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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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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
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 HarborDespite 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 CampAfter 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.”

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

For use in a virtual classroom environment:

Classroom Activity 1: Step In, Step Out, Step Back

Purpose: To give students practice in reflecting on their own perspective and thinking about someone else’s perspective on an experience or event.

Step In, Step Out, Step Back is a thinking routine adapted from Harvard Project Zero’s Thinking Routine Toolbox

Thinking routines are simple strategies that teachers can use to cultivate thinking and deepen learning for students.

Step In, Step Out, Step Back is a routine that helps students gain experience in the challenging cognitive and emotional task of taking someone else’s perspective. “Standing in someone else’s shoes” helps students avoid making stereotypes and projecting their own values and beliefs onto others and gain appreciation for the value of multiple perspectives.

See Activity 1 instructions here.

Classroom Activity 2: See, Think, Wonder

Purpose: To encourage students to look carefully at visual media, and to make thoughtful observations and interpretations.

See, Think, Wonder is a thinking routine adapted from Harvard Project Zero’s Thinking Routine Toolbox.

Thinking routines are simple strategies that teachers can use to cultivate thinking and deepen learning for students.

See, Think, Wonder is a thinking routine that encourages students to make careful observations and thoughtful interpretations. It helps stimulate curiosity and promote critical thinking.  

A World War II era photograph by well-known photographer, Dorothea Lange, is used for this lesson. The photograph shows a boarded up store in Oakland, CA that is for sale. The store owner was a Japanese American University of California graduate. The owner placed the “I Am An American” sign on the storefront on December 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor. Soon after, all Japanese Americans living on the West Coast were forcibly removed to temporary detention centers, then to concentration camps. They were forced to rent, sell or abandon their homes, businesses, and other property, often with only a few days’ notice.

See Activity 2 Instructions here

Classroom Activity 3: The Power of Words

Purpose: To help students think critically about the language used to name or describe experiences or events.

This activity examines how language shapes our perception of events and how it can be used to manipulate our thoughts and feelings. It is based on Densho’s article on Terminology and explores the euphemisms used to describe the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.

See Activity 3 instructions here


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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Create and share a new lesson based on this one.

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

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