Bearing Witness to Japanese American Incarceration

How Should We Remember the Internment of Japanese Americans during World War II?

Last Updated: March 23, 2018

March 21, 1942, marks the date that Congress passed Public Law 503. This legislation authorized the federal courts to enforce President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, which sanctioned the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans on the West Coast in internment camps.

The following lesson ideas probe some of the complex issues arising from the history of Japanese incarceration during World War II. While not comprehensive, these resources and activities enable students to explore difficult questions about national identity, institutional racism, and the boundaries of US citizenship.

Provide Historical Context about Japanese American Incarceration

Show the documentary And Then They Came for Us, asking students to take notes on the film using the S-I-T strategy. Next, debrief the film by asking students to discuss what factors help explain why Japanese Americans fell under suspicion in ways that Italian and German Americans did not.

If you don’t have time to show the entire film, you might select clips from the film or distribute the reading Overview of Japanese Internment during World War II from our Teaching Farewell to Manzanar study guide to introduce the history of Japanese internment.

Analyze Questions of Loyalty, Citizenship, and Discrimination

Start a class discussion about what it means to be loyal or disloyal to a country with students. Discuss the following questions with students:

  • What does it mean to be "loyal" to a country?
  • How might one prove their loyalty?
  • What might it take to overcome suspicions by others that you are disloyal?

Next, tell students that as a precondition for leaving the camps and to determine eligibility for the US military, Japanese Americans were forced to answer a “loyalty questionnaire.” Share with students the War Relocation Board’s 1943 loyalty questionnaire. As students read the questionnaire, have them compile a list of the actions, habits, and other aspects of Japanese Americans’ lives the Board thought would help prove their loyalty or disloyalty.

To deepen the discussion, ask students to read this overview of the loyalty questionnaire from the National Museum of American History describing the confusion and divisiveness the questionnaire generated within Japanese American communities. Before asking students to read, provide definitions for the following terms:

  • Issei: word used by Japanese communities in North and South America to describe first-generation immigrants, or people who were born in Japan
  • Nissei: word used by Japanese communities in North and South America to describe second-generation immigrants

Explore the “No-No” Experience

Explain to students that they will be learning more about the so-called “No-Nos,” the derogatory term given to Japanese internees who answered “no” to both questions 27 and 28 on the US government’s loyalty questionnaire. These questions asked respondents if they were willing to participate in the United States military and whether they would renounce any allegiance to the Japanese emperor and pledge “unqualified” allegiance to the United States. As the Densho Encyclopedia notes, however, these answers were often more complicated than a simple “no:”

Though stigmatized as "disloyal," the no-noes had a wide variety of reasons for their actions. No-no status was stigmatized after the war, and many have remained reluctant to tell their stories . . .

Though the vast majority eventually answered the key loyalty questions affirmatively, a significant minority either refused to answer, gave qualified answers, or answered negatively—about 12,000 out of the 78,000 people over the age of seventeen whom the questionnaire was distributed to. People who answered in any of these manners were considered ‘disloyal’ . . .1

The US government segregated this group from the rest of the internees and relocated them to Tule Lake, California, where they remained until the end of the war and experienced harsh living conditions.

Share the New York Times video Vivid Memories of Tule Lake Internment Camp with students, and ask them to take notes on the following questions: How does Hiroshi Kashiwagi describe his reasons for being a member of the so-called “No-Nos”? What were conditions like in the Tule Lake camp? How have memories of Tule Lake affected Kashiwagi? How does he describe the legacy of Japanese American incarceration?

Additional Resources to Explore the History of Japanese American Incarceration:

The No-No Boy Project

No-No Boy is a musical duo featuring Julian Saporiti and Erin Aoyama, which documents the histories of Japanese incarceration, American imperialism, and the Asian American experience through song and archival footage. You might want to give students the opportunity to explore their website, play their songs, or attend an upcoming concert.

The Orange Story

The Orange Story is a multimedia, digital humanities platform that teaches students the history of World War II Japanese American incarceration through narrative film and primary sources.


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