May 9, 2022
By Jude McElroy
On April 11, students in Ms. Pastor’s English II-Honors class took a virtual field trip to the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles to learn about the injustices Japanese Americans have faced throughout history.
The tour specifically addressed Japanese American incarceration, which occurred in the aftermath of the bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941. This was the immediate cause of America’s entry into World War II, and at that point, hostility against Japanese Americans skyrocketed.
On Feb. 19, 1942, then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which allowed the government to remove those who present a threat to national security from their homes to relocation centers. General John DeWitt used Executive Order 9066 to move all Japanese Americans living within the exclusion zone on the West Coast into 10 concentration camps across seven states. In total, over 120,000 Japanese Americans remained in these camps until as late as 1946, with not a single documented act of espionage, sabotage or treason.
Prior to their virtual visit to the museum, Pastor’s students read “Farewell to Manzanar,” the 1973 memoir of Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, who was incarcerated in the Manzanar concentration camp in California when she was a child.
The virtual tours, which were conducted via Zoom, took place during Pastor’s English classes and were led by Nina Nakao and Sohayla Pagano, who are educators at the Japanese American National Museum.
Nakao, a fourth-generation Japanese American, joined the museum’s Education Department over three years ago after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in political science from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York.
“I was driven to JANM because of its mission, which is to promote understanding and appreciation of America’s ethnic and cultural diversity by sharing the Japanese American experience,” Nakao said. “I wanted to serve the Japanese American community through education.”
Nakao said a message she strives to convey during her tours is that history can repeat itself if advocates, allies and upstanders do not intervene.
“It’s important to learn the story of Japanese Americans because it teaches us what can happen when democracy is fractured, and racism overtakes the judgment and safeguards of a healthy democracy,” Nakao said.
Nakao said leading virtual tours has allowed her to connect with students, and she continues to learn more about Japanese American incarceration and students’ perspectives by dialoguing with them in the chat. She said when creating the tour curriculum, the Education Department felt strongly that the virtual tours, which became available in October 2020, be interactive for the participants.
Nakao said her favorite aspect of the virtual tour is the Zoom poll function.
“Students can vote on a theme, [such as] immigration, community, injustice, loyalty, resistance, civil rights and change, in relation to the artifacts, images and documents that we highlight,” Nakao said.
Sophomore Gabriel Diaz said he appreciated the interactive nature of the tour, as he was able to learn about what his classmates were thinking by reading the chat.
“You were able to see so many different viewpoints on certain questions and how people interpreted something,” Diaz said.
“It’s important to learn the story of Japanese Americans because it teaches us what can happen when democracy is fractured, and racism overtakes the judgment and safeguards of a healthy democracy.”
He said he was most surprised to learn how quickly the barracks at the incarceration sites had been constructed.
“They asked us how long it took to build a single barrack. I guessed it took a month, but everyone had a different answer. It actually took [less than] an hour. It’s really surprising to see how makeshift everything was,” Diaz said.
He said the tour helped him better understand the significance of “Farewell to Manzanar.”
“Having the description is one thing, but seeing the pictures of the barracks helps let you know that people lived there for years. Seeing the gaps in the walls and thinking that people just lived life here for as long as they did really put it into perspective,” Diaz said.
Sophomore Rola Mustafa said she appreciated being able to learn about Japanese American incarceration from a guide who has been studying the topic for years.
“I genuinely learned a lot more than I thought I would,” Mustafa said.
She said the virtual tour left her interested in learning more about Japanese American incarceration.
“There’s no end to the [number] of questions [I] have about something like this,” Mustafa said.
Mustafa said moving forward, she is interested in increasing her knowledge about Japanese culture and how parents went about teaching their children about their heritage amidst World War II and wrongful imprisonment in the United States.
Mustafa said she is especially curious about the phrase “Shikata ga nai,” which translates to mean ‘It cannot be helped,” because she would like to know its origins and how Japanese Americans used it to survive incarceration.
Sophomore Melissa Gempp said it is vital for students to be educated about the Japanese American experience.
“Internment is an example of the injustices and racism Japanese Americans have faced and still face here and can make people realize that it’s something to be taken seriously,” Gempp said.
She said it is a positive development that tours like the one she attended are available virtually through a video cloud meeting platform.
“Zoom technology can be extremely useful with virtual tours like this since, even after Covid, people with mobility issues will be able to experience museum-type things in a way they never could before,” Gempp said. “It makes history more accessible to the masses and may incline more people to learn because of the newly found accessibility.”
SCREENSHOTS BY JESSICA CERRITO