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Book about WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans blocked in Wisconsin: ‘A hard book to read’



The reading list for a Muskego High School English class has become a national talking point after district leaders said staff had to reconsider their selection of a book that delves into the U.S. incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.

The Wisconsin school district leaders have denied interview requests and issued a vague statement about why the book, “When the Emperor Was Divine” by Julie Otsuka, isn’t moving forward as part of the Accelerated English curriculum. They said staff had to start over their process for choosing a new book for the class. 

In recent weeks, more than 100 parents and others have signed a petition asking the district to accept the book. National organizations and Otsuka herself have weighed in about the value of the text. 

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A June 13 school board committee meeting, where the book was not approved, was not recorded, according to Muskego-Norway Schools administrative assistant Laurie Buxengard. The district has not posted or provided minutes, which Buxengard said will be presented at the next board meeting July 18. 

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Parents in attendance, including Ann Zielke and Alison Hapeman, who support the book, told the Journal Sentinel, part of the USA TODAY Network, that committee member Laurie Kontney said she thought staff chose the book because it was “diverse” and that should not be the basis of choosing it. 

Kontney, in an email, said her words have been “spun to meet a narrative” and she wants to see a wider pool of book options considered. She also said she didn’t think the book was rigorous enough to prepare students for the Advanced Placement English course and exam, arguing the book doesn’t appear on lists of top books referenced on the exam or recommended for the AP course. 

"When the Emperor was Divine" book cover

She did not grant interview requests to discuss the issue further. 

Superintendent Kelly Thompson, committee chair Terri Boyer and board president Christopher Buckmaster also have not agreed to interviews with the Journal Sentinel.

Boyer did send a statement saying the book didn’t move forward because of concerns that the selection process had been discriminatory. She didn’t explain what that meant, or say what may have been discriminatory about the process. 

Another board member who was in attendance but not on the committee, Brett Hyde, said committee members seemed to think the point of view of the book, of Japanese people being incarcerated, was too similar to an excerpt from another book taught in the class.

District staff first asked the board for approval of the book, along with four other new reading materials for other classes, in April, after an internal selection process. In the staff memo, they said the book was chosen as an update as part of a College Board review cycle.

While the board approved materials for the other classes, Otsuka’s novel was held for weeks before being sent back to staff for reconsideration. Boyer didn’t clarify whether staff could recommend the same book after going through the process again. 

Zielke, a district parent who has been speaking out and organizing support for the book since it came up in April, said she hopes the board will reopen discussion about the book and hear from specialists in diversity in education. 

“There are members of the community who didn’t feel heard in this process, or seen or cared about,” she said. 

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Board members say book ‘too poetic,’ suggest a ‘different angle’ 

Of the three-person board committee, Tracy Blair was the only committee member to talk to the Journal Sentinel.

Blair said her problem with the book was that she “didn’t feel it was a very good book,” was “too poetic,” and had bad reviews online. She also didn’t like that the characters didn’t have names. 

“It was just a hard book to read,” Blair said in an interview. “She had too much poetry in it.” 

Asked why she thought staff had chosen the book, Blair said she didn’t know, as it was her first meeting as part of the committee.

The book, published in 2002, was well-received by literary critics and has won awards from the American Library Association, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and — just this year — the Children’s Literature Association. 

Hyde said, from what he heard at the meeting, committee members felt the book was too “similar in terms of the viewpoint and the timeframe” to a chapter from “Farewell to Manzanar.”  

“The view was coming from the same point – both people who were interned at the camp, and I don’t think that the committee felt that was a broad enough selection, as far as trying to get a different angle on everything,” he said. 

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Hyde suggested there could be reading material from another “angle,” such as something about the Pearl Harbor attack that would provide “some history as to why the citizens of Japanese descent were viewed as a threat and what was the reasoning to have them put into the internment camps.” 

The debate over the book comes as conservative school board candidates nationwide, including Kontney, have run campaigns demanding more oversight of curriculum materials and opposing diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. 

“Many of the topics around ‘social justice’ are no longer about social justice, rather, targeted propaganda designed to divide people and teach our children to not love our country,” Kontney wrote on her campaign’s Facebook page in March, before the book came before the committee. 

Hyde, asked whether he thought the political movement of scrutinizing diverse curriculum was influencing the debate, said there is a concern about going “too far teaching one part of history or one part of social ideas.” 

“I do think the concern is out there that we want to make sure that we don’t miss out on the American culture that we’ve grown up with,” he said, noting that he didn’t think classes should focus too much on certain parts of history — like the incarceration of Japanese Americans. 

“We shouldn’t focus on it and have all that we’re teaching are the mistakes that have been made in the past, again, by a culture that we have absolutely no right to judge based on our moral standards today,” Hyde said.

Book’s author believes lessons more important than ever

After the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, U.S. authorities forcibly removed nearly all of the 120,000 Japanese people in the country from their homes and incarcerated them in remote areas under harsh conditions for most of the war. Two-thirds were U.S. citizens.

A congressional commission that studied the incarceration concluded it had been based on racism, pointing out that no mass detention was ordered against German and Italian Americans.

President Ronald Reagan later officially apologized on behalf of the U.S. government and authorized $20,000 in reparations for each internee who was still alive.

Otsuka, the book’s author, said it’s important for students to learn from the past and consider how racism against Asian Americans persists today. 

“Given the level of hatred that Asian Americans are experiencing in this current moment — every time we step out onto the street we are fearful — I think it is more important than ever that students learn about this country’s racist past,” Otsuka said in a statement provided to the Journal Sentinel. 

She continued: “For so long we have been seen as foreign, as ‘the other,’ and if, by reading my novel, students are able to better understand — and empathize with — a family that may not resemble theirs at all, then I will consider my job done. Reading is a radical act of empathy.” 

The Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, which shares the legacy of a location where over 14,000 Japanese people were incarcerated, Tweeted an invitation to the school district leaders to meet with them virtually or in person to talk about the history. 

The executive director of the Japanese American Citizens League, David Inoue, also weighed in with a letter to board members. 

“The call for a ‘balanced’ viewpoint in the context of the incarceration of Japanese Americans is deeply problematic, and racist, and plays into the same fallacies the United States Army used to justify the incarceration,” Inoue said. 

The Wisconsin chapter of the League recently shared the family stories of its members as part of an exhibit at Jewish Museum Milwaukee about the WWII incarceration. Those videos are also available on the chapter’s YouTube page. 

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