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A Promise Broken: Teaching Japanese Canadian history through the lens of dispossession


“In 1942, the Canadian government uprooted and interned all people of Japanese descent living in coastal British Columbia. The following year, it authorized the sale of everything that they had been forced to leave behind. As a result, when Canada’s internment era finally ended in 1949, Japanese Canadians had nothing to return to. Their homes, farms, businesses, fishing vessels, cars, family pets, personal belongings – in short, everything that they had been unable to take with them – were gone.”
Jordan Stanger-Ross, ed. “Introduction” In Landscapes of Injustice a New Perspective on the Internment and Dispossession of Japanese Canadians. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020.

In 2014 the Landscapes of Injustice public history research project took shape with the support of a seven-year partnership grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Under the leadership of Jordan Stanger-Ross in the department of history at the University of Victoria, academics, undergraduate and graduate researchers, teachers, archivists, curators and community members came together to uncover and share new research on the forced sale of Japanese Canadian property during the 1940s. Organized into six ‘clusters’ or teams (Land Title and Government Records, Oral History, Community Records and Directories, Legal History, Historical GIS, and Provincial Records) the research uncovered letters of protest, detailed records of government decisions, compelling legal cases, the personal records and memoires of individual Japanese Canadians, oral histories, financial records, and detailed traces of land title and exchange. One of the primary knowledge mobilization outputs of the research was the development of teaching resources for intermediate and secondary classrooms. These resources are to be widely accessible, formatted for print and digital environments, and connected to social studies curricula across Canada to encourage use in classrooms regardless of location and access to technology. To ensure viability, accuracy, source integration and interest the resources were field tested, reviewed by community members, and scrutinized by the research leads.

The Teacher Resources cluster was comprised of co-chairs Greg Miyanaga and Mike Perry-Whittingham. Mike oversaw the development of the secondary resource along with co-authors Patrick Anderson, Jonathan Ballin, and Kaitlin Findlay.  Greg developed the elementary/ intermediate resource with the support of Lindsay Hill.  From the outset, we grappled with the question of how to make sense of the immense volume of new scholarship, archival sources, oral testimony, images, and never seen before primary sources. Tasked with two distinct outputs, one intermediate level resource for grades 5-6 and one secondary resource targeting grades 10-11, we were thrilled to be involved in the project, but daunted by the challenges. We were determined that these new resources would be accessible in multiple formats, connect to social studies curricula across Canada, allow multiple entry points of study, include a rich variety of primary source materials, and embed the latest historical thinking competencies. Perhaps most importantly, we wanted the resources to tell the story of dispossession through the eyes of those who suffered, endured, and ultimately triumphed over this injustice. In order to do so we incorporated many first-hand accounts, letters of protest, correspondence with federal authorities, accounts of by-standers and a number of compelling family stories. When combined with images, oral testimony, video clips and the lesson activities these sources tell a persuasive story that will engage students and raise questions about how the dispossession occurred and why we should remember it.

Now let’s take a closer look at the two resources.

The Elementary/Intermediate Teaching Resource

The Landscapes of Injustice Elementary/Intermediate teaching resource uses the internment and dispossession of Japanese Canadians to help students learn about the world by seeking answers to big questions such as:

·       What is fair?

·       How do we deal with unfairness?

·       What is home?

·       What is the difference between belonging and belongings?

What kind of activity could we do where students would understand the complex concept, dispossession?

Photo bannière du 16 novembreWe use a simulation.  Students make a simulated community of a Japanese Canadian neighbourhood, 1940s Powell Street, on a classroom bulletin board. Each student is assigned a family, a business, and a property. They populate their properties with people and possessions which they pin into their properties, (Hands-on Learning).

Because of the work students put into their virtual community, the people and the belongings, students become emotionally attached to their work. (Hearts-on Learning)

After students have built up sufficient possessions, Canada enters the Pacific Theatre of the war, and officials decide to intern Japanese Canadians. In our simulation, the teachers remove the Japanese Canadian avatars from the Powell Street displays to a separate Internment Camp bulletin board.

As their incarceration continues, the possessions left in the Powell Street display start to disappear as the government (the Office of the Custodian) sells off Japanese Canadians’ property without permission. Throughout the simulation, students process how this happened, why this happened and what the repercussions were. (Minds-on Learning)

How do students process this experience?

There are 8 supporting lessons that run concurrently with the dispossession simulation. Here is a sampling of some of the lessons:

·       Living in Internment Camps: Students simulate the cramped living conditions of internees by trying to fit their belongings in a floor plan of an internment shack.

·       Dispossession: Letters of Protest: Students read letters of protest from dispossessed Japanese Canadians to see how some of them reacted to the losses they suffered.

·       Redress: ​How to Apologize for Making a Mistake:  Students learn about redress for Japanese Canadians and evaluate whether the apology was appropriate.

For more information on the Intermediate Teacher Resources website please visit the prototype website (http://loitrelementary.weebly.com/).

The Secondary Teaching Resource

The Landscapes of Injustice Secondary Teaching resource examines fundamental questions about the dispossession, in addition to the larger issues of migration, settlement, internment, dispossession, and exile. In Lesson 1 students explore the reasons for migration and settlement, in Lesson 2 they examine the forced uprooting of Japanese Canadians to the sites of internment, Lesson 3 covers the dispossession, and Lesson 4 examines the legacies of dispossession.

To assist student understanding and encourage a critical approach, each lesson is organized around a focus question. For example, the following questions are the focus of Lesson 3 Dispossession:

·       Why did the government revoke its promise to protect the property of Japanese Canadians?

·       Who made the decision?

·       How was the decision made?

·       What are the legacies of dispossession?

To engage students and encourage them to connect emotionally with this history, the lesson begins with a compelling story of the experiences of the Tagashira family who protested the decision to sell their property.

2e image du 16 novembreRinkichi Tagashira wrote several letters of protest, pleading with the federal authorities not to liquidate his company. Despite his pleas, the Custodian of Enemy Property sold his business and belongings at mere fraction of their worth. Were such sales made in good faith? Was it necessary for the government to auction off the property of Japanese Canadians? These questions are explored by students through a series of activities including, an examination of letters of protest authored by Japanese Canadians during the 1940s (activity link). Students consider the following questions after reading selected letters:

·     Why is the author writing to the Custodian?

·     What feelings are expressed by the author?

·     What is the anticipated response?

·     What action from the Custodian would satisfy the protest?

·     How would the Custodian’s response impact the family?

This lesson is one of four in the package that shares the stories of Japanese Canadians from migration and settlement in the early 20th century through to current day struggles to reconcile this past and its enduring intergenerational trauma. To view all of the lessons on the Secondary Teacher Resources website click here (https://loi.uvic.ca/secondary/).

For more information on the Landscapes of Injustice project and to view the inaugural launch of the Broken Promises exhibit at the Nikkei National Museum click on the link (Landscapes of Injustice).

Mike 16 novembreMike Whittingham co-chairs the Teacher Resources cluster with Greg Miyanaga. Mike is currently a District Vice Principal overseeing training and support for the MyEducation BC Student Information System (SIS) for the Richmond School District. He taught high school history, law and social studies for 17 years in Richmond and has collaborated and co-authored numerous curriculum resources in law and history including most recently the Landscapes of Injustice resourc for secondary teachers.



Greg du 16 novembreGreg Miyanaga co-chairs the Teacher Resources cluster with Mike Whittingham. Greg has taught in the Coquitlam School District for over 25 years, grades 2-7, and served as a district resource teacher. Landscapes of Injustice is a pet project for Greg as his father’s family was relocated from the Lower Mainland in BC to the sugar beet fields of southern Alberta. Greg was part of the team (along with Mike Whittingham) that produced the Governor General’s Award-winning resource for “Internment and Redress,” (a resource guide for elementary social studies teachers). Greg currently teaches grade 2/3 at Smiling Creek Elementary in Coquitlam.