42nd Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage/Manzanar At Dusk 2011 – A Personal Reflection

Photo: Gann Matsuda

LONE PINE, CA — After a long, exhausting day at the 42nd Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage on April 30, and the Manzanar At Dusk (MAD) program that evening, the Manzanar Committee is back at our headquarters hotel, the Dow Villa in Lone Pine, California, about eight miles south of the Manzanar National Historic Site, finally getting some rest after a whole lot of hard work on Saturday.

That is, everyone but yours truly.

Indeed, after running around all morning and afternoon at the Pilgrimage, and then running the Manzanar At Dusk program that evening, sleep is not foremost on my mind, even though it probably should be as I face a long drive home on Sunday.

No, sleep will have to wait a bit on this night, because after what happened on Saturday, I am compelled to reflect and express what is on my mind and in my heart.

We had a wonderful Pilgrimage on Saturday afternoon, honoring fallen community heroes Frank Emi, William Hohri and Fred Korematsu, and another who is certainly still alive and kicking…Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga, one of my personal heroes and mentors.

But for me, both personally, and for the Manzanar Committee, not to mention the Japanese American community, the most important thing about the Pilgrimage is the involvement of young people in our community, as they are our future leaders, and, in many ways, they are among our current leaders…more on that later.

As such, it pleases me to no end that UCLA Kyodo Taiko performed at the Pilgrimage once again this year. They are always a big hit, and they have a unique ability to energize the crowd. My thanks to all the members of UCLA Kyodo Taiko, especially co-directors Samantha Ho and Masumi Asahi, for a wonderful performance!

Something new this year…those of you who attended the Pilgrimage probably noticed several women dressed in traditional Japanese yukata. These women were members of the UCLA Nikkei Student Union’s Odori dance group, who led us in the ondo dancing this year. Thank you NSU Odori, and especially to co-directors Jaymie Takeshita and Jamie Yabuno.

UCLA Kyodo Taiko performs Encore.
Photo: Gann Matsuda

As for the Manzanar At Dusk program on Saturday evening, I emceed the program for the first time, which is a bit difficult for me to believe, since I’ve been the co-coordinator for the program for several years now. But that is not what is foremost on my mind. Rather, our community’s future is on my mind, and pride is what’s in my heart.

If you attended the MAD program on Saturday, and especially if you’ve attended the program the last few years, you probably noticed that the program was a bit different this year, as students took on a much greater role.

At MAD, attendees want to hear the stories of the former concentration camp prisoners in attendance. In fact, year after year, this is the feedback we get from MAD participants, that they want to hear more of these stories first-hand.

Sadly, we will not have that luxury for long, as these honored people in our community are not getting any younger, and we have already lost many. That fact became all too clear at last year’s MAD program, as we did not have enough former prisoners for all of our small group discussions. That meant that it was time to come up with another way to keep those stories alive. But how?

The UCLA Nikkei Student Union’s
Odori group led the traditional Ondo dancing.
Photo: Gann Matsuda

Meanwhile, something I had been planning for years was to return the MAD program to its 1997 roots, when college students, along with Jenni Kuida and Ayako Hagihara of the Manzanar Committee, held the first MAD program around a fire at a campground just west of Independence, about six miles north of the Manzanar National Historic Site. Jenni and husband, Tony Osumi, had attended the Tule Lake Pilgrimage, where they have an interactive component in which participants could discuss what they had learned, and listen to the stories of the former prisoners in attendance. Inspired by that, Osumi thought that doing some kind of interactive program should be a part of the Manzanar Pilgrimage, and that is how the MAD program, known then as Manzanar After Dark, got its start.

In ensuing years, the program grew, and moved to the American Legion Hall in Independence, and then, in 2007, to the Interpretive Center at the Manzanar National Historic Site. But we drew a record crowd that year, filling the Interpretive Center past capacity (think “sardine can”). We knew that we needed a larger venue.

Since 2008, the Manzanar Committee has been fortunate to have the support of the Lone Pine Unified School District and Lone Pine High School. They co-sponsor MAD each year, providing use of the gymnasium and other facilities at the high school at no cost, except for the janitor’s salary that day. The Manzanar Committee certainly appreciates this support and thanks LPUSD and LPHS for their generosity, year after year.

But I digress…

One of the small group discussions
at the 2011 Manzanar At Dusk program.
Photo: Gann Matsuda

Since MAD moved out of the American Legion Hall in Independence, I felt the event lost some of its character. Fewer and fewer participants were volunteering to share during the open mic session at the end of the program, as opposed to previous years, when we would have a number of participants recite poetry they had written, inspired by their experiences that day, sing songs, play the guitar, or just share their thoughts that were inspired by what they had just experienced.

Some of that was due to the fact that students from EducationInAction at the City College of San Francisco stopped coming to the Pilgrimage and MAD after advisor Bill Sorro passed away in September 2007, but the decline began a few years before that.

The Manzanar Committee had to re-organize and scramble a bit to run the MAD program starting in 2008, and, because of that, the last few years were organized without seeking help with the program content from outside of our organization, partially due to a lack of time.

At the same time, I knew that the involvement of college students in the planning of the program had to become part of the process once again. But outside of the UCLA Nikkei Student Union, some Japanese American student organizations were just beginning to discover (or re-discover) the Pilgrimage and MAD programs.

As such, we have been biding our time, so to speak, until a large enough critical mass of college students in Southern California Japanese American student organizations seemed to be committed to attending the Pilgrimage and MAD annually, and, after the 2010 MAD program, I firmly believed that 2011 would be the right time.

One of the small group discussions
at the 2011 Manzanar At Dusk program.
Photo: Gann Matsuda

Looks like I guessed right.

I approached the UCLA Nikkei Student Union (UCLA NSU) back in January about organizing this year’s MAD program, and we tossed around some ideas. As it turned out, they had already had some thoughts about the fact that most of the former camp prisoners were too old to speak in front of a crowd, so how do we tell their stories at MAD?

To my delight, UCLA NSU was immediately interested and excited to work on the MAD program, and came up with the idea to research actual oral histories or interview former prisoners, and then adapt those stories to be told at the beginning of this year’s program.

Not long after they jumped on board, the UCSD Nikkei Student Union (UCSD NSU) and the Cal Poly Pomona Nikkei Student Union (CPP NSU) signed on as co-sponsors as well. Both groups have been attending the Pilgrimage and MAD in recent years.

Former Japanese American concentration camp prisoners share their stories during small group discussions at the 2011 Manzanar At Dusk program.
Photo: Gann Matsuda

These students ended up taking on most of the responsibilities for this year’s MAD program. Indeed, from telling the three stories of former prisoners to open the program, to having volunteers facilitating each of the twenty small group discussions, and then having student after student share their experiences during the open mic session, not to mention a duet sung by UCLA NSU’s Jaymie Takeshita and Toshi Masubuchi, it was these extraordinary college students who made the MAD program what it was this year.

While listening in on some of the small group discussions, and as I listened to comments made during the open mic session, I got the distinct sense that our crowd was more engaged by what they were experiencing than they have been since MAD was in the VFW Hall in Independence. I am firmly convinced that this was the direct result of our college students being so heavily invested in this year’s program. Their involvement meant that they were more engaged, and they brought the rest of us along for the ride.

In the end, this was, arguably, the best MAD program we’ve had in recent years.

To be sure, I was just the emcee at MAD and the logistics person this year. It was the students who took ownership of the program and decided what it would be, and, in the end, brought us back awfully close to how MAD got started back in 1997…without the campfire.

That is definitely how it should be, now, and in the future.

In the spirit of full disclosure here, I would be remiss if I failed to disclose that I had an ulterior motive in encouraging these students to get involved with the Pilgrimage and, especially the MAD program. After all, I am an alumnus of the UCLA NSU, and I always take pride in seeing an organization that gave me so much get involved in their community.

But even more important is that I remember what involvement in events such as the Manzanar Pilgrimage meant for us when I was in their shoes back in the 1980’s. We were inspired by our involvement with community organizations and activists with whom we worked because we always learned so much, and it helped develop our sense of what the Japanese American community was, and what our place was in it.

We also developed strong bonds with activists and leaders in our community, and we saw that our contributions had a strong, positive impact. We realized that our contributions were meaningful to a lot of people, making what we did meaningful for ourselves. That gave us a strong sense of pride, and helped us develop future leaders, both for our own organization and for our community.

About 25 years later, I want these young people to learn all those things we learned. I want them to learn about our community and about themselves, like we did. I want them to develop those bonds and that same strong sense of pride, and I want them to be able to develop strong future leaders.

I also want them to develop that strong sense of what our community is, that they can play a big, big role in it, and that what they do in our community now can have a tremendous, positive impact for years to come.

For them to experience all these things, just in a slightly different way or form, compared to our experiences back in the 1980’s, bodes well, not just for them, but for our community as well.

And now, hours after we’ve cleaned up after the event and locked the doors at Lone Pine High School, I can say without a shadow of a doubt that I can clearly see these incredible young people beginning to travel down the same roads we traveled back in the 1980’s. They are in the midst of a journey that looks like it will take them to those same destinations that we ended up at 25 years ago…they just look a bit different now.

Thank you to everyone from UCLA NSU, UCSD NSU and CPP NSU, especially to Matt Ichinose, Yuta Ebikawa, and Ile Rosas from UCLA NSU, Mika Kennedy and Lauren Gima from UCSD NSU, and to Ryan Kunihiro and Cameron Nakasone from CPP NSU. I can’t begin to tell you all how proud I am of what you’ve all done this weekend. Let’s keep working together and please, make sure you keep the wheels on this road…this is a road you do not want to veer away from, for any reason.

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

This story was reprinted on the Discover Nikkei web site on June 14, 2011: 42nd Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage/Manzanar At Dusk 2011 – A Personal Reflection: Part 1. Part 2 was published on June 21, 2011: 42nd Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage/Manzanar At Dusk 2011 – A Personal Reflection: Part 2


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16 Responses to 42nd Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage/Manzanar At Dusk 2011 – A Personal Reflection

  1. Donald Teruo Hata says:

    Excellent commentary on the evolution of the event, especially his call for more engagement with/by students and younger folks. I am forwarding this to Susan Nakanoka—the new interim coordinator for Asian Pacific Studies at CSU Dominguez Hills, where a small but once vibrant program withered and almost died during the decade since I retired. Please add Susan Nakaoka to your email distribution list if she is not already on it: (e-mail address removed).

    Also add Mitch Maki, interim Provost at CSUDH (e-mail address removed), Naomi Ogawa Moy (e-mail address removed), head of Reference Services in the Univ Library, archivist and chair of the CSUDH Friends of the Japanese Garden—Tom Philo (e-mail address removed), and Bill Ota—landscape specialist in Plant-Op and alumnus.

    Gann, outstanding job. Keep it up. dh

    NOTE: Due to privacy concerns, e-mail addresses originally listed in this comment have been removed prior to approval/publication.

  2. Susanne Norton La Faver says:

    Wonderful first pilgrimage for my husband and me! Thank you so much!

  3. Gail Desler says:

    Hello Gann,

    I feel very privileged to have attended both the ceremony at Manzanar and the MAD program. This was my first pilgrimage, an experience I will remember for a long time to come.

    I wanted to ask your permission to include your photos in several articles I will be writing for my school district (Elk Grove Unified) and local educational cable commission.

    Gail Desler
    2011 Manzanar pilgrim

  4. Ile Rosas says:

    This is great, Gann! Thanks so much for this wonderful article on how involved the collegiate NSUs are getting in the Manzanar program! This was certainly my favorite Manzanar Pilgrimage I have ever been to, and one I will keep close to my heart :)

    • Gann Matsuda says:

      You folks deserved the praise, Ile. So many people, from participants to Manzanar Committee members, all said how good MAD was, and that’s a credit to all of you. Like I said in the story, I really had a small role in comparison.

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