above. Explain that these were not abstract questions, but real dilemmas faced by people of Japanese-American descent between 1942 and 1946.

Have students remain in their group and use primary documents to compare the kinds of objects and style of life they imagined in Parts 1 and 2 of this activity to what Japanese Americans actually experienced.

Two of these documents (Appendices A and B) are letters written by Louise Ogawa, a high-school student in California who, with her family, was sent to live in a Japanese-internment camp in 1942. While she was there, she wrote a series of letters to Miss Breed, her former neighborhood librarian. The two groups that focused on Question #1 should use these primary documents should pay careful attention to what Louise writes about using and needing. What kinds of things does she ask Miss Breed to buy for her? How do such items compare to those things that students said they would have brought with them in Part 1 of this exercise?

Two of the other documents are photographs taken by professional photographer Ansel Adams (Appendices C and D). The first depicts the Tjo Miatake family's living room at Christmas-time, and the second a line for lunch. Students who answered Question #2 should use these sources should count how many family members appear in the first photograph, and compare the size of their living room to students' own homes. They should also consider in what circumstances they stand in line and how they would feel if such lines were required for every meal, for bathroom and shower use, and at laundry facilities. The second photograph, Appendix F, also provides a good sense of the size of buildings in the Manzanar internment camp. How large do they appear? How would students feel if they were unable to leave this camp to go elsewhere?

The final two documents for this exercise (Appendices E and F) are watercolors painted by Estelle Ishigo, a European-American artist born in Oakland, California, who chose to be interned in Wyoming's remote Lone Heart Mountain Relocation Center with her Japanese-American husband rather than endure separation. Her paintings reflect the struggle of many families to stay together despite hardship. Students who focused on Question #3 should use these primary sources should make lists of the objects Ishigo paints inside and outside an internment barrack. Ask them to consider whether this feels like a home, and why or why not. What emotions do they think the artist was trying to convey?

PART 4: Concluding Discussion (10 min.)

Ask each group to share a summary of their particular primary document and how it helped them understand the experiences of Japanese Americans during internment. Record student input on the board.

Practice and Reinforcement

Read the excerpt from Estelle Ishigo's unpublished memoir Lone Heart Mountain describing Japanese Americans packing for their voyage, available as Appendix G.

Then ask students, If you had to follow these orders today, what would you pack? Students will then write a detailed list of the items they would take based on Ishigo's memoir. Their list can include additional items, but their suitcase or parcel must remain light enough for them to carry it.

If teachers wish to make the experience more tangible, they could bring in a suitcase so students can visualize the actual space available. In addition to creating a list, teachers might also ask students to work in groups to create a three-dimensional pack of their belongings, bringing items from home.


This lesson plan is adapted from the Japanese American Citizens League Curriculum and Resource Guide (http://www.jacl.org/), the California Civil Liberties Public Education Program (CCLPEP) and materials developed for the Smithsonian Museum of American History's exhibition "A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans and the U.S. Constitution," (http://americanhistory.si.edu/perfectunion/resources/activity1.html).

See the following resources for more information about each of the following areas:

The Japanese-American internment experience, see: Organization of American Historians Magazine, Special Issue: "World War II Homefront," Spring 2002, especially the article by Roger Daniels, http://www.oah.org/pubs/magazine/ww2homefront/ww2homefront.pdf.

Miss Breed and the Japanese-American children who wrote to her, see the following two online exhibitions: Japanese American National Museum, http://www.janm.org and Smithsonian Institution, "Letters from the Japanese American Internment," http://www.smithsonianeducation.org/educators/lesson_plans/japanese_internment/index.html.

The art and writing of Estelle Ishigo, visit the Japanese American Relocation Digital Archives, http://www.calisphere.universityofcalifornia.edu/jarda/browse/personal-experiences.html.

The internment photographs by Ansel Adams: Library of Congress, "Ansel Adam's Photographs of Japanese-American Internment at Manzanar:" http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/collections/anseladams/aamsp.html.

Supplementary Materials








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