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Densho Project Tries to Bring History to Life

Ruby de Luna

History is usually taught with countless dates and events. But a Seattle-based education website hopes to bring history to life with its virtual archive… a collection of interviews with Japanese Americans who 60 years ago were incarcerated during World War Two. We get more from KUOW’s Ruby de Luna.

(OPEN WITH KIDS’ APPLAUSE, FADE UNDER TRACKS) My name is Frank Kitamoto and I’m from Bainbridge Island. Do you know where Bainbridge Island is? AT A SCHOOL IN LAKE FOREST PARK FRANK KITAMOTO IS ABOUT TO SHOW A GROUP OF SIXTH GRADERS SOME PICTURES, MOSTLY BLACK AND WHITE PHOTOS OF HIS FAMILY LEAVING THEIR HOME. HE WAS ONE OF THOUSANDS OF WEST COAST RESIDENTS OF JAPANESE DESCENT WHO WERE FORCED INTO EXILE DURING THE WAR. KITAMOTO WAS 3 YEARS OLD AT THE TIME… And here I am right here. We could only take what we could carry and I chose to take my rubber John Deere tractor so that’s what I’m carrying right there. KITAMOTO HAS BEEN SHARING HIS STORY WITH STUDENTS AROUND THE COUNTRY FOR THE PAST 10 YEARS. IT’S BECOME HIS PERSONAL MISSION, IN PART BECAUSE HE FELT LESSONS ON THE INTERNMENT ARE SPOTTY… I know some of the history books that they’re using in elementary and in high school now have a little bit on internment. The most I’ve seen are 4 pages, and most of them have a paragraph and a picture. KITAMOTO IS A VALUABLE RESOURCE FOR SCHOOLS HE REACHES. BUT HE CAN’T GET TO EVERY SCHOOL. (SOUND OF KEYBOARD “So what we have here, these are the people we’ve interviewed…”) TOM IKEDA IS TRYING TO BRING PERSONAL STORIES TO MORE CLASSROOMS. SINCE 1997 IKEDA HAS BEEN INTERVIEWING INTERNMENT SURVIVORS LIKE FRANK KITAMOTO FOR THE DENSHO PROJECT, AN ORGANIZATION HE FOUNDED. IKEDA IS RACING AGAINST TIME. MANY OF THE SURVIVORS ARE NISEI’S OR SECOND-GENERATION JAPANESE AMERICANS WHO ARE AGING. HE FEARS THEIR STORIES WILL BE LOST FOREVER… These stories were just dying, they were just leaving the community. And every time when I look in the obituaries and saw someone else die, you realize there’s another one that we missed. Clip: I had just come home from church. And we kept hearing Pearl Harbor was bombed, Pearl Harbor was bombed. THIS IS A CLIP OF SEATTLE’S AKI KUROSE RECALLING HOW SHE FELT AFTER JAPAN BOMBED PEARL HARBOR. KUROSE PASSED AWAY 2 YEARS AGO… When I went back to school the following morning, December 8th, one of the teachers said you people bombed Pearl Harbor. And I went, “My people?” All of a sudden my Japanese-ness became very aware to me. And I no longer felt like an equal American… BUT MORE THAN PRESERVING LEGACY FOR THE NEXT GENERATION, TOM IKEDA SAW THE PROJECT AS AN OPPORTUNITY FOR STUDENTS TO LEARN FROM HISTORY. IN FEBRUARY DENSHO LAUNCHED ITS WEBSITE… A COLLECTION OF HUNDREDS OF INTERVIEWS ON VIDEOS, HISTORICAL PHOTOS AND DOCUMENTS LEADING UP TO THE MASS ROUND UP… What I really wanted to do was to have materials because I thought there was an incredible opportunity looking at what caused of incarceration, even before Pearl Harbor, you can look at decades of discrimination against Asians on the west coast and how that played a part in incarceration. IN ADDITION TO THE ARCHIVES, DENSHO’S WEBSITE ALSO OFFERS A CURRICULUM DEVELOPED BY STANFORD UNIVERSITY FOR TEACHERS TO DOWNLOAD. (BRING UP SCHOOL AMBI “Go to Civil Rights, and then Internment.”) STEVENSON ELEMENTARY IN BELLEVUE IS THE FIRST SCHOOL TO TRY THE LESSONS. FIFTH GRADER EMILY HORTON SAYS LISTENING TO THE STORIES MAKES HISTORY COME ALIVE… When you get it out of a book, it just gives you its opinion… but when you do it like this, you have lots of opinion from people who were really there and you have a historian’s opinion and you have your opinion to decide. THE DIGITAL ARCHIVES TAKE KIDS BACK IN TIME, ACCORDING TO THEIR TEACHER. SHE NOTES THAT BY WALKING IN OTHER PEOPLE’S SHOES, STUDENTS CAN BETTER UNDERSTAND WHAT THE JAPANESE AMERICANS WENT THROUGH DURING THE WAR, MAKING HISTORY MORE REAL. I’M RUBY DE LUNA, KUOW 94.9 PUBLIC RADIO.