Reflections on the 39th Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage

To say that the members of the Manzanar Committee have just finished a long day is certainly an understatement. We’ve finally gotten back to our hotel for the night after a full day of events—all part of the 39th Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage, held on Saturday, April 26, 2008.

The traditional daytime program at the Manzanar National Historic Site drew somewhere between 1,300 to 1,600 (based on preliminary estimates from the National Park Service). Attendees got to see a great performance by UCLA Kyodo Taiko, who started us off and through their high energy and spirit during their performance, got us all excited about the day’s events.

The rest of the day featured various speakers and performances by the Grateful Crane Ensemble and Mary Kageyama Nomura, the “Songbird of Manzanar,” followed by the interfaith service and Ondo dancing.

From a personal perspective, and this, by no means is meant as a slight to any of our other fine speakers, but what stood out the most for me were the speeches delivered by Stacy Iwata, President of the UCSD Nikkei Student Union, and by Mickie Okamoto, President of the UCLA Nikkei Student Union.

Obviously, both are college students and not former internees. So why did they stand out for me? Simple. They represent our future, and as they grow and develop into leadership roles within the greater Japanese American community—and in many tangible and intangible ways, they are already leaders in our community—one can certainly see a great deal of hope and optimism for the future of our community.

Both spoke from their hearts about why they felt so strongly about coming to the Pilgrimage—both have been to the Pilgrimage at least a couple of times—and about why the Pilgrimage is such an important part of what they do as Japanese American student organizations.

I won’t go into a lot of detail regarding Stacy’s and Mickie’s comments during the Pilgrimage as they both will be submitting their speeches, or in Mickie’s case, since she spoke extemporaneously, a commentary piece based on her speech. Hopefully, you will see them here on our blog sooner rather than later (hint, hint Stacy and Mickie!).

The one thing I will say about Stacy’s and Mickie’s remarks today…These are two extraordinary young Nikkei women with talent, vision and leadership skills that belie their young age. And being a product of the UCLA Nikkei Student Union, I could not be more proud because they are both such strong, skilled leaders and they have become such talented and dedicated community activists, despite their status as students, who many associate with being self-centered and apathetic when it comes to community involvement. It also tells me that the UCLA group continues to develop solid community activists like we did back in the Eighties.

And in Stacy’s case, as I was mentioning to some of the members of the UCSD NSU on Saturday evening, back when I was involved with UCLA NSU, there were no other Japanese American college or university student organizations anywhere else. We were it.

In stark contrast, such organizations are at most California college/university campuses today, and they are connected by an umbrella organization, the Intercollegiate Nikkei Council.

Never in my wildest dreams “back in the day” did I ever think that there would be such organizations at most California campuses and that the organization we built at UCLA during the Eighties would be the model. It is gratifying on a personal level and, much more importantly, very, very encouraging from a community standpoint.

Later in the day at the Manzanar At Dusk program held at Lone Pine High School and attended by more than 330 people (a record crowd, breaking last year’s record of 240), after screening the film, Music Man of Manzanar, we broke a diverse crowd—students, former internees, local residents, and many more—up into small discussion groups and all I can say is wow!

As I walked between the groups taking photographs, I got the chance to listen in on the discussions and I found myself tearing up—welling up with pride, I guess, because everyone was sharing their experiences and it was all so very powerful and moving.

Students listened intently as former internees told their stories. Members of the Muslim community shared their experiences as well as their gratitude for the support that they felt from the Japanese American community (I’m welling up with that pride again as I write this). It was such a powerful experience for me, and I wasn’t even part of any of the groups!

To top it off, many of the students came up to me after the program and told me how moving and powerful the program was for them and how much they learned. That made me tear up slightly too.

Why did all this keep me on the edge of an emotional outburst? Like I mentioned earlier about Mickie and Stacy, at MAD, our goal is to reach the young people in our community, to educate them about the internment and to provide them the opportunity to hear first-hand the stories of the few former internees who are still with us.

But even more than that, we are also thinking about the future of Manzanar. How will the site be developed in the future? How should the exhibits be modified as our community and history evolves? And what of the work of the Manzanar Committee? How do we evolve to connect with a wider constituency just as the annual Pilgrimage has?

As students such as Mickie and Stacy have shown us, they have ideas to be shared, voices to be heard (and listened to), and skills that can be utilized.

For those of you who participated in the MAD program on Saturday, you must have noticed that these young people were integrated throughout the program. From our emcees, Nate Imai from UCLA NSU to Nicole Young from UCSD NSU, to our small group facilitators (we had twenty of you, and I did not have time to get all of your names, so to be fair, I won’t name any of you…sorry!), the vast majority were college students, most of whom had already experienced the Manzanar Pilgrimage and the MAD program previously.

To be sure, there was a method to our madness here.

Indeed, after the MAD program, several of the students from UCLA, UCSD, and Stanford University, as well as some Muslim students, approached me on separate occasions and all said basically the same thing. They thanked me for so deeply involving them in the program this year.

Bingo! That was exactly what our goal was—to ensure that young people got the chance to interact with former internees, share their own stories and experiences, and hear about the current-day experiences of our Muslim brothers and sisters. But at the same time and equally important, we wanted to utilize the talents and skills of the more experienced students in order to help them and their organizations to feel like they were the huge part of the event that they were, and more importantly, to feel a real sense of ownership, at least in a small way. After all, even though it was organized by the Manzanar Committee, the MAD program is really for the young people in our community.

After all that, since Jim To and I coordinated the MAD program, on behalf of the Manzanar Committee, we would like to extend our thanks to…

Andy Noguchi, Florin JACL – Andy brought a contingent to the Pilgrimage and to MAD this year, including a considerable number of people from the Muslim community in the Florin area. Andy also identified several people who could be small group facilitators for us.

CAIR – Southern California – They brought a large contingent (80 people were rumored) to the Pilgrimage and to the MAD program and were active participants.

Friends of Manzanar – As they have in the last few years, the Friends of Manzanar donated money to the Manzanar Committee to help fund the MAD program.

Manzanar National Historic Site – You probably aren’t aware that we almost didn’t have a sound system! We found out late this past week that Lone Pine High School doesn’t have much in terms of an audio system in their auditorium. We were scrambling to rent audio equipment on Thursday, just one day before we were scheduled to leave Los Angeles to head up to the Owens Valley. But Tom Leatherman, Superintendent of the Manzanar National Historic Site, came through at the last minute and told us that they had recently purchased a sound system and they graciously let us use it.

Lone Pine High School/Lone Pine Unified School District – They welcomed us into their facilities at the school and waived virtually all of the usual fees. We appreciate their co-sponsorship of this event.

Stacy Iwata and Mickie Okamoto – I’ve already mentioned these two magnificent young women here, but like Andy Noguchi, they identified students who could be small group facilitators and “encouraged” Nate and Nicole to be our emcees for the evening.

Nate Imai and Nicole Young, for volunteering (did you both really volunteer, or did Mickie and Stacy, respectively, twist your arms?) to emcee our program.

…And most of all…

Thank you to everyone who participated in the traditional daytime program and/or at the MAD program in the evening. You all contributed to what can certainly be described as a fabulous, extraordinary day of events.

One final, personal note…way back when…exactly twelve years to the date…on April 26, 1997, MAD founder Jenni Kuida hosted the very first MAD program, which was held around a camp fire at a camp just west of Independence (about eight miles north of the Manzanar National Historic Site).

I was unable to attend that night, but I have attended all of the MAD programs since that time. Most were held in the American Legion Hall in Independence. We’ve also been in the Interpretive Center at Manzanar twice, and now we’ve been at Lone Pine High School a couple of times.

The program has been tweaked a bit here and there over the years, especially after the events of 9/11. But generally speaking, we have remained true to form—the dialogue and sharing that happens in the small groups is the most valuable, most powerful and most important part of the program.

And, in my personal opinion (not necessarily one shared by anyone else, and this is not an official opinion of the Manzanar Committee), in many ways, the MAD program now has greater significance than the daytime program because of the power and educational value of the dialogue that takes place there and, as stated earlier, because of who we are are primarily targeting with the MAD program—our youth.

So…after all that, as the program has grown by leaps and bounds, especially in recent years, my hat goes off to Jenni for her vision and hard work in coming up with the MAD program concept and organizing the event for so many years. Nice work Jenni!

Indeed, nice work to us all.

Here are some photos from Saturday’s events…

Gann Matsuda is the editor of the Manzanar Committee’s Official Blog.

The views expressed in this entry are those of the author, and are not necessarily those of the Manzanar Committee.


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9 Responses to Reflections on the 39th Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage

  1. surprise says:

    I was in one of the groups, and I will say that it was really fantastic. I had my doubts, because we were all exhausted from the day, and I didn’t think we would have the energy to move our lips- but they did… and the experiences that were shared, and the heartfelt, deep feelings that were spawned by the day’s events, poured out. One thing that really jumped out, was a story of racial profiling by a Hmong woman, which drove home the point that the experiences aren’t unique to any one group, and the importance of creating a collective memory.

    I was so impressed with the young people who facilitated the groups.. Can you provide their names and from wherst they came? They were astounding!!!

  2. Gann Matsuda says:

    Thank you for sharing your impressions. Our small group facilitators came from college campuses such as UCLA, and UCSD. The Florin chapter of the JACL brought a large contingent and a number of them volunteered. I didn’t have time to get all of their names and where they were from, unfortunately.

    • Tak D Nomura says:

      Bob Uyeyama was a childhood friend. My sister informed us that Bob passed away while at the pilgrimage.

      My wife and I attended the Tule Lake Pilgrimage two years ago, and had similar experiences that were shared here.

      As we are all aware, racial profiling still goes on as we have recently learned from what happened in Arizona.

      Many people still “don’t get it” about racial discrimination in this country.

      • Gann Matsuda says:

        Out of respect for his family, we have been withholding information about this until they decided what should be released and when. Now that it has been announced, we will be issuing a statement very soon.

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  6. Jenni Kuida says:

    Yes, I was part of the first Manzanar After Dark (MAD-ness!) program in 1997. But, it was actually Tony Osumi’s idea and vision, carried out by me and Ayako Hagihara, who was very active with Manzanar Committee for many years. And, the idea was really inspired by the Tule Lake Committee’s pilgrimage which was a 4 day event with oral histories, panel discussions, intergenerational group discussions with former internee resource folks and young facilitators, cultural performances. We, Tony, Ayako and myself felt that we wanted to create a program that would supplement the daytime pilgrimage with more indepth conversation and intergenerational connection. Our first year was a campout, with the idea of being out in the environment close to Manzanar… in fact, when we woke up the next morning and openedup our tents to the sky, we saw little snow flurries.

  7. Gann Matsuda says:

    Thanks for correcting the record, Jenni. After all this time, I’m surprised I remembered as much as I did about the first MAD! I knew about how it was inspired by the Tule Lake Pilgrimage, but I was wiped out when I wrote that piece and didn’t really think about it. :-)

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