Manzanar The Topic of Mitzvah Project

Editor’s Note: Joyce Okazaki was among the 11,070 Japanese Americans who were unjustly incarcerated at Manzanar during World War II. She was the featured speaker at a Mitzvah project on March 22, 2009, where she spoke of her experience as a child behind the barbed wire at Manzanar. Here is her story about the event.


SANTA MONICA, CA — The family had driven past Manzanar on Highway 395 many times going to and from Mammoth Lakes and Lake Tahoe. The dad, Peter, is a history buff, so he was curious about Manzanar and wanted to someday stop and take a look around. This was all before the Interpretive Center was built at the Manzanar National Historic Site, which opened in April 2004.

In the summer of 2008, he took his son, Matthew, on a fishing trip to Lone Pine, which is about nine miles south of the Manzanar National Historic Site. Matthew is a 12-year-old seventh grader, attending school in Santa Monica, California. While there, they traveled to the Manzanar National Historic Site and visited the Interpretive Center. They saw the introductory video, viewed the exhibits, and took the self-guided auto tour. Matthew is an intelligent, curious student, and was absorbed by all of this information.

In the fall, Matthew began to prepare for his Bar Mitzvah the next year. Their synagogue required each candidate to study the regular curriculum, the Torah, and to do a community service project.

Some did projects on recycling, or cleaning up the Earth. Matthew chose as his project to educate his community about the imprisonment of Japanese Americans at Manzanar.

His mother, Ellie, contacted the Manzanar Committee to inquire about a speaker for his project and I agreed to speak at the temple. Prior to this, I have spoken to students at various grade levels starting with third grade through tenth grade, college, book clubs, and church groups, about my life in Manzanar as a child.

Matthew made a large bulletin board showing photos of Manzanar as well writings about the Japanese American Internment. He had some books displayed, including Born Free and Equal by Ansel Adams, Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, and Journey to Topaz by Yoshiko Uchida.

He showed his community the video, Remembering Manzanar, the same video mentioned earlier that is shown at the Interpretive Center, and he spoke about Manzanar at an earlier gathering on March 1.

On March 22, I presented my program with a snippet of a video and slides. I talked about what affected me, such as my grandfather being arrested the night of December 7, 1941, with the FBI waiting for him at his doorstep. I related my experiences in waiting on the side of the railroad tracks to board the train, not at the train station, and the hurried sale of belongings that were too big to store, like a car, refrigerator, living room and dining room furniture.

I talked about the start-up of the hospital at Manzanar, what people were paid when they worked, with a college degree you were paid $19.00 per month, clerical work was $16.00 per month, and a laborer earned $12.00 per month. I also spoke about the exclusion notices and instructions that were posted on telephone poles, requiring everyone to register.

Although I wasn’t in an Assembly Center at a race track, I talked about how the United States Government had to hurriedly built places to house the more than 110,000 Japanese Americans who they ordered to leave the West Coast. Many were forced to live in horse stalls at Santa Anita, Tanforan, and barracks at the hastily-built Pinedale.

Students asked questions about toys I played with, standing in line at the mess hall, rain or shine, snow, heat, or wind three times a day. I told them we had no running water in the units. Eventually we got an outside faucet, one for each barrack, so we didn’t have to pump our water.

As part of the presentation, I displayed family photos that were taken by Ansel Adams while were in Manzanar that showed us smiling and looking happy. I told the students that we were posed by Adams and instructed to smile, because one of the comments by an audience member was that we looked happy. Although I wasn’t affected too severely by camp life, I told them, my parents’ generation and my grandparents’ generation had to suffer loss of income and livelihood, home and everything that goes with it, freedom, and their civil rights. My father was a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley with a degree in Architecture. He ended up having to work in Idaho picking potatoes to earn enough money needed to eventually move from camp. My sister and I missed our Dad while he was gone.

One questioner, an adult in the community, asked about any apology and payments by the U.S. Government. I answered that the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was passed and signed by President Ronald Reagan on August 10, 1988. Any internee alive on that date (or their immediate family) was eligible to receive a written apology signed by the President and awarded $20,000 for loss of civil rights, after funding was budgeted. Starting in 1992, letters of apology signed by President George H.W. Bush with the redress check were sent to internees.

At the end of the slide show, there were many more questions, such as, were pets allowed, or how we got things we needed if not available in the camp store.

Pets were allowed, and there was a lot of mail ordering from Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs for clothes and other items.

After most of the other student groups were excused to leave, Matthew’s classmates gathered around me and asked more questions.

What games did I play? Could visitors could enter the camp? How much did things cost in those days? Did I have friends and do I still keep in touch with them? Did I like school?

The questions were many and I am unable to remember them all. But they were all good questions and the students were exceptional listeners. At the end, each student attending the program was given a Manzanar National Historic Site card and a Manzanar Committee 40th Pilgrimage card.

All in all, it was a truly glorious time for everyone. Matthew showed a lot of intelligence in handling this subject. His parents and grandparents were glad that I was there to present my story and I was very happy to be a part of his project. Matthew and all of his family members are truly a wonderful, loving group. I wish Matthew a very successful Bar Mitzvah.

Joyce Okazaki is a member of the Manzanar Committee. Her family’s photos, which were taken at Manzanar in 1944, were featured in Ansel Adams’ book, Born Free And Equal. Okazaki’s photo is featured on the cover of the revised 2001 edition. This was her inspiration to join the Manzanar Committee and to speak to school groups.

The view expressed in this story are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the Manzanar Committee.


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