Keeping Japanese American Incarceration Stories Alive

Scene from the first organized Manzanar Pilgrimage in December 1969.
(click above to view larger image)
Photo: Evan Johnson/National Park Service photo

A little more than 75 years ago, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 (February 19, 1942), which authorized the United States Government to forcibly remove Japanese and Japanese Americans from their homes and communities and incarcerate them behind barbed wire in ten American concentration camps, and other confinement sites, during World War II.

In all, over 110,000 were unjustly incarcerated. Another 10,000 “voluntarily” left the West Coast for points east, but they were also victims, forced out of their homes and communities for the duration of the war.

As a federal commission determined in the 1980s, this heinous, unjust act was the result of race prejudice, wartime hysteria and a failure of political leadership. Indeed, the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II was one of the most blatant violations of Constitutional rights in the history of the United States, a dark chapter of our nation’s history that must never be repeated—never again, to anyone, anywhere.

In December 1969, about 150 people, including community activists, former incarcerees and a large contingent of Japanese American college students, made the first organized pilgrimage to Manzanar. There, they paid tribute to their families who endured the pain, suffering and harsh conditions of life behind the barbed wire. But perhaps more important, they made that journey to start filling in the blank pages in their history books—left blank because their parents and grandparents were so reticent to speak of their incarceration, still suffering from the pain and strong feelings of guilt and shame attached to this experience so many years later.

One of the small group discussions during the 2004 Manzanar After Dark program. That’s former Manzanar incarceree and chair of the Manzanar Committee Sue Kunitomi Embrey at center.
(click above to view larger image)
Photo: Gann Matsuda/Manzanar Committee

The Manzanar Pilgrimage, now going on its 49th year, quickly became a community institution that played key roles in the fight for redress and reparations, and in Manzanar being designated as a National Historic Site on March 3, 1992.

“Students and young people have always played a central role in the struggle to understand and to educate people about Executive Order 9066 and the forced removal,” said Manzanar Committee Co-Chair Bruce Embrey. “In 1969, the first community-based Pilgrimage was led by young third and fourth generation Japanese Americans, and throughout the decades-long struggle to win redress, students lent their skills and resources to the work initiated by those who had endured camp.”

By the mid-1990s, however, the time had come for the Pilgrimage to evolve in order to reach younger generations.

In 1997, Japanese American college students, like they did with the Manzanar Pilgrimage in 1969, helped start Manzanar After Dark (along with former Manzanar Committee members Jenni Kuida and Ayako Hagihara, who founded the program), an interactive event where participants could hear the stories of those who were unjustly incarcerated at Manzanar, or other camps and confinement sites, straight from the mouths of those who experienced that injustice. Participants were also able to discuss what they learned, draw parallels to present-day issues, and discuss what can we do now?

This past April, the 48th Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage marked 75 years since the signing of Executive Order 9066 and the 25th anniversary of Manzanar being designated as a National Historic Site. Manzanar After Dark, which became known as Manzanar At Dusk years earlier, celebrated its 20th anniversary as well, having become an integral part of the Pilgrimage program, promoting inter-generational and inter-ethnic discussions about the impact of Japanese American Incarceration and its continued relevance today.

Crowd shot during the 2009 Manzanar At Dusk program.
(click above to view larger image)
Photo: Gann Matsuda/Manzanar Committee

Since 2011, Manzanar At Dusk has been co-sponsored by the Manzanar Committee, and the Nikkei Student Unions at California State University, Long Beach, California Polytechnic University, Pomona, the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of California, San Diego. Student organizers have done a wonderful job organizing the event and taking ownership of it.

In October 2016, student organizers first met to begin the planning for the 2017 program. As they met and worked over the months that followed, Manzanar Committee members noticed that while some of the students had a solid grasp of the history surrounding Japanese American Incarceration, some did not.

“In recent years, although some of our student organizers have shown that they have a solid understanding of the Japanese American experience during World War II, we’ve noticed that an increasing number of them struggle a bit with this history,” said Manzanar At Dusk Co-Coordinator Gann Matsuda. “We realized that it’s because they’re either two or three generations removed from it, or if they are from recent immigrant families from Japan, they have no real connection to it at all. That they are not very well-versed about our community’s World War II experience really isn’t their fault.”

With finalizing plans for the program being the priority, concerns about this issue were set aside, and work on the event continued. When the time came, the 2017 Manzanar At Dusk program was a big success, drawing a record crowd of approximately 550 people to the gymnasium at Lone Pine High School, approximately eight miles south of the Manzanar National Historic Site.

Despite the success of the event, Manzanar Committee members knew that they had a new challenge ahead of them.

A few weeks later, National Park Service Ranger Rose Masters, who is in charge of oral histories at the Manzanar National Historic Site, suggested—entirely out of the blue—bringing the student organizers to Manzanar for a tour of the site.

Cue the light bulbs flashing over our heads. Indeed, what better way to give our student organizers the necessary background, not only to put on a successful event, but more important, to be able to pass on this critically important history to others?

One of the small group discussions during the 2010 Manzanar At Dusk program. Former incarceree Sam Shimada is shown here (in
white), telling his story.
(click above to view larger image)
Photo: Gann Matsuda/Manzanar Committee

Thanks, in large part, to Masters, the Manzanar Committee has launched the project, Keeping Japanese American Incarceration Stories Alive. Along with the National Park Service, and the Nikkei Student Unions mentioned above, we will take college students to Manzanar for two days of personal, intensive, place-based learning in which participants won’t be just reading about this history or listening to a classroom lecture. Indeed, they will be right smack dab in the middle of where that history took place, gaining first-hand experience about the climate, harsh environment, the lack of privacy, the denial of Constituional rights, the desolation and isolation of the area, and much more. Most importantly, they will be able to learn about some of the personal stories of those who were incarcerated there.

“We want to provide these students opportunities to learn this history, keeping the voices of those former Japanese American incarcerees alive,” said Matsuda. “In turn, we will give them some of the tools needed to the teach this history to others.”

“Today, students and young people continue to play a vital role in both remembering and deepening our understanding of what happened to our community and families 75 years ago,” Embrey noted. “Manzanar At Dusk has become an integral and important part of our annual Pilgrimage. Young people are continuing the work of their parents, grandparents, and family members in telling their unique stories of life behind barbed wire. But it has become apparent that we need to do much more to educate our younger generations in order to ensure that they can continue to teach others about this history so that what happened to our community never happens again, to anyone.”

One of the small group discussions during the 2011 Manzanar At Dusk program. Former Manzanar incarceree Dennis Bambauer (known as Dennis Tojo during his incarceration), who was incarcerated as an orphan in Manzanar’s Children’ Village, is shown here (left), telling his story.
(click above to view larger image)
Photo: Gann Matsuda/Manzanar Committee

“Remembering is not a passive act for those of us whose families were incarcerated,” Embrey added. “The telling of our personal stories provides others with a deeper sense of what happened, particularly how it affected real people. Understanding what happened to the Japanese American community during World War II deepens our understanding of the issues facing us and Asian Americans today. Understanding the forced removal means understanding how it impacted people, individuals and families. By keeping our stories alive, we will be able to continue to educate the broader public, as well as our own community, on the real impact of the incarceration of our families and the violation of our Constitutional rights.”

As noted earlier, teaching others about this history is critical, given the current political climate.

“What I love most about Manzanar At Dusk is that it allows for intergenerational and interethnic dialogues that, not only value stories and storytelling, but creates opportunities for participants to make personal and intimate connections to Japanese American History,” said Wendi Yamashita, Co-Coordinator, Manzanar At Dusk. “This new project is an example of the Manzanar Committee’s continued commitment to engage young people in the preservation of community history, identities, and memories.”

“Teaching and having conversations about what happened to Japanese Americans during World War II is important to understanding, not only how the current political climate came to be, but also how we can resist and support one another,” added Yamashita. “Stories and storytelling are a form of resistance.”

%d bloggers like this: