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Keeping the story alive

By Alexandra Wertz '12
April 19, 2011

Mara Kumagai Fink '11 designed a lesson about the Japanese American internment camps of World War II that she's delivered to more than 300 Minnesota fifth-graders. 

There are times when silence is the loudest voice. But there are also times when it isn't. Mara Kumagai Fink '11 has discovered that some stories simply must be told.

Fink's grandmother was one of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans that the U.S. government placed in 10 internment camps across the West coast during World War II. In the wake of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans were seen by the government as potential threats to national security and forced into "War Relocation Camps" throughout the western half of the country. Two-thirds of those interned were American citizens, and none of them were ever convicted of any crimes against the United States.

Curious to dig deeper into this story, Fink approached her grandma. "There is a saying in Japanese, 'shikata ga nai,' which means 'It can't be helped.' When something bad happens, we let it go. My grandma thought this was the best way to move on from this incident, to just forget about it," says Fink. "Since my grandma won't talk about it, I decided to design a project that would educate me and others about this often ignored part of American history." 

With the help of a Ken Olsen Internship grant from the St. Olaf Sociology/Anthropology Department and a Kloeck-Jenson and Entrepreneurial Grant from St. Olaf's Center for Experiential Learning, Fink designed a summer internship with the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center in Portland, Oregon. The center is a Japanese American history museum and nonprofit organization that works to preserve culture, history, and community among Japanese Americans. In addition to her internship, Fink spent time with other family members who had lived in the camps. "I got to talk with my grandma's sisters about something I would usually avoid bringing up. Talking with them really helped me understand who my grandmother is, where she is coming from, and what she has been through. Because of that I feel much closer to her now."

With a newly found passion to share this piece of American history, Fink filed a story with Minnesota Public Radio. This experience finally gave a voice to her grandmother's silence.

The story continues
Fink's project didn't end come September. It was time for the story to be passed on. Fink now travels to elementary schools in Northfield and in St. Louis Park, her hometown. So far, she has spoken to more than 300 fifth-graders.

"A lot of times kids will go through their entire school lives without ever hearing about the Japanese internment," says Fink. "But by targeting students in elementary schools, we're reaching a new generation in an innovative way — a way that doesn't make teachers add a whole unit to their curriculum."

Fink prepared a 20-minute presentation to share with elementary-school classes. It includes showing pictures, sharing her own family story, and describing to the students how an internment camp differs from their idea of summer camp. "I think it's so effective because the information meets them where they're at. We talk about things they can relate to," says Fink. She also reads them a storybook titled Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki, which describes how baseball kept the prisoners' spirits alive.

"It has been rewarding to see the students really understand what it was like for people to leave all their friends and family and relocate to the desert," Fink says. "I think it's something that has never occurred to a lot of them before. To see that many of the students have better responses to what the government could have done instead of what the government actually did is always entertaining."

Fink is currently collaborating with the Japanese American Citizens League to possibly make this project a national program. No matter what happens, Fink's project has already given a voice to the voiceless through education. "I want to educate young students about the Japanese internment because by educating another generation, we're ensuring that this story doesn't die."
Associate College Archivist Jeff Sauve also points out that St. Olaf played a unique role during World War II by enrolling Japanese American students even as other colleges and universities denied them admission. An article Sauve wrote several years ago notes that 10 Japanese American students came to St. Olaf from internment camps, two of whom became the first students of color to sing in the St. Olaf Choir.

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or