Internment: It’s not on the blackboard

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Times staff writer

To teach children, you first need to teach the teachers -- it’s this axiom that got Esther Taira thinking a few years back about creating a multimedia program to help educators understand the World War II-era internments of 120,000 mostly West Coast Japanese Americans.

Such projects don’t come cheap. And the Los Angeles Unified School District, where Taira taught high school history, didn’t have the money. But an obscure program run by the California State Library did and, from 1998 to 2000, gave Taira $80,000 to produce and distribute 1,000 “Building Connections” CDs and hold workshops for fellow teachers.

Because the program has no mechanism for tracking projects once the grant cycle ends, no one -- including Taira -- can say how many of those CDs were ever used in classrooms or whether her project has enriched young Californians’ understanding of what happened in their own neighborhoods more than 60 years ago.


Still, Taira and others are convinced that the $80,000 was money well spent. The grant was part of $6 million the California Civil Liberties Public Education Project has invested to illuminate for schoolchildren and others this dark time in the history of U.S. civil rights. Over the last seven years, about 200 ventures have slowly built a historical and cultural record consisting of oral histories, memoirs, photos, museum exhibits and more.

Many think the lessons have gained fresh relevance in the current debate over post-Sept. 11 detentions of more than 1,200 Arab Americans in the U.S. and incarcerations at Guantanamo Bay.

“This is not a new occurrence,” said Diane Matsuda, the program’s first director and current head of the California Cultural and Historical Endowment. “We always have to be on top of and aware of anything that may violate civil liberties and the civil rights of any individual, so we can stop the segmentation of populations.”

The program, known by the acronym CCLPEP (pronounced “CEE-clep”), traces its roots to early-1980s efforts by Japanese American activists to persuade the federal government to make reparations to thousands of families displaced by the 1942 roundup that occurred two months after the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor and to get those who experienced the internments to talk about that history.

Congress was persuaded, and President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, granting $20,000 in reparations to each surviving former internee, and issued a formal government apology. Over the next three years, the federal government also spent about $5 million on projects to preserve some of the internment-camp legacy, said Don T. Nakanishi, director of UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center and a member of the board that oversaw the reparations program.

After the federal funding dried up, Nakanishi said, activists persuaded California state legislators in 1998 to set aside $1 million to continue building a historical record, a project that was renewed each year at the same funding level until 2003, when the moneys were cut in half. But the project achieved more permanence by being added to the California State Library budget. (Information is avail-able through the program’s website,


The program has helped launch or complete a wide and disjointed range of projects, including children’s books, curriculum guides, plays, music performances, museum exhibits and oral histories. Most of the projects, including several curriculum guides developed through the Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education, are tied to the program’s mission to create educational materials.

“The CCLPEP grants have been invaluable,” said Gary Mukai, director of the Stanford program. “It’s difficult to secure funding from private foundations and other organizations to develop curriculum on Japanese American internment.”

Other projects -- such as the commissioning of a symphony by Berkeley Symphony Orchestra conductor Kent Nagano and the encasement by an artist of internment artifacts in 5-gallon domes of glass -- stretch the definition of educational material. But Matsuda, the former director, said that such a diverse approach helps to extend the program’s reach.

“We all don’t learn through formal curriculum or print media,” said Matsuda, who cited a project in which Japanese women took part in quilting projects with non-Japanese, rural U.S. quilters, bringing the theme to an audience that might have missed some of the more traditional projects. “If we can find a variety of approaches and angles to educate and share this information, it’s going to be used by a bunch of different folks.”

The 2005-06 funding cycle has focused on preserving information about former Japantowns, most of which disappeared with the internments or in urban redevelopment projects, said Kaz Maniwa, chair of the California Japanese American Leadership Council in San Francisco. The council received a $247,000 grant to help identify and preserve Japanese American communities through the creation of historic maps, walking tours, plaques and other markers in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Jose.

“Historically, when you discuss preservation, you’re talking about saving some elegant building or some special facility,” said Maniwa, a San Francisco lawyer. “In this case, we’re talking about preserving entire communities.”


The disparate funding reflects a shotgun approach that even supporters acknowledge has created a disorderly universe of projects that relatively few members of the general public know exists.

Program director Elaine Yamaguchi said the next round of projects will try to bridge that gap.

“We’ve started to develop a significant and really valuable body of work,” Yamaguchi said recently in Gardena as she prepared to explain the program to potential applicants. But “we’re not at all certain how successful we’ve been at getting them into the classroom and libraries. And even if they are, not all teachers are aware that they exist. And librarians don’t have a really good catalog to work from.”

Many of those who do know about the variety of material produced under the program are not well versed in how to use it or in the nuances of internment history. Few people, for example, are aware that the federal government had created a list of potential detainees well before the attack on Pearl Harbor. From the perspective of many, the internments were more a function of racism than military need, which is how it was justified at the time.

And there is no coordination between the program and the state Department of Education, which sets the standards for what materials students should know by a given grade level.

Under the current standards, students are taught about the internments in 11th grade as part of a chronological approach to history, said Susan Martimo, administrator for the state’s curriculum frameworks unit.


Yet most students are introduced to the topic in earlier grades, often through language arts courses with such books as “Farewell to Manzanar,” popular assigned reading for middle-schoolers.

In 2001-02, a $30,000 grant funded a project spearheaded by Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante’s office to distribute “Manzanar” and an accompanying reading guide to schools.

Still, fewer than 40 of the 200 or so projects receiving state grants are specifically aimed at school-age audiences, and those targeting 11th-graders amount to a handful. Even those projects rarely get into classrooms, and other projects aimed at wider audiences, such as short films and documentaries, rarely get wide distribution in California.

“The curricular material,” Nakanishi said, “somehow we need to figure out a way to get it to teachers.”