Internment lessons stir protest

Parents cite an anti-government bias in the year-old program at Sakai School.

Lessons to sixth-graders on the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II have inspired the objections of some island parents, who told the school board last week that the curriculum borders on “propaganda.”

Parent Mary Dombrowski and several others appeared before the school board last week to criticize “Leaving Our Island,” a social studies unit developed by long-time Sakai Intermediate School teacher Marie Marrs with a $17,000 grant from the Washington Civil Liberties Public Education program.

The parents charged that the internment is being taught out of context, spends too long on a single facet of World War II, and presents material too complex for the grade level.

The lessons, they said, have a bias against the United States government and the policies of the current administration.

“The events of 1942 are being used to criticize the Patriot Act,” said islander and former teacher Dombrowski, who made a 15-minute presentation to the board. “This teaching unit rises to the level of propaganda.”

The teaching unit was slated for two weeks last February but was expanded to a month of intermittent study.

It used “experiential” projects to explain the removal of the island’s residents of Japanese heritage during World War II.

Bainbridge residents were the first Japanese Americans to be removed inland when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 two months after Pearl Harbor; the order excluded people of Japanese descent from occupying “militarily sensitive” Pacific Coast areas.

While the exclusion has generally come to be seen as unjustified, recent revisionist history has been fueled by former Seattle Times columnist Michelle Malkin’s book “In Defense of Internment,” and David Lowman’s “MAGIC: The Untold Story of U.S. Intelligence and the Evacuation of Japanese Residents From The West Coast During WWII.”

The authors contend that the internment was justified in light of “a widespread domestic Japanese threat” by Japanese nationals and sympathizers.

Frank Kitamoto, president of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American community, who was present at the school board meeting Aug. 26, defended the Sakai curriculum.

The lessons included student interviews with islanders of Japanese descent who shared first-hand memories of the camps, and construction of a model of the huts at Manzanar, the relocation center to which most islanders were removed.

Students visited related historic island sites, read biographies and fiction and created a video on the internment.

“I think the main problem is (their) not seeing the goals and reasons to have this program at Sakai,” Kitamoto said of those objecting to the curriculum. “The real reason is to have students be comfortable with differences, to help them develop feelings of self-worth and self-identity.

“They see it as an attack on the (U.S.) government.”

Islander Beverly Robinson, who also attended the meeting, said the insularity of Japanese Americans may have contributed to the perception that they were a threat.

“They would not assimilate with the other nationalities, and that, in itself, will feed fear and distrust,” she said.

Kitamoto says he believes it was logical for the Japanese community to turn inward for support.

“The thing is not to let fear block relationships,” he said. “When we are fearful we tend to do things to protect ourselves and instill fear in others, rather than to see their viewpoints.”

The school board, while acknowledging that “Leaving Our Island” will likely be streamlined as the curriculum is refined, praised the program overall.

School board president Bruce Weiland drew the line at presenting a “balanced view” that might suggest that the removal was justified, pointing out that the United States government, through such actions as rescinding Executive Order 9066 and paying reparations to survivors has clearly indicated that it was not.

“At some point an idea becomes so much a part of our culture that we don’t question it,” Weiland said. “We’re not going to present a ‘balanced view’ on an issue like slavery, where there is no argument that it was anything other than wrong.”

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