A Reflection on Using Esri ArcGIS StoryMaps to Tell about Japanese American Students

Link to Mapping Japanese American Students’ Journeys.

Why I Chose this Project

The Covid emergency and the ongoing pandemic prompted conversations at the University of the Pacific (UOP) about students who are going through crisis. A UOP Library Summer Fellowship team in 2022 explored an historical example of students in crisis.[1] UOP’s Japanese American students faced, first, the threat of and then actual incarceration and forced relocation. We asked how the university and students responded under duress. The social justice implications of historicizing the Japanese American experience made the project all the more compelling. Since 2020 Asian Americans have confronted increased hate crimes and incidents, and conservatives seeking sanitized white supremacist versions of the past have attacked Japanese American histories. Last June, a Wisconsin school board refused to approve Julie Otsuka’s novel, When the Emperor Was Divine, which tells the story of the incarceration of Japanese American residents and citizens during WWII. Critics said the district already had Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s Farewell to Manzanar and that Otsuka’s book did not provide a “balanced” perspective even though Otsuka’s storyline reflects the findings of the US government’s own 1997 report, Personal Justice Denied.[2]

Over fifty students at UOP faced the disruption of their educations and an uncertain future as a result of Executive Order 9066.[3] Nearly all of them went to the Stockton Assembly Center and then to Rohwer Detention Center in Arkansas. Members of the summer fellowship team hoped that learning about this experience might help our own students connect to students of the past and might help our faculty, staff, and administrators reflect on the university’s responsibility to students in crisis.

Additional questions emerged as fellows completed summer research and an app that explores students’ lives. Research in the Introduction to Digital Humanities course through George Mason University, in addition, has revealed the usefulness of digital tools in spatial visualizations. The intended audience is people interested in Japanese American history and UOP faculty, administrators, students, and alumni. For the class, I extended my research on the Japanese American students and created a digital map documenting the journeys of nine students using Esri’s ArcGIS StoryMaps. My specific research questions were: 1) What journeys did the Japanese American students at UOP undertake during and after WWII incarceration?; 2) How did Executive Order 9066 disrupt their educations and their lives?; and 3) Does mapping offers a new perspective on the history of Japanese American incarceration?

Sources and Historiography

The project is based on records at the Holt-Atherton Special Collections at the University of the Pacific. These include yearbooks, commencement programs, catalogs, music programs, student newspapers, and alumni records. The project also relies on digitized Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) newsletters, newsletters from the War Relocation Authority’s detention camps, biographical information available through Ancestry.com and Newspapers.com, and the Densho internment records. I limited my scope to the nine students for whom I had the most developed research as a result of the summer fellowship. Nine turned out to be a good number because ArcGIS StoryMaps can look cluttered and overwhelming if too much information is imparted at once.

This project builds upon research about student experiences and university responses to the Japanese American incarceration beyond UOP. Although the literature about the experiences in the camps far outweighs the thin body of literature on colleges and universities, Gary Y. Okihiro and Eric Langowski have helped me understand university students’ choices and how limited they were.[4] Okihiro traces the experiences of students removed from their west coast universities and tells how they navigated a complex and opaque system to find placements in the Midwest and on the east coast. Okihiro digs into questions of complicity and antiracism. Much of the book explores the help given by well-meaning white college administrators, registrars, and faculty. He does not turn them into heroes, but he recognizes their work to combat a deeply unjust action. They worked primarily through the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council (and its predecessor, the Student Relocation Committee), which had to work within narrow government limits and in opposition to negative public opinion. Langowski explores one university that did not allow Japanese American students during WWII. Outside the west coast military zone, Indiana University (IU), nonetheless, admitted no students. Langowski shows how administrators dragged their heels on clarifying IU’s position with regard to admittance and postponed seeking government qualification to admit them. Ultimately, its trustees voted not to admit them. He contrasts IU’s actions to those boards that acted courageously: “A few liberal arts schools—particularly some in Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania—were able to enroll Nisei students in fall 1942, thanks to their flexibility in quickly meeting government requirements.”[5]

Langowski notes that in the 2000s, universities began redress by giving honorary degrees to those removed, an action that UOP also took in 2013. However, few large, non-West Coast institutions that simply refused applicants have made any apology. Indiana University is the exception, having apologized and dedicated a site on campus to the eleven prospective students who it turned away. (One of these, Richard Doi, was a UOP student who applied to Indiana University from Rohwer.)[6]

Explanation of Digital Tools and Methods

In this project, I used ArcGIS StoryMaps to highlight the geographic importance of relocation. We knew from our original research that none of the students returned to UOP and few returned to Stockton. Mapping would help distill in a unique visual way the significance of the disruption of E.O. 9066. I tried two tools: Esri ArcGIS StoryMaps (the free online version) and StoryMap JS from Knight Lab (open-source software). As a trial, I mapped Grayce Kaneda Uyehara’s life story in both Esri ArcGIS and Knight Lab StoryMap JS. Each provides an interesting map of her journey, with Knight Lab’s StoryMap tool offering the greatest ease of use for the creator.

One student’s in Knight Lab’s StoryMap JS

ArcGIS has a slightly higher learning curve, but there is also more versatility in the size and design of maps. The sidecar feature, an immersive media block with an accompanying side-by-side (or floating) text box, offers a particularly smooth and attractive way of moving from slide to slide. For me, this was an effective way to show change over time. Knight Lab seemed useful for telling a local story or tracing one person’s journey but comparing distinct journeys in smooth visuals was beyond Knight Lab’s frameworks. The story I wanted to tell was both local and national. It traces the journeys of students to and then from UOP.

There are still some problems with the visuals. At the national scale, it is difficult to see the pins that are close together where students lived near one another in Stockton’s Japan town. If one zooms in to focus on Stockton, however, even the student in Walnut Grove, thirty miles to the north, drops off the map. Since both cannot be seen at the same time, I decided to zoom in to show the Stockton neighborhood and its proximity to UOP and, with text, direct the user to scroll north to see the student from Walnut Grove.

If one zooms in to focus on Stockton, however, even the student in Walnut Grove, thirty miles to the north, drops off the map.

Overall, ArcGIS’s StoryMaps platform is attractive and professional. It combines maps, legends, text, photos, and video (for subscribers) along with different formatting, such as swipe, pop-ups, and sidecar for an immersive experience. Although the user may wish at times that StoryMaps would allow them to move a text box over a few pixels, its fixed templates ensure an attractive and professional design. Subscribers can customize the templates, but there is still a certain rigidity to ensure the StoryMaps look. Although it took me a little over a week to figure out the difference between the sidecar feature and the slideshow feature, a creator can publish a web map and story without coding. Esri StoryMaps provides a wide selection of map templates and allows the creator to create maps easily.

The map narratives are linear, following a plot determined by the creators, but their contents are also interactive and users can explore nonlinearly. As the user scrolls through Mapping Japanese American Students’ Journeys, for example, they can use their cursor to hover over the map pins to learn more about the individuals who spent time at each site. They can choose to follow an individual through time and across space, or they can explore the multiple outcomes that different Pacific students were experiencing at any given moment.

As the user scrolls through Mapping Japanese American Students’ Journeys, they can use their cursor to hover over the map pins to learn more about the individuals who spent time at each site.

Discussion: What the Digital Tools Reveal

One of my research questions was if ArcGIS StoryMaps revealed new questions or conclusions about this group of nine students. It does not. Instead, it displays information through a meaningful visual representation. The viewer can see how the internment disrupted a Japanese American community and led to their dispersal across the United States. The ability to tell individual stories through the pop-up features effectively brings out the personal element of this historical event and help the audience connect to those students.

StoryMaps would be less useful for big data visualizations. The narrative structure is instead suited to emphasize a few. Even with none students, the pins are hidden. If I were to include over fifty students (or more if I added the high-school-age Stockton cohort), then the viewer would not be able to follow individual stories easily. For such a project, Palladio (Stanford) or Kepler.gl would be better because they would show patterns, relationships, and concentrations.

In the sample of students that I traced, a high level of social justice activism emerged and a vast dispersal appeared. Only one of the nine students profiled returned to Stockton. Grace Kaneda Uyehara was an extraordinary figure but her trajectory was not that different from her peers. She became a social worker in Philadelphia, helped found a JACL chapter there, and worked for redress in the 1970s and 1980s. Scholars and activists regard her as one of the most important organizers in the JACL. The other eight, too, went on to serve as deans of education schools, leaders in the Buddhist church, ethnic studies and art professors, and labor leaders. Although it is impossible to know exactly how the experience of incarceration shifted the trajectory of work for this group of talented college students, it is clear that social justice activism and community building were central emphases in their lives. More research may tell us what it meant to be in college when this experience occurred since college-age people had access to opportunities (through college placements and even military service) that older and younger citizens did not.

Many digital humanists are using digital tools to ask new questions about human existence and to analyze big data in novel ways. As Jason A. Heppler notes, “The way we collect, present, and store information has changed rapidly in the last twenty years. Digital history is several things: a methodology meant to aid the traditional art and practice of historians; the use of digital tools to gain insight into information that cannot be done with a legal pad and pen, which allows historians to disseminate and present their information in new ways; and reach wide audiences through nearly ubiquitous digital exposure.”[7]

Although ArcGIS StoryMaps provided no conclusions that I could not reach through more traditional historical methods, it does aid that practice. A public history tool, it allows for disseminating information to wider audiences and in especially engaging ways. ArcGIS StoryMaps offers a platform to bring together narrative, images, and maps to educate. Its smooth, immersive experience makes learning about the past inviting. Other tools like Palladio might reveal different questions, such as how the relationships between the students, their interests, and their opportunities connected with their life map. Kepler.gl also would likely highlight regions where Japanese American students settled in numerically significant numbers. A data table with over fifty students might reveal more patterns about the significance of age, gender, and military experience.

[1] Collaborators include Faculty and Staff: Keely Canniff, Lisa Cooperman, Chris Crawford, Marie Lee, and Joshua Salyers; and students Alan Barragan, Christopher Fines, Mayu Otsuka, Dominick Restivo, Tina To, George Trammel, and Kailey Wong. To experience the immersive app built by the Summer Fellows, go to  [https://qrco.de/Kizuna_Beyond_Incarceration].

[2] Rory Linnane, “Muskego Educators Stopped from Teaching Book about WWII Incarceration of Japanese Americans,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, June 20, 2022; and United States Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, Personal Justice Denied (Wash., D.C.: Civil Liberties Public Education Fund), 1997.

[3] The exact number of Japanese American students at UOP in 1942 is not known. A Pacific Weekly article listed six from the College of the Pacific and forty-seven from San Joaquin College, which was then part of UOP and is now Delta College. But research has produced additional names. It may be that those students were not enrolled during the semester of the evacuation order. University of the Pacific, “Pacific Weekly, May 8, 1942″ (1942)All Issues – Student Newspaper, The Pacifican, Pacific Weekly. 1333.

[4] Gary Y.Okihiro, Storied Lives: Japanese American Students and World War II (Seattle, Washington: University of Washington Press, 1999); and Eric Langowski, “Education Denied: Indiana University’s Japanese American Ban, 1942 to 1945,” Indiana Magazine of History 115, no. 2 (2019): 65-115. doi:10.2979/indimagahist.115.2.01. For more on the life of young people inside the concentration camps and the disruption of communities, see Valerie J. Matsumoto, Farming the Home Place: A Japanese American Community in California, 1919-1982 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993); and Neil Nakadate, Looking After Minidoka: An American Memoir (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013).

[5] Langowski, “Education Denied,” 7.

[6] Christine Wagner, “Student Research Ends 80 Years of IU Silence,” 2021.

[7] Jason A. Heppler, “Digital History as a Research Methodology,” June 3, 2009.

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