From right: Filmmaker and visiting professor at UCLA Renee Tajima-Peña; her son, Gabriel, the co-instructor for the Minecraft workshop held at Gardena JCI; and Randall Fujimoto, the game-based instructional designer who created the curricula and launched the workshop for middle and high school students to learn history through online games. (Photo by Ryoko Onishi/Rafu Shimpo)

Rafu Staff Writer

“How did the bathrooms look like in Manzanar?” 12-year-old and 8th-grader Evan Sakamoto wonders. “Were there any riots in the camp?” Joshua Dolan, a 14-year old freshman, wants to know.

The Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute (JCI) in Gardena is hosting a four-week-long summer workshop entitled “Building a Replica WWII Camp in Minecraft” for middle and high school students. The workshop is co-organized by Game Train Learning Inc., which is led by Randall Fujimoto, a game-based learning instructional designer in Redondo Beach.

Fujimoto also created educational programs for the Go For Broke National Education Center for almost 10 years.

The workshop started on June 25, and has been held three days a week. On July 2, emeritus professor at UCLA and former internee Bob Nakamura was invited to talk about his experience to the students. When he was asked about the bathrooms, he replied, “It was one of the difficult things that we did not have privacy. There were no partitions and you could hold hands each other.”

Fujimoto asked the class, “Can anybody look up online to see how tall the guard tower was at Manzanar?”

The virtual guard tower of Manzanar Relocation Center that Gabriel Peña created. It is a compilation of small blocks and the player can choose the texture, color and size in a 3D virtual gaming world.

“Do you want to see how you build the tower?” asked the co-instructor, 13-year-old Gabriel Calvin Peña, the son of Renee Tajima-Peña. His mother is an award-winning filmmaker who is known for “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” (1987) and teaches social documentation at UC Santa Cruz as well as at UCLA from this fall as a visiting professor.

At the workshop, students are divided into three groups and work together to build their camp replicas online. They will create a short film and present it on July 20.

“The workshop is a fun way for students to learn about Japanese American history while also developing collaboration and creativity skills,” said Fujimoto. “They learn the history while conducting the research about what they are creating. The students also learn how to develop teamwork, ethics and morals.”

Minecraft is a 3D virtual world in which players can build anything that they can imagine. It must be purchased but there is no monthly charge for participants, “so it would be an ideal tool for learning material,” Fujimoto added.

Fujimoto met Renee Tajima-Peña at a conference held at UCLA last October. It was two months after she visited the opening of Heart Mountain Interpretive Center in Wyoming as a family trip.

“My son Gabriel was inspired by the site and started creating a virtual guard tower using my laptop computer while we were visiting there with my parents, Calvin Tajima (88) and Marie Ujiiye Tajima (85), and his great-uncle, who were all former internees,” she recalled. “My son started interviewing people and asked about the life in the camp. As a virtual reality game, he created the landscape and buildings, and went inside the barracks, climbed the guard towers, and a mini-movie, ‘Heart Mountain 3.0,’ was created at the site.”

Tajim-Peña shared that experience with Fujimoto, who started creating a virtual Manzanar and learning curriculum, and brought the workshop idea to the JCI.

“Minecraft is a perfect medium for teaching history … kids love it,” said Tajima-Peña. “My son Gabriel already had ethical questions such as dealing with grieving when another player vandalizes one’s site. The workshop is a pilot project for a larger interactive website and transmedia learning project that we will be taking on.”

Tajima-Pena remembered, “When I was 8 years old, my parents took me to the former Heart Mountain camp, where they were interned. My parents were always talking about the camp. So when I was in elementary school, I chose the camp for my project. But after my presentation, my teacher denied the existence of the camps. ‘It never happened.’ I was mad. Compared to that time, things are much different today.”

The final screening will be held at 3 p.m. on Thursday, July 20. JCI is located at 1964 W. 162nd St. in Gardena. For more information, call (310) 324-6611 or email

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