CORVALLIS - It has been more than half a century since 120,000 Japanese-Americans living in the United States were herded into concentration camps during World War II, where they were held for nearly three-and-a-half years.

The signing of Executive Order 9066 bringing about the mass internment - based solely on ethnicity - is one of the darkest episodes in America's recent past. Yet, that chapter of history isn't particularly well known among Americans today, especially new generations of school children.

Many of the Japanese-Americans who were interned in camps are no longer alive, leaving only a relative handful remaining to talk about their experiences.

A special conference at Oregon State University on May 16 is aimed at helping K-12 educators teach students about those events. Relating the experiences of the few remaining survivors of internment camps provides compelling learning for today's school children, says Patti Sakurai, an assistant professor of ethnic studies at OSU.

"A lot of children were imprisoned during the internment," she said. "It is really an eye-opener for students today to realize that Japanese-Americans their own age were being interned while at the same time other students were in their schools learning about citizenship issues."

Sakurai said there is a sense of urgency for educating new generations about the internment because more and more of those people interned die each year.

For years, she pointed out, little was said publicly about the internment.

"While some were vocal, there was a shroud of silence, an internalized shame among many Japanese-Americans in being targeted that way," Sakurai said. "It was traumatic for them and many just wanted to move beyond that chapter of their lives."

But the third generation of their families - beginning in the late 1960s and 1970s - began asking questions about the unfairness of the treatment their grandparents and others received, Sakurai said. That not only led to legal intervention and eventual reparation, it prompted more Japanese-Americans to "look at that episode in racial terms" rather than view the internment as a military strategy.

"People began to ask why they were the only ethnic group singled out and isolated," Sakurai said. "Why Japanese-Americans, and not German-Americans, or Italian-Americans?"

The internment had a widespread effect throughout the West, including Oregon, said Edith Kaneshiro, a doctoral candidate in history at the University of California-Berkeley, who is helping Sakurai organize the conference.

"As part of the evacuation zone, Oregon itself holds a lot of history," Kaneshiro said. "Most educators assume Japanese-American internment concentrated in California and Washington. Only recently has there been literature and scholarship about the Japanese-American experience in Oregon.

"It is also interesting how the experiences of Japanese-Americans differed state by state, community by community," she added. "Communities from Hood River and Ontario were largely agricultural, while those from California included a larger number with urban backgrounds as well."

When the federal government made reparations to the Japanese-American families affected by the internment, the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund was established so that chapter of American history would not be forgotten. The educators forum at OSU is funded by that organization.

"The program is one of many efforts going on nationally and the fact that there are a lot of projects is heartening," Sakurai said. "There has been a long struggle to get those stories told. Too many people have dismissed this as not being particularly significant in American history.

"Internment had a significant impact," she said, "which is still being felt today."

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Patti Sakurai, 541-737-5743