What happens when those in power respond with fear to a group of people who they perceive as “alien” and “dangerous”? Students concerned by today’s political climate will better understand our highly polarized present by looking back to the 1930s and 40s in three recently published titles. Albert Marrin provides readers with the big picture, explaining how events in the history of the United States and Japan led to their clash during World War II and promoted racist attitudes and actions in both countries before, during, and after the war. Caren Stelson tells the intensely personal story of an atomic bomb survivor, while the disillusionment of Japanese American men who left internment camps to fight for the United States is recounted by Dean Hughes, whose story highlights the consequences ordinary people experience when they are caught up in the violence of war.
Most Americans were stunned by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that launched the United States into World War II. In Uprooted: The Japanese American Experience During World War II (Knopf, 2016; Gr 7 Up) Marrin argues that it should not have been such a surprise; his strongly stated thesis blames the racism that ran deep in both Japanese and American cultures for encouraging Japanese aggression and for shaping America’s response to Japanese Americans.
The poisonous fruits of racism infuse chapters on Japanese history, the history of the Japanese in the United States, life in the internment camps, the experiences of internment camp residents who enlisted, and the aftermath of the war. Maps, photos, and excerpts and quotes from primary source documents on almost every page add to and extend students’ understanding. Throughout the book, the author shares information on his research, where and when evidence was found, and when it was not. Strong readers will want to tackle the entire book, but individual chapters can stand on their own and inform those who are researching a particular event or time period.
Teachers could use the six-page final chapter that discusses today’s political climate and attitudes toward immigrants as a close-reading lesson comparing the prejudice against Muslim Americans after 9/11 to the internment of Japanese Americans.
Japan did not surrender after President Truman deployed a nuclear weapon that destroyed the city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945; three days later a second nuclear bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story (Carolrhoda, 2016; Gr 5-8) by Caren Stelson describes what happened when that bomb exploded 900 yards away from a six-year-old girl named Sachiko Yasui.
Miraculously, the child’s Uncle dug her out of the debris and managed to locate Mother, Father, older siblings Misa, Aki, and Ichiro, alive but injured and in shock. Her baby brother Toshi did not survive, but there was no time to grieve. With the city in flames, the family fled to a nearby mountain village, grateful to be together. They did not yet know about additional deaths that would come from radiation sickness, the stigma they would endure as hibakusha or atomic bomb survivors, and had no idea what it would be like to live in a country that had been devastated by war.
Stelson alternates Yasui’s story, told to her in a series of interviews, with short nonfiction sections, set apart by pages shaded in grey. It’s just-in-time information, providing brief overviews of World War II, the Manhattan Project that would develop the nuclear weapons, the occupation of Japan by U.S. troops, and the long-term effects of the war as they relate to Yasui’s experiences. Readers will want to pore over the black-and-white photos and detailed maps that accompany the gripping text.
“What happened to me must never happen to you.” Yasui’s quote serves as both introduction and conclusion to her story. What groups in your area work to promote international peace? Students could research these groups and evaluate their effectiveness. What can ordinary people do to promote international peace? Everyone who reads this book will ponder, at least a little, what it means to be a peacemaker.
Chances are, if you live on the West coast of the United States, you know someone whose family was impacted by Executive Order 9066, which sent most Japanese residents and Japanese American citizens living in areas of Washington, Oregon, and California to prison camps in Rocky Mountain states. In Dean Hughes’s fictional Four-Four-Two (Atheneum, 2016; Gr 7 Up) the author tells the story of teen Yuki Nakahara, whose family is ripped from their California home and deposited in bleak rural Utah, where they are surrounded by barbed wire, humiliated, and without hope for the future. There’s no way out of the camp—until the U.S. military decides to form the 442nd, an all-Japanese unit sent to fight in the European theater.
Yuki and his best buddy Shig sign up together, eager to serve with honor and to counteract prejudice with heroism. What better way to prove that they are real Americans? Basic training cements their friendship but fighting together makes them brothers. The strength of the story is in the battle scenes; Yuki works through his initial fear and cowardice to become a leader as the higher-ups send the 442nd into the most dangerous battles again and again. The young men are disillusioned and tainted by killing and the witnessing of their friends’ deaths. Their reflections on the personal cost of combat could provoke rich and thoughtful discussions; the well-researched Four-Four-Two is an excellent choice for book clubs or literature circles.
Yuki returns home cautiously hopeful that his sacrifice has made a dent in anti-Japanese prejudice, but he is hesitant to talk about his camp and war experiences. These stories deserve to be told. Interviewing camp survivors, Japanese American veterans, or their children could be an excellent next step for students studying the ways the United States has historically treated those who are seen as “other.”
Chris Gustafson recently retired from the Seattle Public Schools but is still a Teacher Librarian at heart. She occasionally subs in Portland, OR, school libraries.
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