Bellevue schools introduce course that will explore history of local Japanese internment

Third-grade unit will use historical sources to examine the perspective of Japanese families.

The Bellevue School District is introducing a new social studies unit for third-grade students that will explore the history of the Japanese-American community in Bellevue and will delve into the stories of families who endured Japanese internment during World War II.

Elementary Curriculum Developer Amber Anderson said the unit is part of an effort to teach students in the district a “more comprehensive narrative of Bellevue’s history” — one that includes the community-changing events of Japanese internment during World War II. At the time, locals adopted exclusionary policies against the Japanese community in Bellevue, driven by hysteria and racism following the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor, which propelled America into one of the most consequential wars in human history.

The unit, supported by the Eastside Heritage Center and a 4Culture Heritage Grant, will ask students to analyze how Bellevue and the people who lived there experienced “change over time” by using the perspectives and experiences of 10 different Bellevue pioneer families by examining census records, oral histories, newspaper articles, maps, school yearbooks, photographs, property records and letters, paired with historical fiction read-alouds and writing.

Anderson said the unit will help give students a “deep perspective” of the experience of the Japanese-American community in Bellevue, both pre- and post-war, as they were a prominent part of the community and a significant part of the economy. She said that to tell the story and history of Bellevue truly would “not be a complete picture” without including the story and experience of Japanese Americans.

The unit allows students to see an earlier version of Bellevue, before the tech boom, when the town was a predominantly agricultural community in which strawberry farms were worked diligently by Japanese families.

“We hope students learn about the vast contributions of the Japanese American community,” Anderson said.

K-12 Social Studies Developer Patty Shelton grew up in Bellevue, and she remembers the stories she had heard about Japanese internment and how it had affected families and the community, long after the war.

“A lot of families didn’t go back after, they didn’t feel welcome,” said Shelton.

Although third-grade students are young, Shelton said they are still able to recognize the unfairness of the incarceration, discrimination and other injustices that the Japanese American community endured during the war.

The unit gives primary sources from history to students with the hope that they will be empowered to think critically about Bellevue’s past, the story of the people who lived there and the community’s relationship to the changing world around it.

“Understanding other perspectives breeds compassion and connection on a human level,” Anderson said. “We don’t want something like this to ever happen again.”