MANZANAR NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE, NEAR LONE PINE, CA — For thirty-nine years, the annual Manzanar Pilgrimage has brought a diversity of faces and voices together at the site of one of ten concentration camps that imprisoned over 110,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry during World War II in what is commonly acknowledged as a gross violation of their civil rights.
On April 26, the 39th Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage was no exception and in recent years, that diversity has taken on added significance, both in terms of ethnicity as well as in generations in attendance.
For those who were imprisoned at Manzanar, or in other camps during World War II, the Pilgrimage continues to be a way to honor those who endured life behind the barbed wire. But it also serves as a means to help them cope with the emotional scars caused by their wartime experience.
“I remember Pilgrimages that were seventy-five percent former internees,” said Bruce Embrey, Co-Chair of the Manzanar Committee, the non-profit organization that sponsors the annual Pilgrimage. “Very few young people. I remember when there were mostly young people, but then it changed. It was this pilgrimage to understand and honor, but also this catharsis. My aunt just told her story publicly for the first time last night.”
“[The Pilgrimage] is the expression of that,” added Embrey, whose mother, the late Sue Kunitomi Embrey, was one of the founders of the Manzanar Pilgrimage and is credited with being the driving force behind the preservation of the area and the creation of the Manzanar National Historic Site. “This is cathartic for them. They come here to honor their families and honor the strength of their family enduring this. It helps them understand and makes sense of their lives and what they experienced growing up—the sense of humiliation, and in some cases, the fear of anyone in uniform.”
The diversity of people involved with Manzanar and the Manzanar Pilgrimage also includes residents of the Owens Valley, where Manzanar is located. But during the long process of gaining National Historic Site status for Manzanar, and even shortly thereafter, a vocal group of local residents did not want to be part of that diversity.
“There were some long-term local families who saw this as obscuring their family history,” said Bill Michael, former director of the Eastern California Museum in Independence, California, about five miles north of Manzanar. “I remember when a group of locals, mostly an American Legion group, called a meeting. Ross Hopkins [the first Superintendent of the Manzanar National Historic Site] and I sat down with them. They demanded that we remove our exhibit on Manzanar from the Eastern California Museum. They said it doesn’t belong here, it’s wrong, and we want to you remove it and what’s more, we’re going to do everything we can to make that happen.”
“I said that we feel that this is an important part of this area’s history and our job is to tell the history,” added Michael, who served as vice chair of the Manzanar National Historic Site Advisory Commission and was a key figure in the movement to preserve and protect the site since the mid-1980’s. “So there were some interesting times.”
But not all of those times were negative.
“Some of the things that I still remember are the power of personal experiences of people who weren’t necessarily in the camps but were affected by one,” said Michael. “I still remember one where I really, really learned something, where a retired local came in. He’d grown up on farms in the Fresno area. He’d never been here before, but with his visit to the site and to the museum, he learned what happened to all of his childhood friends. His experience was that one day, the families around him and his friends—the kids he played with every day and went to school with—they were just gone.”
“This was a dozen years ago, at least,” added Michael. “He was in tears recalling this and finally understanding what happened to the people around him.”
“I’ve had the experience of local people coming to the counter, they sometimes had some not very favorable comments about the camp, the experience and the effort to preserve it. This gentleman made me realize that everybody’s experience is individual and different. The power of that guy’s visit had a real long impact on me. It made me realize that this site was not just for the people who were in it, but how important it is for the fabric of American History and culture.”
Nevertheless, the movement to create the Manzanar National Historic Site was certainly a struggle.
“Struggle would certainly be an understatement,” Michael emphasized. “It was really tough. The fact that the guy who was the head of the National Park Service at the time, William Penn Mott, had been head of the California State Park system when they failed to create the site—his own feelings on the site were that nobody wanted it, so why are we doing it?”
One look at the crowd at the Pilgrimage on April 26 provided the answer.
“It’s incredible that we have all these young people and all kinds, not just Japanese Americans,” said Embrey. “A lot of college students.”
To be sure, there was a large contingent of youth present at the Pilgrimage and at the Manzanar At Dusk program held later that afternoon, and the reasons for their participation were both personal and community-based.
“I’ve grown up my whole life hearing about the internment camps and the legacy it has left on my family and on the Japanese American community,” said Annie Kim Noguchi, a 19-year-old student from Florin, California. “I hear my grandparents and all my older relatives talk about it, so that was one of the main reasons.”
While Noguchi, who made the journey with a large contingent of Japanese Americans, Muslim Americans and others, on a trip sponsored by the Florin chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, came from Northern California, students from Southern California expressed similar reasons for making the trip.
“[Members of the UCLA Nikkei Student Union] definitely relate to Manzanar,” said Mickie Okamoto, a UCLA senior who is the organization’s president and was one of the speakers at the Pilgrimage. “A lot of us have grandparents who were interned here. For me, one of my grandparents was interned at Manzanar, so I have a connection there. It’s also a way to connect to Japanese American history. A lot of our members feel the same way.”
“Everybody realizes how important the internment experience was for Japanese Americans,” added Okamoto. “I think it’s something that anybody, whether they have a personal connection or not, doesn’t want to see disappear. They see it as something worth keeping. If we don’t come out to this, then how do we remember Manzanar?”
Okamoto poses a crucial question that strikes at the core of why the Manzanar Pilgrimage has not only continued for thirty-nine years, but is growing in terms of participation and significance.
“Look at the crowd [estimated between 1,300 and 1,600 people] and the question about urgency that came from the press,” said Embrey. “‘Why are people still coming?’ It made no sense to her that people would be driven to come here.”
“I told her that this is not just a way of honoring the former internees,” added Embrey. “You have to understand that the pain that they experienced was transferred to their entire families silently. Even though they didn’t speak about the internment and all the horrible aspects until later, the anger, the humiliation—all of that—was communicated to their young kids.”
Even though many young Japanese Americans carry all those emotions inside them, for many Japanese American youth, the decision to make the long trip to Manzanar is a tough one.
“When I first heard about the Pilgrimage, I didn’t want to come,” said Craig Ishii, who attended his first Manzanar Pilgrimage as a UCLA student in 2004. “I knew it was going to be a long drive, it would be hot, the program would be long. So I wasn’t too excited.”
“The reaction after coming, you can’t quite understand what it really means to be at Manzanar, what it is to be interned or really get a good understanding of what the experience is like until you’re actually on site—to feel the heat, to have the dust in your eyes, and then to actually to hear people speak on site—it was something I didn’t expect and was probably one thousand times more powerful than I had anticipated.”
Indeed, after attending his first Pilgrimage, the 23-year-old Ishii, who is now the Regional Director of the Pacific Southwest District Japanese American Citizens League, had a complete mindset change.
“What changed was to want to get a much better understanding than I had before,” he explained. “Before, you read about it in books and you think that it’s bad, but let’s move on. The difference is that now, when I come to the Pilgrimage, I come with ears to really, in a broad sense, understand it better than I had before because it’s so easy to say, ‘oh, that was something bad that happened. Let’s write it off. It’s something that I read about and saw a few pictures.’ But to be on-site and to have the experience makes you want to learn more about what life was like here and why it was so terrible.”
Ishii said that attending the Pilgrimage is empowering and stressed the added importance for young people to attend.
“I think it’s especially important for young people to come to the Pilgrimage because when we just read about the internment, we don’t hear the real stories, and that generation is passing away,” he said. “My grandmother passed away before I had the chance ask her what her experiences were like. I kept telling myself that I would sit down with her, but I think I blocked on it too long.”
“That’s why I think it’s even more important,” he added. “By being on the site, at least some part of that story gets passed down in a very realistic way.”
The diversity at the Pilgrimage was not just generational, or between Japanese Americans and local residents.
“I wanted to spend the weekend with such a diverse group of people who had different perspectives,” Noguchi told Insight, a radio show on KXJZ-FM in Sacramento. “I was surprised, coming back on the bus when we were doing reflections, even the people who weren’t Japanese American and didn’t have a personal connection still came back with something really special. They all took something really significant and really big from it. They got a lot out of it.”
A good number of the people Noguchi was referring to were Muslim and Arab Americans who also made the long trip with the Florin group. A large group of Muslim and Arab Americans from Southern California also made the journey.
“Over one hundred people came from Southern California to be part of this remembrance to make sure that this doesn’t happen to any group of people,” said Hussam Alyoush, Executive Director of the Southern California chapter of the Council on Islamic American Relations (CAIR), one of the featured speakers. “No one group in America should ever be targeted based on their religion, ethnic background, racial background, no matter what.”
“Right after September 11, there was a parallel that was drawn,” added Alyoush. “Right after Pearl Harbor, we know what happened to the Japanese American community. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, the American Muslim and Arab American community had to face a similar sentiment of paranoia, of fear, of suspicion.”
“We know now what it feels like when people look at you with suspicion, or treat you like you are a second-class citizen,” Ayloush told the Inyo Register. “Our presence here today isn’t meant to suggest Arab Americans are facing the threat and the loss of freedom of those Manzanar internees, but we want to stand with our Japanese American citizens wishing to ensure this could never happen again. Like them, we want to remember the past and to learn from it.”
To be sure, the Manzanar Pilgrimage serving as a reminder of the injustices that can arise from wartime and race-based hysteria has never been more timely or important.
“[My mother] never wanted [the Pilgrimage] to die,” Embrey explained. “She never did it for any reason but to make sure that people understood what happened, understood the politics behind it and the injustice behind it. She would be particularly incensed at our current Administration’s efforts to demonize the Arab countries and the Muslim community in general.”
“Even when she was alive she made sure that every year, someone from the Arab community was represented post-9/11,” Embrey elaborated. “[Earlier today], someone asked me why the Muslims were here. I said because there is a natural connection. They experienced some of the exact same things.”
Embrey related a story about an incident in Chicago that highlighted the need for Japanese Americans to support the Muslim and Arab American communities.
“In Chicago, there was an angry, racist mob that surrounded a mosque and was throwing bottles and stones, waving American flags,” said Embrey. “A Nisei (second generation Japanese American, the first generation born in the United States) veteran of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team saw that on the news and was so incensed that he went, by himself, to the area mosques and held a press conference.”
“He said that this was exactly what we experienced during World War II—this racist hysteria against a community because of what happened that has nothing to do with the Muslim community here in the United States,” added Embrey. “He said that he served as a combat veteran and urged people to leave them alone.”
“That, to me, is where you go from humiliation, to anger, to political protest and action. I think that’s why my mother valued this so much and why she devoted the latter part of her life so that this continues and that we continue it.”
The theme for this year’s Pilgrimage was Continuing The Legacy, and after hearing the words of the youth in attendance it would seem that the legacy will indeed continue.
“The internment is my history as an American citizen and it’s a big part of American History,” Okamoto stressed. “One of our main goals is to continue to educate and to continue to preserve our history.”
“Every year, we come to the Pilgrimage because every time we come here, as we drive down the [highway], it’s empty and desolate,” Okamoto elaborated. “We come here and sit in the hot sun and people complain. But at the same time, you realize that this is what the internees went through every single day for years. So for us, coming here every year energizes us because we see how wrong it was, how much of an injustice it was.”
“It really pushes our passion to go beyond just doing social or campus events to put on the Day of Remembrance on our campuses and to put on our cultural nights, because even more now, the fight continues for Japanese Latin Americans and the post-9/11 events—history is repeating itself, and we are the next generation. We know that we have to make a difference to not let Manzanar happen ever again. We’ll be here…fiftieth year, sixtieth year, what not. We’ll always be here to continue that legacy.”
Gann Matsuda is a member of the Manzanar Committee.
The views expressed in this story are those of the author, and are not necessarily those of the Manzanar Committee.
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