Manzanar: A Son’s Journey

Photo: Walter Tabayoyong
(click above to view larger image)

by Keith Uchima

Please understand…I didn’t want to go to see Manzanar. I NEEDED to go there.

Over the years, whenever I had vacation days available, I would always think of visiting Manzanar, one of the ten concentration camps in the United States where nearly 120,000 people, mostly Americans of Japanese descent were racially profiled and imprisoned in 1942, but somehow, it just didn’t seem like a nice getaway from the stresses of everyday Chicago living. I’m pretty certain most descendants of ex-internees feel the same way. Understandable. On a personal level, Manzanar is where my mother Ruth was incarcerated at age 14. This however, is not a story about Executive Order 9066—the presidential order that resulted in the mass imprisonment of Americans based solely on their race. There are volumes of excellent materials available on that subject. This rambling narrative is the culmination of a son trying to unravel the mystery of a few, yet pivotal dark years in his mother’s life.

We, the third Generation Japanese Americans (Sansei) are slowly becoming the “new elders.” Careers. Marriage. Kids. Life rolls on relentlessly. Next thing I knew, Mom and Dad had passed away. Suddenly I had become the pilot of the family’s legacy in a post 9/11 world. Of course we would tell our kids about their Grandma “Bachan” being in the concentration camps and dutifully take them to all of the Japanese American community events around Chicago. But somehow – as much as I had read about it, I couldn’t connect with what these “camps” were like. How can one imagine: High School dances, machine gun towers, Japanese gardens and child prisoners—all in one place? The only way to explain the feeling is: it’s like finishing a puzzle, only to find there’s a piece missing. We feel unsatisfied, then anger, then shrug and throw it away. I was OK with it. Kind of. Not really.

Then one day I painted myself into a corner. Big time. As I was emceeing the Chicago 2012 Day of Remembrance (The Chicago Japanese American Historical Society/JACL co-sponsored DOR commemorates the signing of 9066), I was pontificating about how important it was to recapture our ancestors’ experiences. Yes, I was being “that emcee guy” saying: “blah blah blah, Zzzzzz…” and randomly I blurted out that this is the year I was going to visit Manzanar. As soon as I said it, my mind screamed “retract!…” tell them you “MIGHT” go there! After all, it’s not a snazzy, convenient tour stop with a Starbucks and pool. 230 miles from L.A., 260 miles from Las Vegas. The desert? No regular “cushy” tour buses even go there! But if there’s anything I have inherited from the hard-headed Issei, it’s the fact that “if you say it in front of everybody, you gotta do it, or lose face.”

At the DOR, Bill Yoshino announced that the Chicago JACL is offering a wonderful program called the Kansha Project, which will take a group of students out to the Manzanar site for research and a sleep over. GREAT! Oh wait…Dang, I’m too freakin’ old to apply—but I’m happy to report that my two college-age kids are interested, and of their own free will… without Asian-parental-guilt! (Bonus!)

As you know, timing is everything in life. I remember hearing about this annual Manzanar Pilgrimage that was started in 1969 by an amazing group of activists, which has now evolved into a major annual event. After much hesitation, I called their office in L.A. and Bruce Embrey, son of the late, great Pilgrimage pioneer Sue Kunitomi Embrey answers. With grace and kindness, he fields my questions, and we discover so much common ground. Bruce lived in Chicago for many years and we “talk story” a bit. He then mentions one thing that stuns me. The Pilgrimage bus that leaves L.A. will depart from the old Maryknoll School (now St. Francis Xavier), exactly where my mother boarded in 1942. It’s hard to describe what that connection did to my soul. I had an instant memory of my mother’s voice describing how they crammed onto buses and tried to peek through the covered windows. You see, I had never found a way to actually connect with my mother’s experiences. It was all hearsay and theory. I’m sold instantly. In my own way, using the vague sketches from her stories, I could parallel her journey 70 years later. Suddenly, I NEEDED to go.

In 2001, as an angrier, younger man, I wrote and produced this song on my State of Mind CD called “Liar:”

“Take what you can carry,” the soldier said to me “Sammy” and his friends have sent us

Gather up your family

You’re going on vacation, not so far away

There’s a special place that we’ve prepared Where you can frolic night and day

Liar, talkin’ to me with that gun in your hand

Liar, don’t you know that I was born in this land? “We’re caught up in a panic, there really is no choice You can kick and scream about it

But our machines will drown your voice

Something bad is starting in the friendly skies

It’s raining smoke and fire in our paradise

Madness sweeping all across the sacred land

That’s why the nation needs a sacrificial lamb…

Liar, let me go ‘cause I see hate in your eyes

Liar, let me go. Evil knows no disguise1

As I search airfare and hotels online, an e-mail pops up from Darrell Kunitomi (Los Angeles Times; Pilgrimage emcee and nephew of Sue Kunitomi Embrey) inviting me to help them lead a unity sing-along during the ceremony. Deeply honored by this request, I know for certain that this is the right time to make the journey. Within minutes, my arrangements are booked.

In 1941, my mother, Ruth Yoshida’s family lived comfortably on Santa Monica Boulevard near the pier. Perhaps I can stay near there. Somewhere in a big pile of papers is that address. Unfortunately I inherited the Nisei’s tendency for hoarding, which was exacerbated by living in poverty while incarcerated. Funny thing about hoarding—when you need the stuff you saved, sure as hell you won’t find it! I settle for a room in L.A’s Little Tokyo.

Fast forward. April 28, 6:00 AM. In the darkness of the L.A. morning I walk to the bus staging area at St. Francis Xavier Church. Body tired from the flight and time change, I chastise my pitiful self and think of the L.A. Times photo from 1942, which depicts the very same parking lot jam-packed with families and luggage. Bewildered, they have no idea what is in store for them or their children as armed soldiers look on. Although I feel solemn, I am greeted by a cheerful mix of former internees, descendants and others. There is a lovely group of former school teachers whose humor and brightness of spirit warms the chill of the L.A. morning. As we sit in the modern air conditioned bus, I close my jet lagged eyes. Images and feelings run wild as I imagine a 14-year-old Ruthie sitting on the bus, wondering why they are leaving their home, and why all the shame and sorrow from the elders.

Bus pulls out and the sunrise kicks in. Eddie, the driver, snakes us through the canyons leading out of L.A. I can’t help but notice that it’s a magnificent day, but I try and keep my darkness intact for the Pilgrimage. Martha, our tour guide and schoolteacher, plays some enlightening videos about Executive Order 9066, and the heroic 442nd soldiers on the tiny video screens. My good friend and photographer Walter, whom I bribed to come along by promising to feed him for three days (works every time for bachelor dudes!), looks so serene as he snoozes the entire way.

Photo: Walter Tabayoyong
(click above to view larger image)

Four hours and forty minutes later we arrive. Pulling off the highway, the first thing you see is the guard tower. Originally there were eight. The thought of a rifleman determining my perimeter makes my fists clench and back tighten up. As we exit the bus at the guard’s shack, I walk directly to the fence and squeeze the barbed wire in my hand. The pointed cold metal drives all of the “tourist” out of my system. Admittedly, I wanted to stir up some rage. Somewhere deep in my psyche, I carry this anger. I want to blame. I want to yell. But then I look up at some of the older Survivors walking about, and the stunning beauty of the Sierra Mountains forces some kind of serenity upon me. It’s not the volcanic outlet I was secretly seeking.

Photo: Walter Tabayoyong
(click above to view larger image)

More buses and law enforcement vehicles arrive and I think about my mother, my Bachan, and Grandpa Ojichan—tying those cardboard name tags to their shirt buttons so that the soldiers could identify them. We re-board the bus to go deep into the property where the cemetery and stage is set up. We pass the gleaming new museum. A little further and three barracks appear. Wooden slat structures with tar paper covering. This is where our families were jammed into. Low, barn-like wooden structures with no inner walls that housed multiple families, Twenty people in each. Common toilet outside, no personal privacy. I want to leap off the moving bus and go inside the barracks. Yes, I realize that they are re-creations but my illogical mind needs to go inside. The ceremony starts in a few minutes. The barracks will have to wait. I think of my Ojichan who I never met, shamed and dying behind barbed wire. One of 150 accelerated deaths, I believe.

Mother burns her pictures. Daddy burns inside.

He lashes out in tears of rage about

Basic freedom being denied

And through the paper walls the wind whips the skies Blowing sand of pain into the babies eyes

So many miles from home this isn’t what we planned

We’ve become like strangers in our promised land

Liar. Let me out. There must be a mistake.

Liar. Let me out. How much more can the children take.1

Kerry Cababa (also founding family) jumps aboard to warmly welcome the Pilgrims and I run off to rehearse for the sing-along. As I work my way toward the stage, I am stunned. People. Way over 1,000. Yes, a majority of Japanese Americans, but also strong communities of Middle Eastern, Hispanic and other nationalities in support of human rights. I count ten buses. Later, Bruce Embrey would tell me there officially was 1,270 people who came in from all over. Survivors, descendants, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Jewish and all those who need to remember what extreme racial profiling could lead to.

1,270 pilgrims
Photo: Walter Tabayoyong
(click above to view larger image)

It is high noon now. Taiko drumming groups, including UCLA, stir up the energy with their thunder. A multi-cultural welcome from Monica Embrey and a representative from the Islamic American community opens the program. Veteran Emcee Darrell Kunitomi guides us through the afternoon, which includes a welcome by Manzanar Superintendant Les Inafuku, awarding high profile leader Rose Ochi and Superintendant Frank Hays, a swinging tune by Manzanar songbird Mary Kageyama Nomura and a powerful talk by keynote speaker Dr. Mitchell Maki. Although I’m a city boy from Chicago who writes and performs on the very “edgy” side of things, I can say that it was so healing to help Nancy Gohata, Ken Koshio and Darrell lead the entire audience in Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land. And I admit to having deep emotions as we sang Dylan’s Blowin’ In the Wind, as survivors and descendants carried the huge banners with the names of the ten concentration camps on them. Bruce Embrey gives a passionate closing to the program.

Breathless and exhausted from the hot desert sun, jet lag and bus ride, I now believe that I was running only on fumes. At the ceremonies end, Pilgrims of all faiths gathered around the large white memorial stone obelisk. Quiet and somber, priests and pastors take their turns giving service, and then my memory is rocked by the unmistakable sound of a Buddhist Priest chanting and the scent of burning incense. I am thrown back into my childhood hearing the haunting drone from the priests. In my mind’s eye, I can see my mom, Buddhist beads wrapped around her hands, praying at my Bachan’s funeral when I was little. At that age, I used to listen to them talk about “camp.” Was it like my Cub Scout camp?

“Swallow what we give you. Sleep here where we say.

You don’t need your privacy in this desert hideaway.

You still have your freedom. Just stay behind that wire. If you get unreasonable, then Ready, Aim and Fire!”1

Obon Dance!
Photo: Walter Tabayoyong
(click above to view larger image)

As the chanting ends, a huge circle of people forms organically. Pouring out from the speakers comes that crazy, tinny obon music from somewhere deep in my childhood. My heart wells up when I see the uniformed park rangers joining the joyful, wacky dance! Pilgrims were offered an optional walking tour and of course, I wanted to feel the earth. Our tour guides, Patricia Biggs and Marie Masumoto, walked us through the vast property. Although the camp was razed when evacuated, there are key and very telling remnants of the structures. Most remarkable were the ponds and beautification areas. Here was a massive collective of unwilling prisoners, and yet these spat-upon souls take the time to re-route water sources, design and execute the most serene ponds and fountains. Marie is part of a team that voluntarily excavates and restores these areas. Unfunded, they were digging out years of dirt by hand until recently. One of these ponds featured a turtle-shaped rock fountain and a handmade wooden bridge. Incredible was the spirit of these people. I promise myself to try and not monku (bitch) so much about the petty stuff that bothers me in this life.

Excavated pond and restored bridge
Photo: Walter Tabayoyong
(click above to view larger image)

I’ve been obsessed with seeing the barracks for years. I still have my mother’s scratchy wool army blanket that she brought back from Manzanar. I enter the second barrack. Raw wood. Black paper walls. Tiny metal cots. I know I’m not supposed to, but I need to sit down on one. As a father and a man, I try and imagine that I must bring my wife and daughters here, knowing I cannot leave for the foreseeable future. Complicated thoughts race back and forth and I want to linger, but alas, time is short and my bus will be leaving soon. It occurs to me that Mom had little hope for a bus out of this God forsaken box. As I walk towards the museum, I see a group of thirty Islamic students have laid out their carpets and kneel for sundown prayer.

Photo: Walter Tabayoyong
(click above to view larger image)


Photo: Walter Tabayoyong
(click above to view larger image)

The old wives tale about finally facing up to something that you’ve feared/avoided/imagined for a long time says that you surely will be let down. Definitely not true. I am now on some kind of exhausted, adrenaline rush as I speed though the museum’s exhibits. I try and absorb it all, but four hours in the desert sun and emotional overload has turned my synapses into “mochi.” As if on cue, I come across a gigantic fabric wall. Names. Maybe 11,000 names on it. Tired and frustrated with the bus waiting, I can’t find my mom’s name. I’m starting to lose it. My hallucinogenic sunburned and dehydrated mind is thinking that if I don’t see her name, the entire journey would be a failure. Thank God/Buddha Walter has a zoom lens! He locates it about ten feet up and I spot it. Sorry, no words to describe that moment.

Photo: Walter Tabayoyong
(click above to view larger image)

Spent, we straggle back to the bus. Those friendly retired schoolteachers look so fresh, and I’m so wilted. They must be experienced soul searchers! During the quiet hazy bus ride home, the mind replays, digests and heals. As we pull up at St. Frances Xavier, Martha asks me to lead the bus in singing This Land is Your Land. Our collective voices are wonderfully tired, scratchy and unified.

Webster’s Dictionary defines “chaser” as “a mild drink taken after hard liquor.” The next day I followed up at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM). If walking Manzanar was the hard stuff, the JANM was the perfect “chaser.” Everything made sense there. It is a must see, either before or after. By the way, I’m a pathetic drinker. I have the “turn red” gene.

Strange about this type of journey. I’ve often thought about places to go on my “bucket list.” Of course I still hope to see DaVinci’s works at the Louvre, but I now realize that when it’s time to kick the proverbial “bucket,” Manzanar was the only one that I NEEDED to see. If you are a thinking American, you may not want to see concentration camps on U.S. soil, but you NEED to see them.

I could never truly know what a 14-year-old girl named Ruthie went through in the first hours of incarceration, but by shadowing her movements and gathering, listening and sharing with others who are cut from the same cloth, I find solace.

This internal map of my Pilgrimage is dedicated to my mom, my family, The Chicago Japanese American Historical Society, and my newfound family that is the Manzanar Committee.

In ’45 they freed us. Everything was icy yet. They said, “here’s a little money, sonny…

Let’s forgive and just forget”

But it ain’t really over now.

Look around and you’ll see the signs.

Watch the ones that run the show…

Simple deeds from the narrow minds.

Liar. We the people—can you tell us the truth? Liar. See me now—can you give me back my youth?1

1Excerpt from LIAR © 2001 Keith Uchima, Delectable Music (available on iTunes)

Keith Uchima is a writer, producer and performer in the entertainment industry. He is also a Graduate Gemologist, G.I.A., specializing in purchasing fine jewelry, watches and coins. He can be contacted at

© 2012 Keith Uchima. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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

Creative Commons License The Manzanar Committee’s Official Blog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. You may copy, distribute and/or transmit any story or audio content published on this site under the terms of this license, but only if proper attribution is indicated. The full name of the author and a link back to the original article on this site are required. Photographs, graphic images, and other content not specified are subject to additional restrictions. Additional information is available at: Manzanar Committee Official Blog – Licensing and Copyright Information.

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3 Responses to Manzanar: A Son’s Journey

  1. Lily Yee Ng says:

    Very touching story of your parent’s pilgrimage and how all present and future generations can appreciate the hardships our forefathers went through. The prejudices and injustices that our relatives endured should be etched forever in our hearts. May history never repeat itself in these horrific atrocities to mankind but until God steps in to cut off those wicked from the earth – Psalm 37:9-11 there are no such guarantees. Thank you for reminding us all that we all can make choices to either remain prejudice or be impartial an accept people of all nations as our brother and sister. We would be imitating God, who is not partial – Acts 10:34

  2. Jim Yee says:

    I cannot imagine the horrors and fear (and anger) that those brave prisoners in their own country had to experience. When they say that “War is Hell,” they didn’t have Internment Camps in mind. But I am sure it was just as much a Hell to ‘live’ a daily life feeling like a prisoner of war…it must have felt like living in a Hell. I sure hope future generations learn much from your narrative. It opened up my mind very much. Thanks, Keith.

  3. F. Takahashi says:

    I visited Manzanar when all there was left there was the guard house at the front “gate” area, and only a few of the crumbling concrete foundations, a tall stone someone erected post-1945 to commemorate the place, and there was talk of the government tearing out what was left and making it into some other thing. I’m glad they didn’t do that, and I’m glad they have erected facsimiles of the barracks and guard towers and barbed wire. Everything else was gone. My dad was in Manzanar, but didn’t seem to remember much about it. I did find an article, years later, with his picture in it from Manzanar, and sent it to him.

    I was taken with the beauty of the valley, TV/movie cowboy country. But then there’s the knowing it was forced incarceration of people who were innocent, a whole bunch of law abiding people who just wanted to make a living and raise their families, and just wanted to be American, but were rounded up and hauled away simply because of their heritage; and knowing they didn’t do this to the Germans or Italians (or any of the other enemy peoples).

    Just finished reading When the Emperor was Devine, and she, in some of her small snippets, captured the fright, the embarrassment, the disorientation, and confusion of not knowing why this was happening to them, that a whole ethnic group could be rounded up and imprisoned for no good reason, no trial, nothing.

    Mom was in Poston, Arizona, and I haven’t gone there—mom and my sisters went this past year, but I couldn’t get away from work—and oddly, none of them talk about their trip there. I know putting the people into these camps has affected us, the Sansei, simply because of what psychological stuff it did to our grandparents and parents. Dad would never talk about the camps, he seemed to have erased it from his memory totally (although I think he was only in Manzanar for about six months before joining the army). Mom only told us funny stories when we were growing up, so I thought it had been a fun thing—that’s the way a lot of the Nisei handled it I think, looked at the positive side. But Mom was, and still is, a hoarder (and so are a lot of her kids now too because we grew up with the “don’t waste” and “save it, you never know when you’re going to need it later” mentality), and unlike a lot of the stories I’ve heard, the stuff Mom’s family left with “friends” to protect until they got back, well, those friends sold everything so her side of the family had no heirlooms, not even the small ones like a Japanese hair comb or even photos.

    Dad’s sister somehow managed to keep her koto—but it’s in sad shape, and now, the older Nisei are passing on, leaving us with a legacy that I am torn between…I’ve always thought of myself as just American, not “Japanese” American, so I don’t know if the Japanese part of me has much significance (to me) except for how other people see the surface me—they see a Japanese. I see me as just me. I do know that when 9/11 happened, some of the brainless (hate to say it but they were white) young folks came around to our neighborhood corner store owned by a guy from one of the Arab countries and they started to make trouble—and I grabbed all my friends and we stood by the store owner to keep the guys from destroying things and causing harm because this should not be happening in American, not now.

    Haven’t we learned anything?

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