Internment still fires passions

History came alive at Thurs­day’s school board meeting, as the events of 62 years ago – the internment of Bainbridge’s Japanese American residents – provoked passionate debate.

The overwhelming majority of a crowd 100 strong that included Japanese Americans, World War II veterans, educators and students cheered the school board for supporting “Leaving Our Island,” lessons to sixth-graders on the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, curriculum that has been the subject of criticism by several community members.

“You are doing a fantastic job,” islander and long-time teacher Nelson Spickard said. “You’ve created a hands-on, vital, process-driven curriculum that touches at the heart of what it means to be a citizen.”

Noting that the board had already given the nod to the curriculum for next year, president Bruce Weiland reaffirmed that the board will continue to support “Leaving Our Island.”

Developed with a $17,000 grant from the Washington Civil Liberties Public Education program, the program has rankled several parents, who voiced public objections at the Aug. 26 school board meeting and returned Thursday to restate objections.

Mary Dombrowski, a Sakai parent who met several times with district administrators after the curriculum was taught last February, reiterated her belief that the removal of the Japanese American population was not a mistake motivated by racism but a military necessity, and that a one-sided presentation of the curriculum reflects teacher bias.

Her criticism was seconded by her husband, James M. Olsen, who called the emphasis on the relocation an “anti-intellectual, politically correct, cottage industry that equates WWII Japanese relocation with the great mistakes of history.”

“The curriculum is agenda-based,” he said. “It’s leading our 11-year olds to hate and mistrust our government of FDR and the government of George Bush, John Ashcroft and the Patriot Act.”

Olsen and Dombrowski’s views were countered by islander Jerry Nakata, who was interned during the war. Nakata praised then-Bainbridge Review editor Walt Woodward opposing the internment during the war.

“It was a racial situation,” Nakata said. “The only reason we were forced to leave the island was because we looked like the enemy. The only guilt I had was my face.”

While Weiland reaffirmed that the board will not ask Sakai staff to change the curriculum, he said “refinements” are being considered. The program may be shortened, and taught without comparisons between the internment and contemporary events.

“It’s not the school’s role to tell kids if the Patriot Act is good or bad,” Weiland said. “There are historical events which, with the perspective of time we have a clear understanding of them. (With) more recent issues, where opinions are deeply divided, it’s not for the school district to provide value judgments.

“The point is this: the Japanese internment has been clearly settled as a grave injustice, and that’s how we will teach it on Bainbridge Island.”

But some were dismayed at what they viewed as waffling, and asked the school board not to pull back from encouraging open classroom discussion of parallels between the removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast and contemporary events.

“Of course there is a connection between 1942 and today,” Iver MacDougall said. “It must not be censored. There are people in jail, we don’t even know who they are. There are Constitutional implications, and the kids must be able to discuss it.”

Frank Kitamoto, president of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community and another internee, said that not having history repeat itself is a key aim of the “Leaving Our Island” lesson.

“Anytime you loosen the Constitutional rights of some people, you risk it happening again,” he said.

For Woodward seventh-grader Bjorn Ostling, who turned out to support the “Leaving Our Island” lessons he studied last year at Sakai, questions about the curriculum were moot.

“I didn’t get any bias,” Ostling said. “We (students) just used our heads. We figured if you’re sent to a barracks like those used by the Army and you’re a little 6-year-old kid and you can only bring what you can fit in a backpack, it’s wrong.”

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