Manzanar: A Tough Lesson in History

Emily Zamora

by Emily Zamora

On April 2, 1942, Joyce Okazaki, then seven years old, arrived at the Manzanar camp with her family, where Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II.

It was night, and there were no outside lights. Feeling scared, her family clung to one another as they made their way to what would be their home until July of 1944.

After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, it was feared Japanese Americans on the West Coast could be guilty of espionage and aiding the enemy. Franklin D. Roosevelt called for the Japanese Americans to be detained in camps throughout the United States through Executive Order 9066. In March 1942, Manzanar was opened and eventually housed more than 10,000 people.

Manzanar is located in Independence, in California’s Owens Valley. Its backdrop is the Sierra Nevada Mountains. What remains today are the auditorium that serves as the visitor’s center, reconstructed barracks housing exhibits, a mess hall, the cemetery, two guard shacks and a reconstructed guard tower. Concrete slabs remain where the old buildings were, along with gardens the Japanese Americans built.

“It was not an internment camp, but a prison camp or incarceration camp,” Okazaki, now 81, says. “It was not pleasant living to my parents who had to give up their home, the car, their job, their life, their future and their freedom.”

Japanese Americans were forced to relocate, leaving behind everything and bringing with them only what could be carried.

According to Manzanar National Historic Site’s informational packets, Manzanar is 6,000 acres, which included 36 residential blocks. Each block had 14 barracks that were divided into four, 20-foot by 25-foot apartments. Each block had separate male and female latrines and showers, laundry room, an ironing room, a recreation hall and a mess hall.

Okazaki shared one apartment with her parents, sister, grandmother and aunts upon her arrival.

“There was no running water in the one room we lived in,” Okazaki said. “We had to go outside in all kinds of weather to go to the toilet, wash hands, take a shower, brush teeth. Then the weather was not like what we lived with before. Windy and dusty and hot in summers and freezing cold in winters.”

She said Japanese Americans had to walk everywhere: “to the doctor, to the hospital, to visit grandparents.” Her parents had to walk to work. Her mother was a Physical Education teacher and her father a draftsman for the Public Works Department. Okazaki and her younger sister walked to school.

According to Jessica, who works at the Manzanar site, the barracks that are there now were reconstructed three years ago and the exhibits were installed then opened in April 2015. The reconstructed barracks are designed to replicate what life was like.

The first barrack displays what the Japanese Americans saw upon arrival. The walls were unfinished and uninsulated. The windows were not covered. There were cots with mattresses that those who were to be incarcerated, stuffed with straw. One light bulb hung from the ceiling.

The second barrack, labeled Barracks 8, provides an example of what a lived-in apartment would be like. The Japanese Americans strived to make them as much a home as possible. They built furniture and made curtains from scraps. They would order items from outside the camp, according to information provided by the historical site.

“The barracks were definitely the most eye-opening part,” Ruth Hemsworth, 26, of Glendale, Arizona said. “Being able to see the conditions of which they were made to live was insane. It is so cold and windy today. The noise alone would make for a terrible night’s sleep.”

Directly behind the reconstructed barracks is a refurbished mess hall with a World War II-era produce truck parked alongside.

“That building was a historic building,” said park ranger, Patricia Biggs. “It was in Bishop at the airport. It’s exactly what was here from that era. They brought it down here and refurbished it.”

The historic mess hall allows visitors to experience where the Japanese Americans ate. It includes the kitchen and rows of benches. It also has information depicting what was served, where it was from, and how the mess halls were also used as recreational halls.

“My problem with eating was that the food was not to my liking and I was very stubborn and refused to take bites if the food was not tasty,” Okazaki said.

The fire station is in the process of being reconstructed.

“It’s being built on the foundation of where the Manzanar Fire Department was,” Biggs said.

The fire truck parked in front of the Visitor’s Center will be refurbished to what it looked like in 1942 and parked in the reconstructed fire station.

While incarcerated, Okazaki also attended school. The visitor’s center shows a 22-minute film on the camp’s history and daily life, it includes the school in which children learn about freedom of the United States and the constitution all while being confined due to their ancestry.

Okazaki started third grade in the fall of 1942. When she wasn’t attending school, she mostly played outside.

“Hide and seek, hop scotch, or other ground games,” Okazaki said.

She also learned to play cards and played with paper dolls. She designed their dresses with crayons.

“There was no close by library to go to and books to read,” Okazaki said.

Towards the back of the camp is the cemetery. According to information provided by the Manzanar National Historic Site, over 135 internees died while the camp was open. Some were sent to their hometowns for burials, but some were buried outside the camp’s security fence. There still remains some evidence of graves marked by headstones or with rocks. Standing in the center of the fenced off area is a monument that was designed and built by those incarcerated. On the white stone are three Japanese characters that translate to “soul consoling tower.”

Joyce Okazaki, who was Joyce Yuki Nakamura when she was photographed as a child behind the barbed wire at Manzanar.
Photo: Ansel Adams

While at the camp, Okazaki was photographed by Ansel Adams for his book, Born Free and Equal. She is on the cover of reprinted edition.

“I do not know why we were so lucky to be photographed by a famous photographer,” Okazaki says. “I did not know that he was famous at that time, so I always questioned his instructions.”

Adams’ book depicts what life was like for those incarcerated. He was allowed to photograph everything except the guard towers. He chose to photograph from the guard towers as a means of acknowledging their existence according to information at the historical site.

Okazaki’s family left the camp before it closed. Her father applied for permission that was necessary to leave the camp so that he could find work elsewhere.

“When he was allowed to leave, he got $25 and a one-way ticket to wherever he wanted to go,” Okazaki said.

After school ended, the family moved to Chicago. There she says she was not faced with the type of discrimination that Japanese Americans were upon returning to Los Angeles.

Manzanar officially closed November 21, 1945.

“I feel ashamed and angry that anybody would be treated this way, but especially that it happened here in the United States,” Rick Kisinger, 38, of Fontana, California said.

Kisinger had heard about the incarceration camps from his grandfather when he was young, but didn’t learn of the details until visiting Manzanar.

“I learned that a society that prides itself on freedom and diversity can quickly abandon those principles when it perceives a threat from one race, even if there are no facts to back that perception up,” Kisinger said.

Hemsworth had not been aware that such camps existed.

“I learned that society has not changed,” Hemsworth said. “With things going on now with ISIS, I can’t help but relate it to that. Americans are judging Muslims just the same as they once did the Japanese.”

Okazaki said that her time at the camp has not impacted her patriotism. Her grandfather was arrested on December 7, 1941 because he was on the FBI Alien Enemy list, but was never charged with a crime. He was imprisoned at a Federal Detention Camp in Missoula, Montana before being allowed to join his family in Manzanar.

“My grandfather who was imprisoned wrongfully was a true patriot once he was able to become a citizen,” Okazaki said. “He said that he will vote at every election and he did. So I follow what he said and vote at every election.”

Okazaki returned to the camp for the first time in April 2000. She doesn’t feel that her time in Manzanar affected how her life turned out.

“What was more important in my life was the example my parents set by graduating from college with a degree,” Okazaki said. “I wanted to follow them and graduate, and I did.”

Her patriotism and desire to not let her time in Manzanar affect her does not mean she feels what happened to her and others was right.

“Many of us were citizens and were denied our civil rights, our freedom,” Okazaki said, “This was unconstitutional. There was no military necessity for imprisoning us, and it was all caused by racial prejudice, hysteria, and poor leadership.”

Emily Zamora, 31, is studying English at Chaffey College, where she will graduate with an Associate’s Degree in Arts and Humanities, before furthering her education in England, where she hopes to complete her undergraduate work and pursue a Master of Arts degree in English.

Zamora, who wrote this story for her Winter 2015 Journalism class at Chaffey, first visited Manzanar National Historic Site in Spring 2015 with her Geography class—she never knew American concentration camps like Manzanar existed before that.

A native of Riverside, California, Zamora writes from Rancho Cucamonga, California.

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


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2 Responses to Manzanar: A Tough Lesson in History

  1. Louise Tamiko Nakamura Manabe says:

    I’m very proud to say that my older sister is Joyce. I admire her commitment to Manzanar Committee for keeping these historical events alive. The continuation to inform the public is the best way for all Americans to think before chastising people just because of their race.

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