On Oct. 29, Dylan Okimoto of Renton High School orchestrated a presentation and brought two guest speakers to the IKEA Performing Arts Center (IPAC) to talk about their experiences during a historical period in America: the Japanese internment in World War II. The two guests were Anyo Domoto, an internment camp survivor, and the other was Joe Okimoto, Dylan’s father, who was also held captive in the internment camps during WWII. The both presented their personal experiences and recalled obstacles they had to face as a result of that time.
A source of inspiration
A light sparked inside of Dylan when he attended the teaching institution at Rutgers University in July of 2018. Dylan discovered the institute on a Facebook post that his wife shared with him. While doing further research, he found out that the topic had to do with the Japanese incarceration. The beginning of his inspiration started here.
“It goes back to the Teacher Institute at Rutgers… It was an American history professor who came up with the idea and invited teachers to gather to make lessons plans and curriculum and activities for students to learn about history,” Dylan shared.
What some do not understand
Dylan continues by sharing the importance of oral histories and the preservation of such stories.
“Oral history is so important in the study of history, especially for the people who took part in it. Like it’s just, ‘Wow, this really happened! And I’m talking to somebody and listening to their story, right now, who was a part of that time,’” he said. “There’s just this connection that students often don’t make. That this is something real and is something that isn’t just 80 years ago. It’s still being played out. The effects of my dad’s incarceration, as a child, still is impacting me, because now I am learning more about it and pointing my focus towards it. I’m bringing it to what I do as a teacher.”
Repressing the memories
During the presentation in the IPAC that morning, high school students remained silent throughout the whole presentation and were very respectful. Joe brought Dylan to tears with his powerful speech. He shared with the students about his struggles and the trauma that he had to deal with, beginning from the time he was 3 years old.
Internees suffered from shock, even after being released from the camps. The place where Joe had to spend three and a half years of his youth and was eventually released from had caused him significant trauma that affects his memories in the present day. Not every child who was in the camps had the same struggles. However, the impact of the camps on Joe was so traumatic, he had to repress his memories because of it.
Joe asked the students to picture his trauma during the presentation.
“Just imagine me if you will, as a 3 year old being uprooted from my usual life, first sent to a temporary prison camp at a race-track where horse stalls were converted to living space, all behind barbed wire fences and machine gun towers; then three months later being put on a train with shades drawn so the public did not see what was happening to us; and being sent to the desert of Arizona where I would spend three years, behind more barbed wire fences, and machine guns towers,” Joe said.
Summarizing Dr. Okimoto’s speech
Joe represented the large community of internees who had a rough experience in the camp. He gave a voice to those who were tormented by what happened, to those who had to deal with racism, and to those who had lost their identities.
Comparing the two views
Many people need to realize that perspective plays a big role when it comes down to analyzing the impacts of the incarceration camps. Joe was an example of an individual who had a rough time in the camp and was negatively impacted after he left. In contrast, Anyo was born inside of the Granada War Relocation Center, but he had left the camp living a relatively normal life. He had friends with whom he would hang out with in the camp and was too young to have fully comprehended the situation.
The chain of knowledge
Even though he was not interned in camps during WWII, Dylan has been impacted by his father’s history. He says that what had happened to his father affected his choices as a teacher, what he chooses to teach, and how to teach them. As a teacher, Dylan feels a sense of responsibility to tell the story of those who have suffered and get the message to his students to learn from these political mistakes. Currently, he feels a sense of responsibility to make sure that this story gets told, and when the time comes, to re-teach this unit again over and over. He will always allow himself to learn more on this journey, while his students accompany him as well.
“At this point, I feel more and more responsible to make sure that this story is told, every year, time and time again. And each time, allowing myself to learn more and more about it and allowing the students to learn about it as well,” he said.
The 9th grade curriculum
Why was the book, “When the Emperor Was Divine” by Julie Otsuka, chosen out of all the other books about Japanese interment to teach the minds of adolescences?
“It presents challenges for freshmen. I don’t think there has been a ton of books written on this topic since long ago. There are some titles that have been around longer than others,” Dylan explained.
He continued stating his opinion on the book and how it attacks the topic of Japanese interment.
“Trying to create visuals using this (book) for students is very important so that maybe we would be able to access what Otsuka might be saying. You know coming up with themes is always harder than a lot of other things, I think, for students at the ninth-grade level to find,” he said.
Dylan said he thinks teens between the ages of 14-15 can handle this topic and understand what happened back then to others fighting against racism, but also how it still impacts society today.
It’s history; why is it still relevant?
Throughout the interview, Dylan mentioned the importance of this historical episode that took place in the United States. The topic of Japanese internment is a historical event that is relevant and still has some traces in the modern day. What the American government did to the Japanese citizens is something that America will never be able to repay. The US government stripped three and a half years from the Japanese citizens lives, along with their identities and basic human rights. Questioning cultural roots and nationality was not something uncommon for Japanese-Americans who were held captive during that time.
Japanese internment is an unforgettable event in American history. The Pearl Harbor bombing happened on Dec. 7th, 1941 and The Executive Order 9066 was released on Feb.19, 1942. It is important to collect primary information while people from this time are still alive in an effort to preserve the memory of their lives, honor their places in the American country, and to remind humanity of the unjust deeds that should not be repeated in the future.