Manzanar NHS At 25 Years Old: More Relevant Now Than Ever Before

The following is an expanded version of a story that will appear in the printed program for the 48th Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage, April 29, 2017.


The east side of the Visitor Center at Manzanar National Historic Site.
(click above to view larger image)
Photo: Gann Matsuda/Manzanar Committee

LOS ANGELES — A little over 25 years ago, after decades of hard work, Japanese American community activists, along with allies in California’s Owens Valley, celebrated a victory when the site of the Manzanar concentration camp, located along U.S. Highway 395 between the towns of Lone Pine and Independence, was designated as a National Historic Site on March 3, 1992, by an act of Congress.

It took twelve more years for the Manzanar National Historic Site to become a fully operational unit of the National Park Service, with its Visitor Center opening in April 2004. Since then, several physical elements of the World War II concentration camp have been reconstructed, additional exhibits continue to be developed, gardens are being excavated and rehabilitated, archaeological digs are uncovering more and more artifacts, and oral histories are being collected.

“It’s amazing,” said Manzanar Committee Co-Chair Bruce Embrey. “It took 23 years to be designated as a National Historic Site. Then, it took twelve more years to build the Visitor Center and have a grand opening in 2004. It’s an amazing accomplishment.”

“The anniversary is even more significant because it’s not just 25 years old,” added Embrey. “The National Historic Site is 25 years old. But Manzanar, as a site of struggle, as a site of healing, and as a site for people to reflect and learn what happened, is almost 50 years old.”

Embrey noted that the Manzanar National Historic Site has paved new avenues for learning about the Japanese American Incarceration experience that could never have been available before.

“With all the amazing exhibits and all the work that the National Park Service has put into it, and the fact that it can teach and be a site where people can go and really learn—with the reconstruction of the barracks, the mess hall, the women’s latrine, the guard tower—the physical features of the camp are being reconstructed,” he said. “That deepens people’s understanding immeasurably. The physical re-creation of the elements of camp provides a level of understanding that you just can’t get anywhere else. You walk in there and you see and feel what they had to endure. It’s right there, staring you in the face.”

“Manzanar National Historic Site has become a repository for stories,” he added. “It’s not just a static museum that only reflects our own understanding of what happened. It constantly deepens our understanding, captures stories that we never knew about, and explores elements of what happened in ways that we never could. Without this site, there’s no way that our understanding of what happened to the Japanese American community during World War II would be as deep as it is today, and that understanding is constantly evolving. That’s the significance of Manzanar. It’s a site of learning and a site of healing, not just for the Japanese American community, but for everybody and for people from all over the world.”

“You hear stories from former incarcerees now. Well, a lot of those people aren’t around anymore. But as long as we have Manzanar National Historic Site and the other sites, these stories are going to continue to be told.”

Alisa Lynch, Chief of Interpretation, Manzanar National Historic Site, has worked at Manzanar for more than 15 years. She remembers when there was virtually nothing there, other than the few remaining structures from the World War II concentration camp.

“When we look back at Sue Kunitomi Embrey, and the first Pilgrimage in 1969, she spent 23 years [working towards Manzanar becoming a National Historic Site],” she said. “We’ve been a National Historic Site, as a unit of the National Park Service, longer than it took the grass-roots efforts to get from 1969 to 1992. That’s not a comparison of effort. I think it’s just that it seems like it was such a long slog to get this site established and here it’s already been 25 years.”

Sue Kunitomi Embrey, Bruce Embrey’s mother, was a co-founder of the Manzanar Committee and the Manzanar Pilgrimage, and was the driving force behind the creation of the Manzanar National Historic Site.

“I think she’d be ecstatic [with what’s been done at Manzanar],” Bruce said. “I think she’d be very pleased. It’s hard for me—her last Manzanar Pilgrimage was in 2004, so she saw the [Visitor Center] open, and it was great that a lot of people who were incarcerated at Manzanar were still alive to see that opening. But I think that she would be amazed. She would be thoroughly impressed, proud and pleased with the progress that’s been made. I think she would be blown away by how much has been done by the staff there.”

Sue Kunitomi Embrey would undoubtedly be especially pleased that, 25 years after Manzanar was designated as a National Historic Site, it remains as relevant as it has ever been, perhaps more so now than ever before.

“25 years have passed since the site was established and it has been amazing how the site has evolved and how relevant we currently are,” said Bernadette Johnson, Superintendent, Manzanar National Historic Site. “Maybe 25 years ago, folks were thinking how relevant establishing the site was, in terms of what was happening in the Japanese American community, and then, post 9/11, folks probably thought how relevant the site was, as Muslim Americans were potentially facing a similar fate which, thankfully, never manifested itself.”

“Visitors coming to Manzanar today are making connections with this history and what’s currently being observed by them,” added Johnson. “People coming to the site are really seeking some perspective about what’s on their minds right now and we’re here to listen. We’re here to make sure they have access to the history and to the facts so that they can better understand what happened in 1942, and how important it is that many in the Japanese American community, and others, did not want this repeated.”

“We have to continue telling the story because the injustice, the stories and perspectives, the advocacy and the relevance—those are just as important today as they were 25 years ago, probably more so today.”

Every day, Manzanar National Historic Site gets a significant number of visitors who are searching for that perspective that Johnson spoke of.

“Manzanar has become, not the epicenter of [heightened concerns about protecting the Constitutional rights of all people, given the current political climate], but a major vortex of it,” said Manzanar National Historic Site ranger Patricia Biggs.

“Manzanar National Historic Site has become incredibly more important over the past six months,” said Bill Michael, former Director of the Eastern California Museum who served as Vice Chair of the Manzanar Advisory Commission. “I don’t think any of us would’ve guessed that we would be in these circumstances. Before, it was an idealistic kind of thing—yes, this kind of thing could happen in the future and we need to protect against it. But to have it actually start happening has just been—it’s mind-boggling and it just emphasizes how incredibly important the site is.”

Lynch observed that Manzanar’s relevance is, and should be, timeless.

“Manzanar is going to have a lifespan that’s going to go beyond any of us and it is going to continue to be relevant in ways that were not imagined 25 years ago,” she noted. “Who could’ve imagined that this history could’ve become as relevant as it is now because of September 11 and other things happening in the news today?”

“I always think of historic sites as being in the past, like we’re looking in the rear view mirror,” she added. “Here’s something we can learn from as we go forward. But when you look at Manzanar, you realize that this is not about past history that’s been tidied up and we’re looking backwards. This is relevant now. It may not be the same people, but some of the same issues are certainly relevant, and we’re getting people here every single day who are talking about new ways that this history is relevant. Who knows what will come in ensuing years, but we’ve done everything we can to preserve stories and to preserve the site, so that this site has the foundation that when Manzanar is 50 years old, 75 years old, the voices that people hear here will still be living voices.”

“I don’t want the Manzanar National Historic Site to be this relevant. I really would like this history to be not so relevant, but I’m glad we’re here to talk about it.”

The Next 25 Years

With Manzanar National Historic Site being, in many ways, more relevant now than ever before, how will the site continue to enhance its ability to educate?

“I hope, over the next decade, that we preserve everything we can from all the Nisei (second generation Japanese Americans; children of the Issei, who were immigrants from Japan) and Sansei (third generation) cleaning out attics, basements and garages—the artifacts that are coming in are amazing,” said Lynch. “I hope that continues. We will continue all the visitor services, but we also have to continue to establish that base of what’s going to be the raw material for anything the site might become in the future.”

“If you look at Yosemite or Yellowstone, the landscape is there,” added Lynch. “You don’t have to create the base of information because the place is the story. You can collect stories about the place, but it will speak for itself. You can go to Grand Canyon, look over the edge and appreciate it. But at Manzanar, you need to create that base from which people can appreciate it and understand it, especially for those who think there’s nothing here. It’s not blatantly evident, so I’m hoping that, at least for the next decade, getting every [artifact] possible continues to be a focus.”

Lynch pointed out that the quality and dedication of the staff at Manzanar National Historic Site would also be critical.

“My hope for Manzanar is, and I think it will, to have a staff that’s dedicated to it, beyond just being a job, and a group of people who continue to embrace a diversity of voices,” she said. “That’s so important.”

When asked about his vision for Manzanar’s next 25 years, Michael focused on what the site’s core message is.

“They need to be constant and consistent with what they’re doing now,” he noted. “It can evolve, but the core message of, ‘we must never do this again,’ can’t get tweaked too far from that core message. The core message, to me, is that this is what we did to our own American citizens. We must never let this happen again.”

“Manzanar National Historic Site can evolve, in terms of adding more far-reaching educational programs,” he added. “But it needs to stay strong to that core message. That’s what spoke to me at the beginning. We did this to our own American citizens. We can’t do this again.”

In terms of Manzanar National Historic Site being more relevant now than ever before, and in terms of its evolution over the next 25 years, as it turns out, Sue Kunitomi Embrey had all that firmly in mind more than 25 years ago.

“Democracy is a fragile concept, only as good and strong as the people who practice it,” she said during her testimony before a United States Senate committee hearing in 1991 on House Resolution 543 (102nd Congress), the legislation that would eventually designate Manzanar as a National Historic Site. “Let us tell the world that we are a people, strong and resolute, acknowledging the errors of the past in order not to repeat them in the future.”

“This is the legacy which we believe the Manzanar historic site can leave for future generations, for Americans of every color and creed, to learn from the past and to guide us in the future, to strengthen equal justice under the law, toward brotherhood and human dignity.”

Prescient, to say the very least.


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