Teaching Diversity: Japanese Americans at Seabrook by Sonya Dalton

It was in 1944 that the small town of Seabrook experienced an influx of Japanese Americans, profoundly impacting the experience of its residents. The school system in particular was deeply affected by the abrupt arrival of the Nisei, second-generation Japanese Americans who would attend the school. As Elaine Glendon Laws, then a student at Seabrook recalled in the "I Remember" account that she submitted to the Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center, "Suddenly everything had changed. There were TWO fifth grades. Not only that, but the classrooms were half filled with strangers!" With the arrival of new students from a different background, Seabrook School adapted to incorporate the rich history and cultural experiences of Japan into its curriculum and recreational activities. This change to a more pluralistic focus paradoxically coincided with the arrival of displaced families of Japanese ancestry, following one of America's most prominent examples of government-sponsored racial discrimination.

The first image is from a school talent show at Seabrook, and shows students performing a traditional Japanese dance in Japanese clothing. The talent shows at Seabrook were a chance for peoples of all different origins to celebrate their backgrounds -Estonian dancers, for instance, were also documented performing at these shows. The second photograph shows one of the school teachers, Alice Mukoda, displaying the tradition Japanese kimono, along with a traditionally-styled fan. The students in the front of the class are looking up at her with great interest and she is smiling while pointing to the classic Japanese imagery painted on the fan. Nisei students benefitted equally from learning about traditional aspects of Japanese culture, since growing up in the U.S., many were assimilated to American culture and relatively unaware of Japanese culture. For Issei, Seabrook then became a way for teaching and preserving aspects of Japanese customs.

The third image is an aerial view with Seabrook School in the center of the picture, surrounded by housing that was used primarily by the Japanese American workers who arrived at Seabrook Farms in 1944. Both literally and metaphorically, the school was encompassed by the Japanese American families that came from internment camps. The effect this had on those attending the school and those in nearby towns such as Bridgeton was profound, leading to a more diverse education for children and adults of Seabrook alike. At a time when racism against Japanese Americans was commonplace, the initiative taken by both Japanese Americans and the Seabrook school system in order to expand the educational curriculum to be more inclusive was remarkable and charged with political meaning.

Traditional Japanese dancers perform at a school talent show at Seabrook Farms, exhibiting the desire to both preserve and share Japanese customs.
Credit: "Seabrook School talent show 3-20-1952 (photo 1 of 4)," 1952, Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center, Rutgers University Community Repository Collection.
Alice Mukodo displays a fan and kimono for a class at Seabrook School, teaching both non-Japanese and Japanese American students about traditional aspects of Japanese culture.
Credit: Alice Displaying Fan and Kimono," 1952, Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center, Rutgers University Community Repository Collection.
An aerial image of Seabrook School shows it surrounded by various housing units mostly occupied by Japanese Americans in 1944.
Credit: "School and Village," 1950-59, Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center, Rutgers University Community Repository Collection.