Keeping Japanese American Incarceree Stories Alive – Pilot Project A Huge Success

Students listening to a presentation on the Manzanar “Riot.” Seated around the table (foreground,
from front to back): Erica Wei (left), Lauren Matsumoto (right), Brian Kohaya (back left),
Moet Kurakata (back middle), Maru Streets (back right).
Photo: Gann Matsuda/Manzanar Committee

by Jason Fujii and Wendi Yamashita

Last summer, the Manzanar Committee, in partnership with National Park Service staff at Manzanar National Historic Site, launched a new project, Keeping Japanese American Incarceration Stories Alive, to take college-age youth to the Manzanar National Historic Site for an intensive, place-based learning experience about the unjust incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Initiated by National Park Service Ranger Rose Masters and generously funded by community donations through a crowdfunding campaign, along with a few individual donations, this pilot project sought to address and bridge the generation gap—recent immigrant families from Japan and their children also have no direct connection to this history—that has made it difficult for young Japanese Americans to teach others about this important history.

On March 10-11, 2018. this two-day experience took place with a group of five college students from the UCLA and UCSD Nikkei Student Unions: Brian Kohaya, Moet Kurakata, Lauren Matsumoto, Maru Streets, and Erica Wei. This diverse group of students came from very different backgrounds—some had families incarcerated, some were shin-Nisei, and non-Japanese. But they all brought with them passion and a willingness to learn.

The first day began with the experiences of the Owens Valley Paiute, with the Button family of the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Tribe sharing their family’s long history at Manzanar with the students. This discussion was eye-opening and prompted the students to think about the connections between Native Americans and Japanese Americans.

National Park Service rangers then provided an in-depth tour of the Block 14 demonstration barracks, women’s latrine, and mess hall, and later in the day, various gardens that have been excavated and restored, along with the cemetery. Students learned about different aspects of incarcerated life at Manzanar—the harsh conditions of confinement, forms of cultural and political resistance, and the consequences incarceration had on real people and families.

While learning about the infamous Loyalty Questionnaire, students were given copies of the actual form to examine themselves. Manzanar Committee member and former Manzanar incarceree Pat Sakamoto described for the group how the questionnaire ripped her family apart. The students were moved emotionally by the devastation that Sakamoto described and it was a moment that the students continued to reference the entire weekend. By sharing her story, Sakamoto provided them with a personal connection to a history that they had only read about in textbooks.

The second day, students learned about what happened after incarceration, including the activism in the 1960s and 1970s that influenced the first organized Manzanar Pilgrimage in 1969. Students were also able to visit the Eastern California Museum and learned about the years of challenging and collaborative work that took place to establish Manzanar as a National Historic Site. However, much of the day centered around in-depth conversations where the students were able to process and discuss their experiences in relation to Japanese American Incarceration. Throughout these discussions, students were, at times, moved to tears, sharing their experiences with racism in their own lives. The day ended with the students reflecting on the entire weekend.

“My time at Manzanar, this time, was different,” said Matsumoto. “Intense and powerful. I felt it was more impacting and meaningful…learning more about the history on the land where one of the camps stood. Students left the weekend excited about how to take what they had learned back to their campuses to share with their organizations.”

As Matsumoto alluded to, the goal of this trip was to provide students with the opportunity to learn about Japanese American Incarceration in one of the places where that history took place. In a time when the numbers of those incarcerated are decreasing, it is critical that we find ways to pass on their stories and connect to younger generations. Our pilot project achieved that goal.

“As a shin-Nisei, I always felt out of place within the Japanese American community in Los Angeles, but this trip has made me realize that no matter what generation, age, skin color, or whatever form of identification, Manzanar is a place that impacts you as a member of society,” said Kurakata.

Similarly, Streets, who has no familial connection to Japanese American Incarceration, commented on how he spent the weekend listening to all the stories about Japanese American lives before and during the incarceration and the lasting impact it had. He described it as an extremely powerful experience, adding that he can now understand the great importance of Manzanar, a strong symbol in history.

In just two days, these complete transformations took place. The power of story, place-based learning, and personal connection made that possible.

“I’ve been to Manzanar more times than I can remember,” said Manzanar Committee Co-Chair Bruce Embrey. “But this trip was special and extremely powerful. It really drove home just how important Manzanar is as a site of conscience and reconciliation. It also showed that Manzanar is a place where frank, open, and often times painful reflection takes place and how important Manzanar is to our community and our country.”

“The times we’re living in can be both discouraging and unnerving,” added Embrey. “But seeing the way these young people took in the tremendous amount of material we gave them, the way that they engaged the rangers, members of the Manzanar Committee, and each other, not to mention how they were able to critically reflect on all that was thrown at them, was really inspiring. They were able to relate what, on the surface, looked totally disconnected to their present-day reality and make the connections to their own life experiences.”

“We can’t say enough about these students. They totally bought into everything we threw at them that weekend, which had to be more than a bit overwhelming, at first. Despite that, they were fully engaged throughout. They were active participants in their own education.”

We are looking into how to make Keeping Japanese American Stories Alive an ongoing project. The stories of the over 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans who were incarcerated in the camps cannot be forgotten, and we realize that Japanese American youth will play a critical role in making sure that these stories live on.

Jason Fujii and Wendi Yamashita are Co-Coordinators of the Manzanar At Dusk program and for the Keeping Japanese American Incarceration Stories Alive project.

Keeping Japanese American Incarceration Stories Alive – A Two-Day Learning Experience at Manzanar National Historic Site

121 photos by Gann Matsuda; ©2018 Manzanar Committee. All rights reserved. Click on any photo to view a larger image, and to scroll/click through the gallery.

Student Reflections On Their Trip To Manzanar


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4 Responses to Keeping Japanese American Incarceree Stories Alive – Pilot Project A Huge Success

  1. Pingback: Memory Transfer | Manzanar Committee

  2. Pingback: 2018 Manzanar At Dusk Will Connect The Past With The Present | Manzanar Committee

  3. Pingback: Two Reflections on Visiting The Manzanar National Historic Site | Manzanar Committee

  4. Pingback: Manzanar: One Weekend, One Incredible Experience | Manzanar Committee

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