Wisconsin school board denies students access to book about internment of Japanese Americans during World War II

When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka

A Wisconsin school board denied high school students access to a novel about the incarceration of Japanese Americans in the United States during World War II, arguing it lacked a “balance” of perspectives. 

Key Players

Muskego High School is a public high school in the Muskego-Norway school district, in the Milwaukee suburbs, with more than 1,600 students in grades 9 through 12. 

The Muskego-Norway School Board has seven members who are elected for three-year terms. Within the board, three members sit on the educational services committee, which approves educational materials before the board purchases them.

Julie Otsuka is the author of When the Emperor Was Divine, a 2002 historical novel based on the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. It tells the story of a Japanese American family uprooted from their home in Berkeley, California, and sent to an internment camp in the Utah desert. 

The Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) is the nation’s oldest and largest Asian American Pacific Islander civil rights organization.

Ann Zielke is a parent in the Muskego-Norway district who kept a detailed log of her interactions with board members that she shared with NBC News.

Further Details

From February 1942 to March 1946, the United States government forcibly relocated and incarcerated over 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent, without filing any charges against them. The 1944 Supreme Court decision in Korematsu v. United States upheld this exclusion of Japanese Americans from the West Coast Military Area during World War II. While their internment ended after the war, and in 1983 federal courts rejected Korematsu’s original language, the Supreme Court decision was officially overturned only in Trump v. Hawaii in 2018.

Zielke told NBC News that When the Emperor Was Divine was approved for use in the 2022-23 school year by a curriculum planning committee in April 2022. The book was subsequently sent to the school board’s educational services committee, which rejected it on June 13. 

According to NBC News, Zielke contacted members of the board with information that school board Vice President Terri Boyer, who sits on the educational services committee, said adding the book to the curriculum for a sophomore English literature class created an “unbalanced” account of history. Another book about Japanese American incarceration during the second World War, titled Farewell to Manzanar, had already been approved by the board and was being included in the same class.

“She clarified and said that she felt that we needed the perspective of the American government and why Japanese internment happened,” Zielke said. “And so then again, we had raised voices at this point. I told her specifically, I said, ‘The other side is racism.’” 

According to the Wisconsin Examiner, Zielke also had conversations with school board President Christopher Buckmaster, who recommended that the students read about the Rape of Nanjing, a trajedy in which the Japanese army killed as many as 300,000 civilians and unarmed Chinese soldiers after capturing China’s then-capital city in 1937. 

“So what [Buckmaster is] saying is, what you would need in this class is some sort of historical context of how horrible the Japanese were during World War II in order to understand the viewpoint of the American government in interning the Japanese,” Zielke said.

The Journal Sentinel reported that the June 13 school board committee meeting, during which the book was rejected, was not fully recorded and preserved, according to Muskego-Norway Schools administrative assistant Laurie Buxengard. The district did not post or provide minutes of the session.

When Zielke submitted an open records request for the video, assistant superintendent Jeff Petersen replied in an email, seen by NBC News, that the part of the video that was removed was “unrelated to the official business of the meeting.”

The district’s YouTube channel livestreams its board meetings, but Zielke said the recording was uploaded and then deleted the next day. The video of the meeting reappeared later that day, with seven crucial minutes removed, she said.

Records of the June meetings that featured discussions and arguments around the book remained unavailable, according to NBC News. As of Aug. 4, 2022, the discussions were still not available. 


Community members sign petition demanding the board reconsider Otsuka’s book

By July 24, 2022, over 300 parents, graduates, community members and staffers of the Waukesha County district signed a petition demanding the committee reconsider Otsuka’s book.

“We do not believe the Muskego-Norway School Board has provided adequate reasoning for When the Emperor Was Divine to be denied a place in the Accelerated English 10 curriculum, and we demand that our district puts our trust in the judgment of our teachers,” the petition reads. “We earnestly support the teaching of this book in the classroom, and we believe that rejecting this book will mark a severe decline in the quality of education and curriculum discussion in this district.”

The petition also quoted anonymous teachers who expressed concerns over being able to teach in the district’s political climate. 

“I’ve never felt so under attack for just doing my job or doing my duty to teach kids about others and their world. At one time this would have been college and career readiness; now it’s ‘indoctrination,’” said an anonymous teacher.

“The anti-diversity sentiment that the school board is supporting leaves me feeling scared and uncomfortable teaching. It is my ethical responsibility to grow global citizens — I cannot do that without exposing them to a diverse populace,” another said.

Otsuka’s editor sends letter to school board, emphasizes the importance of historical fiction in youth education

In a letter to the Muskego-Norway School Board, Jordan Pavlin, editor in chief at Alfred A. Knopf and Otsuka’s editor there, requested that the board permit the teaching of Otsuka’s novel. 

“Julie Otsuka’s novel has been course adopted in hundreds of schools throughout the country, where it has become a staple of high school English classes,” Pavlin wrote. 

“Historical fiction has the power to open our hearts and eyes to lives far beyond our own experience,” Pavlin continued. “It has a unique ability to elicit deep compassion and empathy, and to transport young readers into other times and cultures.”

Executive director of JACL writes school board, complaining of racism in its actions 

David Inoue, executive director of the JACL, wrote a letter to the board, arguing that its call for a “balanced” viewpoint of the  internment reflects a history of racism against Japanese Americans.

“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 wrote. “We urge you to reconsider your position on the book’s use, understanding that while not every book and story can be told, to deny the use of one such as this under the pretenses you’ve given is wrong.”

“The story of what happened to the Japanese American community is an American story, one that balances the challenges of injustice, but also the patriotic stories of service and resistance,” Inoue said. “If anything, these are stories that need to be told more in our schools.”

Residents, allies, educators gather at community “teach-in”

On July 18, 2022, over 100 individuals protested the denial of Otsuka’s book, standing outside of Muskego High School. The Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Coalition of Wisconsin hosted the “teach-in,” during which they handed out 100 copies of the novel before the Muskego-Norway School Board met that night, the Journal Sentinel reported. The book was not on the agenda for that evening’s board meeting.

According to the Journal Sentinel, Kabby Hong, an English teacher from the Madison area and a 2022 Wisconsin Teacher of the Year, said at the event that “I never saw myself as a hero in any book that I ever read. I never saw anyone that looked like me achieve anything in history. And when I looked at the TV shows and movies when I grew up, I saw nothing but cringe-worthy, racist stereotypes.” He added that it was not until he was 40 years old that he “realized that Asian Americans have deep roots in this country, that Asian Americans have a record achievement in every single aspect of our society.”

Zielke announced the formation of a book club, titled the Muskego Community Book Club. When the Emperor Was Divine is the club’s first assignment.