A Site Of Sorrow And Strength

The following story was originally published in the Winter 2007-08 issue of the Smith Alumnae Quarterly. It is reprinted here with permission.


By Floyd Cheung

It was 6:45 on a Saturday morning. Yet even at that hour, as our bus sat parked in front of the Japanese American Community and Cultural Center in [Los Angeles’] Little Tokyo, a student of mine turned to me and said, “It’s already worth it.”

I knew what she meant.

Before our journey to the Manzanar National Historic Site had even begun, we’d already learned so much. The previous night, my students and I had flown nearly 3,000 miles to join other travelers on a pilgrimage to Manzanar, where 65 years earlier more than 10,000 people had been incarcerated without trial in the middle of the desert in eastern California. We had imagined that this two-day, long-distance field trip would deepen our understanding of this event in American History, but we could not have guessed that so much would have been accomplished before our bus pulled away from the curb.

The nine students with me were taking my class Narratives of Internment. Throughout the semester, we had been studying the history, politics, and prejudices that led to the incarceration of nearly 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans living on the West Coast and Hawaii; the conditions of camp life itself; the resettlement process; the redress movement; the literature that came out of the experience; and the possible connections between World War II America and post-9/11 America.

Every student had conducted research on a topic of her own choosing that related to the internment. Some discovered Eleanor Roosevelt’s attitude toward the internment, which diverged from that of FDR; what special rules affected biracial Japanese Americans, for instance having a Japanese father increased one’s chances of being interned; and which college-age women were able to leave the camps to study at Smith, for example the writer Yoshiko Uchida, author of Journey to Topaz: A Story of the Japanese American Evacuation.

In class one day, we were discussing the ten camps and the fact that pilgrimages to some of them take place annually. In fact, thanks to former internees and lifelong activist Sue Kunitomi Embrey and her allies, a pilgrimage to Manzanar has taken place on the last Saturday in April every year since 1969. Immediately, my adventurous students wanted to go. Knowing how much this trip would enhance what we talked about in the classroom, I told them I would look into it, but privately I wasn’t confident that I would be able to find the money for such a trip. My concerns were allayed, though, when Smith’s American Studies Program, along with the Dean of the College, agreed to finance our travel and lodging. So, on a chilly morning last April, we boarded a flight from Hartford and landed in Los Angeles, where a bus would take us the remaining 210 miles to Owens Valley, near the Sierra Nevada.

Before boarding our bus, I pulled my students aside and reminded them that while we had learned a great deal about the internment, that knowledge might only have begun to prepare us for this journey. In all probability, we would meet former internees and others who were on this pilgrimage for less academic reasons than the ones we had.

I urged them to be respectful, to engage with fellow travelers when appropriate, and to listen to the stories they might hear along the way. And there were so many stories. Within fifteen minutes of boarding the bus, some of us had started striking up conversations with others who had settled into their seats. Almost everyone on the bus wanted to know who we were, why we were there, and why we had come so far. One of my students must have said that she was from Smith because the woman next to her soon began telling her how her grandson had wanted to attend an East Coast school but instead had been persuaded by a full scholarship to enroll at Whittier College, a small liberal arts college near Los Angeles. This piqued my personal interest, because I had graduated from Whittier myself. Soon, my student’s new companion offered that she, too, had gone to Whittier, but under very different circumstances than I or her grandson. At the beginning of World War II, she had been attending the University of California, Berkeley. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, all Japanese and Japanese Americans were ordered to “evacuate,” as the government put it. This included retirees in the twilight of their lives, men and women in the prime of their lives, young people in college or just starting out, as well as children and infants. All were deemed potential enemies and saboteurs. Two-thirds of them were U.S. citizens.

For this woman, life was “interrupted” (her word) by internment. She told us about camp living conditions, whose harshness she softened for us with humor. She also told us how after the war, she got married and fast became caught up in the work of raising a family and rebuilding her community. Later, she managed to finish her education a class or two at a time over a twelve-year period at Whittier College, which she said allowed her to attend classes for free. Her perseverance awed us and taught us that the value of an education isn’t always measured by how much you pay but rather by how hard won it is.

Of course, I engaged with anyone who approached me. Some wondered about my heritage. Was I Japanese American? “Floyd? Hmmm. That’s a good Japanese name,” said one man.

“No, I’m actually Chinese American,” I responded. “I came to this topic as a professor of Asian American studies.”

If someone looked vaguely interested in talking, I would ask, “So, is this your first time on this pilgrimage?” This question always started fascinating conversations about their motives, memories, and experiences. On the drive, I spoke to a former internee who shared his experiences as a volunteer in the U.S. Military Intelligence Service (throughout the war, Japanese-speaking soldiers were needed to translate and do other work, in spite of the fact that their relatives were sent to camp—a telling irony). I listened as he told me that a uniformed Japanese American soldier could not walk around alone without a Euro American escort, lest he be mistaken for an infiltrator. I silently doubted whether similar measures had to be taken with German American or Italian American soldiers.

At another point, I struck up a conversation with a former internee who had left camp when he was a young boy. He told me how he had buried his marbles at Manzanar and intended to try to find them on this, his first trip back. His wife, meanwhile, teased him about losing his marbles. My student was right, these simple, but extraordinary, stories had already made the trip worth it.

When we reached the Manzanar site, layers of memory and experience accumulated, undoubtedly in different ways for different people. Our bus pulled off the road and passed a sign that read “Manzanar War Relocation Center,” a replica of the original sign. Near the entrance were two stone sentry buildings, which are among the only surviving buildings from the internment era. I could only guess what this portion of the journey was like for former internees.

The bus, which for the past four hours had hummed with conversation, quieted. I imagined that others struggled with the personal and historical layers of this entrance—or re-entrance—in their own way.

As we drove past dozens of parked cars and pulled in next to six or seven other buses, I realized that no one had chartered a Greyhound bus, the kind that been employed in 1942. No one wanted the layers of memory and experience to overlap in that way, at least.

In spite of discomfort and pain, the pilgrimage did raise opportunities for confronting the many complicated and conflicting layers of Manzanar. Our host, Vicky, informed us that the Manzanar site had once been home to Paiute and other native peoples; that European settlers established apple orchards there; that “Manzanar” means “apple orchard” in Spanish; that the orchards were ruined when the City of Los Angeles diverted water from the area; and that the government hastily built barracks for holding about 10,000 internees there.

After the war, the government used some of the buildings for storage and sold off others. Eventually, the site was abandoned. Over time, very little remained on the site save for a few foundations, the sentry houses, and a memorial obelisk at the camp cemetery, whose Japanese-language inscription reads, “Soul consoling tower.”

On a makeshift stage near the cemetery, veterans and resisters, internees and their descendants contributed their own memories, and music and performances deepened our experience. Taiko drummers and bag pipers played first. A one-man-band with harmonica, guitar, tambourine, and voice led us in a rendition of “Sukiyaki.” An interfaith service combined Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim rituals. We felt thrice blessed. And more than one speaker linked the incarceration of Japanese Americans without charge in internment camps with the incarceration of alleged terrorists without charge at Guantanamo. “This should give us pause,” said one speaker, before adding, “No, this should make us shudder.”

As a final gesture, all of us joined in an ondo dance, a Japanese folk dance normally performed in unison. The novices among us did our best to imitate the movements of others. There we were out in the middle of the desert, in 91-degree heat, dancing to the sounds of taiko drums.

On the way out of the site, my students and I took time away from the main group to talk and reflect. We walked along a camp road, noted the locations of firebreaks, and thought about how many internees had used this road to enter, traverse, and ultimately, to leave the camp. We recalled in particular the story of Ko Wakatsuki, the father of Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, author of Farewell to Manzanar: A True Story of Japanese American Experience. When the camps were ready to close after the end of World War II, Ko Wakatsuki drove his car up and down these firebreaks and this very road, kicking up dust. “No bus for us,” he had yelled.

To keep his dignity, he spent precious money on a used car to spirit his family away from Manzanar rather than take government-provided transportation. My students and I also resolved to take a picture by the entrance sign. When we got near the sign, we realized that we would have to climb through a barbed-wire fence. Full of exuberant, youthful energy, my students helped each other get through, and we took several pictures before running back to the bus.

Later, I hoped our blithe movement through the barbed wire wasn’t seen as a disrespectful gesture by those who remembered the fence as a restriction on their freedom. Almost immediately, however, I recalled that near the end of internment, the photographer Toyo Miyatake took his son and two other boys out to the fence and had them climb through for a photograph titled “Boys Behind Barbed Wire.” By this point, camp administrators knew that their Japanese American charges were not a threat and Miyatake in particular was to be trusted (though in the beginning he had to smuggle in a camera lens, since it was considered contraband). Miyatake positioned his camera on the camp-side of the fence and photographed his subjects on the other side looking in. One of them grasps a wire on the fence. It is a picture about reflection on both what was lost—freedom and innocence—and what was lived—almost four years full of good, bad, and mundane events.

That early picture already began to play with the border of internment in terms of space and perspective. The pilgrimages that take place there annually also transform the meaning of the site. While the program certainly brings back painful memories, it also builds unity, strengthens resolve, and even fosters joy.

America itself is a palimpsest of contradiction—loss and gain, injustice and opportunity. The pilgrimage reminds me that we either can ignore the past or choose to face the past in all of its layers, draw strength from any source that we can access, and, most importantly, through our participation in public life transform the present through the stories we tell and actions we take.

For me, from beginning to end and what will come, the trip was worth it.


Floyd Cheung is Associate Professor of English at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. He is also a member of the Five College Asian/Pacific/American Studies Certificate Program, for which he served as the founding chair from 1999 to 2002.

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


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