Teaching History That Matters Today

Why an 80th Anniversary Can Be a Teachable Moment: The Lessons of Day of Remembrance

It’s a challenging time to be a teacher. Faced with obstacles and daily challenges brought on by the pandemic and the politicization of history, all educators deserve our gratitude and are worth their weight in gold.

I taught second-year college students for more than 10 years, so I know a little about what teachers are up against. How do you engage students when you don’t even know if you’re going to be able to see them in a classroom or via Zoom? And more specifically, how do you teach history when it appears to be irrelevant to your students?

In this article, I’d like to focus on the Day of Remembrance, which is February 19th. This year we commemorate the 80th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, the presidential executive order that resulted in 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry incarcerated in concentration camps throughout the United States during World War II.

Executive Order 9066 resulted in 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry incarcerated in concentration camps throughout the United States during World War II.

Most of those who were imprisoned were American citizens, like my father and mother. It’s not a well-known chapter in American history and frankly many Americans today are unaware that it happened.

How this injustice occurred, the stories of the people who were imprisoned for several years, and the government’s apology that happened more than 40 years later may seem like ancient history, but this series of events lay the groundwork for many issues confronting Americans today: immigration, racism and discrimination, inequality, and redress and reparations.


In the free online curriculum What Does It Mean To Be An American? we look at the incarceration of Japanese Americans in-depth to provide lessons on how mistakes of the past don’t necessarily have to be repeated and how the Japanese American experience can serve as an example for addressing past wrongs, making reparations, and moving toward forgiveness.

You may ask why this curriculum focuses heavily on the Japanese American experience. The answer is quite simple really. It was inspired by the life of Norman Y. Mineta, who is a former U.S. Secretary of Commerce and Secretary of Transportation, having served under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, the first Asian American to serve in a presidential cabinet.

Prior to that, he was a 10-term member of Congress and mayor of San Jose, CA. And as a 10-year old boy, he and his family were forcibly removed from their home in San Jose and like other Japanese Americans, imprisoned behind barbed wire during World War II, in his case, at Heart Mountain, Wyoming.

“Norman Mineta and His Legacy: An American Story”

Our team produced a film profiling Secretary Mineta, then partnered with the Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education (SPICE) to create this curriculum entitled “What Does It Mean To Be An American? reflecting the many facets of not only Secretary Mineta’s life and values, but also that of many other Americans including students.

In trying to educate students about the importance of the Day of Remembrance, we recommend key activities on the “What Does It Mean To Be An American?” curriculum website.

If you would like to start with the roots of racism and discrimination in the United States, you want to begin with the lesson on “Immigration.” Complete with graphs, primary source art work, quotations, and photographs, “Immigration to the U.S.: A Brief History” chronicles the four waves of immigration to this country.

Using migration from Japan as an example, “Case Study: Japanese Migration and the U.S” examines the impact of U.S. governmental policies that were markedly different compared to immigration policies from European countries, which sowed the seeds of discrimination. Also in this lesson is a video that tells the immigration story of the Mineta family.

The Civil Liberties and Equity lesson is rich in content when trying to teach the impact of the Day of Remembrance. The Japanese American Incarceration provides context in events leading up to Executive Order 9066, the prejudice that happened before World War II, and the increased racism and political pressure after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. This lesson also features the Gallery Walk of the Japanese American Incarceration, which includes seven different galleries of photographs and images that students analyze. Hoping that students find their own points of relevance, this lesson also includes the following videos featuring interviews with high school and college students: What It Means To Be Muslim American, What Does It Mean To Be A Young Black Man in America? and Students on Current-Day Social Equity Issues.

A panel of Black college students discuss their shared experiences and what they want others to know about being Black men in America in “What Does It Mean To Be A Young Black Man in America?

With ongoing discussions about African American reparations, the Justice and Reconciliation lesson, among other subjects, provides an overview of the successful redress and reparations movement for Japanese Americans who were incarcerated. In Case Study: The Japanese American Redress Movement, students learn about the multi-pronged approach that resulted in the groundbreaking apology from the President of the United States and a $20,000 reparation check for each individual unjustly incarcerated during World War II.

Several videos in this lesson personalize the stories of struggle and resolution after the apologies and checks were distributed. Japanese American Reflections on Redress allow the former incarcerees to tell their own stories upon finding out they were being granted redress, while 45 Years of Anger profiles 99-year old Yae Wada who has a compelling story of the decades of anger she felt because of her unjust imprisonment and what happened to make that anger dissolve. One Man’s Battle: Fred Korematsu features Fred’s daughter Karen Korematsu explaining the heartache and ostracization her father experienced as he tried to fight the law that resulted in his imprisonment.

Scenes from “The Fight for Justice”

And “The Fight for Justice” explores the alliances and coincidences that helped lead to the passage of the Redress and Reparations bill, including how a friendship between two 11-year old Boy Scouts blossomed into a Capitol Hill friendship.

In February 19, 1942 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. Although for most, it was more than a lifetime ago, its legacy lives on in the lawbooks and in our nation’s history and the families, like mine, who carry the legacy.

We invite you to use our educational tools to help your students discover why history matters and its ongoing relevance today.

Dianne Fukami is part of the team that created “What Does It Mean To Be An American?” She is a documentary filmmaker, journalist, and retired educator. Her parents and grandparents were incarcerated for several years during World War II as a result of Executive Order 9066. A free online workshop about other elements of the curriculum is happening Saturday, January 22nd at 10amPT/1pmET. You can register here to join.



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What Does It Mean To Be An American?

What Does It Mean To Be An American?

A powerful learning tool, designed to enable & enlighten the 21st century student. Developed by the Mineta legacy Project in partnership with Stanford SPICE.