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Ugly history: Japanese American incarceration camps - Densho

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On December 7, 1941, 16 year-old Aki Kurose shared in the horror of millions of Americans when Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor. Unbeknownst to her, this shared experience would soon leave her family and over 120,000 Japanese Americans alienated from their country, both socially and physically. Densho explores the racism and paranoia that led to the unjust internment of Japanese Americans.

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TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Densho
  • Director Lizete Upīte
  • Narrator Addison Anderson
  • Sound Designer Ģirts Bišs
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Associate Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Associate Editorial Producer Dan Kwartler
  • Script Editor Alex Gendler
  • Fact-checker Eden Girma
  • See more
Additional Resources for you to Explore

Dig Deeper into understanding the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans through oral history and other primary sources paired here with activities designed for the middle school or high school classroom. These learning activities will help students engage with the history and think critically about how the past can inform understandings of the present.

Pre-War & Pearl Harbor
Despite facing prejudice and discriminatory laws, thousands of Japanese immigrants came to the United States starting in the mid-1800s. By the time Aki was born in 1925, there were thousands of Japanese American workers, farmers, business owners, and others building lives in the US. Watch: A Community Grows, Despite Racism

When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 the government retaliated against Japanese Americans even though a decade of surveillance proved there was no reason to suspect they posed any harm to the US. Even so, Japanese community leaders were rounded up by the army, FBI, and local police without any charges (and often with no warrants). These individuals were usually told they would be gone a few hours, but many of them were detained for the entire war. Watch: Aki Kurose talks about facing discrimination the day after Pearl Harbor

Classroom activity I: Phrase/Word Thinking Routine 
- Activity instructions
Aki Kurose oral history transcript I
Classroom demo

Classroom activity II: Found Poem (this activity builds on the Phrase/Word activity)
Activity instructions
Classroom demo

Media Representations and Minidoka Concentration Camp
After Pearl Harbor, media portrayals of Japanese Americans helped to stoke anti-Japanese sentiment. This classroom activity will help your students look closely at primary source images and make interpretations based on evidence.

Classroom activity: Zoom In
-Activity Instructions
-Powerpoint slideshow to facilitate the activity
-Classroom demo

In February 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the forcible removal of Japanese American men, women, and children from “exclusion zones” on the West Coast. Most were first held in temporary detention facilities and then relocated to more permanent concentration camps that had been quickly constructed in desolate areas of California, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, and Arkansas. More than 120,000 Japanese Americans were imprisoned, two-thirds of whom were US citizens. Watch: American Concentration Camps

Aki and her family were incarcerated first at the Puyallup Fair Grounds outside of Seattle and, later, in the Minidoka concentration camp in Idaho. As a teenage girl, the lack of privacy and the disruption of family time posed some of the biggest challenges. 

Watch: Aki remembers life at Minidoka “The thing I felt most was the lack of privacy.” http://ddr.densho.org/interviews/ddr-densho-1000-41-21/?tableft=segments

Japanese American responses to WWII incarceration varied greatly. Some chose to prove their loyalty to the US by signing up to join the army. Others resisted incarceration and pursued legal challenges. Watch: Japanese American Responses to Incarceration

Post-War America and Finding Empowerment Through Peace
After graduating from high school at Minidoka, Aki was granted leave to attend Friends University, a Quaker College in Wichita, Kansas. She later married and resettled in Chicago, along with thousands of other Japanese Americans as they were released from the camps. It would be decades before activists were able to win an official apology and redress from the US government. Watch Righting a Wrong

By the time she made her way back to Seattle and enrolled her six children in school, the civil rights movement was in full swing. Aki and her family faced ongoing discrimination and she saw the way other communities had been impacted by racism too, but she found peace through her commitment to activism.  Watch Aki talk about finding empowerment through peace

Classroom Activity: Group quilt and examining what inspires our own commitment to action
Activity description
Aki Kurose oral history transcript II

Additional Resources
-Short films on Japanese American history before, during, and after WWII.
-Teaching Japanese American History withPrimary Sources (free online course for educators)
-Densho Encyclopedia
-Densho Guide to Media on the Japanese American Removal and Incarceration


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About TED-Ed Animations

TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Densho
  • Director Lizete Upīte
  • Narrator Addison Anderson
  • Sound Designer Ģirts Bišs
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Associate Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Associate Editorial Producer Dan Kwartler
  • Script Editor Alex Gendler
  • Fact-checker Eden Girma
  • See more