Katari: Keeping Japanese American 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

Nearly 76 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 120,000 were unjustly incarcerated, 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, war 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.

The Manzanar Pilgrimage, now going on its 50th 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 49th Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage marked 76 years since the signing of Executive Order 9066, not to mention that it’s been 26 years since Manzanar was designated as a National Historic Site. Manzanar After Dark, which became known as Manzanar At Dusk years earlier, celebrated its 21st 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.

Since 2011, Manzanar At Dusk has been co-sponsored by the Manzanar Committee, and students from 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?

Photo: Gann Matsuda/Manzanar Committee.
(click above to view larger image)

Thanks, in large part, to Masters, the Manzanar Committee has launched the project, Katari (the original working title was Keeping Japanese American Incarceration Stories Alive), which means, to tell stories in Japanese. Along with the National Park Service, and the Nikkei Student Unions mentioned above, in March 2018, college students made the trek to Manzanar for two days of personal, intensive, place-based learning in which participants didn’t just read about this history or listen to a classroom lecture. Indeed, they were 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 Constitutional rights, the desolation and isolation of the area, and much more. Most importantly, they were able to learn about some of the personal stories of those who were incarcerated straight from the mouths of those who were locked up behind the barbed wire.

The students also 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. In a time where the numbers of those incarcerated are decreasing, it is becoming increasingly important to find ways to pass on their stories and connect to younger generations and the project successfully did that in its first iteration.

“We wanted to provide these students opportunities to learn this history, keeping the voices of those former Japanese American incarcerees alive,” said Matsuda. “In turn, we gave 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 76 years ago,” said Embrey. “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.”

“Remembering is not a passive act for those of us whose families were incarcerated,” added Embrey. “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.”

Throughout the weekend, the students were fully engaged and deeply moved.

Photo: Gann Matsuda/Manzanar Committee.
(click above to view larger image)

“It is one thing to see photos and read articles online or through a textbook, and it is another thing to experience something first-hand,” said Erica Wei of the UCSD Nikkei Student Union. “By participating in this project, I got to see Manzanar with my own eyes and hear the stories of those who were incarcerated with my own ears. From the harsh weather, to almost inedible food, to the extreme lack of privacy, I was moved to tears several times and ached for the community who lost their homes and whose families were broken apart. It became so much more impactful, emotional, and meaningful to have this hands-on participation during this weekend.”

The weekend was just as educational and moving for those who had previously experienced Manzanar.

“My time at Manzanar, this time, was different,” said Lauren Matsumoto of the UCSD Nikkei Student Union. “Intense and powerful. I felt it was more impacting and meaningful, learning more about the history on land where one of the camps stood. I learned, in more detail, through personal accounts and stories about events I was not aware of before, such as the Native Americans who once lived on the land until they were forced to move.”

Photo: Gann Matsuda/Manzanar Committee.
(click above to view larger image)

With a growing population of Japanese Americans who are children of recent immigrants from Japan, many of today’s Japanese American youth have no direct connection to the Japanese American Incarceration experience.

“As a shin-Nisei (second generation Japanese Americans, whose parents are recent immigrants from Japan), I always felt out of place within the Japanese American community in Los Angeles,” said Moet Kurakata of the Nikkei Student Union at UCLA. “But this trip 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.”

“Hearing the stories of the members of the Manzanar Committee, the park rangers, and fellow students made me realize that Manzanar has so many aspects that reflect human life,” added Kurakata. “This trip has helped me to identify with Manzanar, something I did not feel last year at the Pilgrimage—I identify with the spirit of the Japanese phrase, gaman [to endure, persevere], and the beauty behind the incarceree’s efforts to make things a little more tolerable with the building of the gardens, the care the orphanage provided for the children whose futures were changed before they could realize, and the strength of everyone on the Manzanar Committee to keep these stories alive.”

As Embrey mentioned previously, teaching others about this history is critical, given the current political climate.

“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,” said Manzanar Committee member Wendi Yamashita, Ph.D, who is an Assistant Professor, Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity, Ithaca College and serves as Co-Director, Katari.

“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.”

Photo: Gann Matsuda/Manzanar Committee.
(click above to view larger image)

In the end, that first weekend with college students last March was a tremendous success.

“From our perspective, this first weekend with students at Manzanar could not have gone much better,” Embrey noted. “The times we’re living in can be both discouraging and unnerving. 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.”

Depending on how we meet our objectives in Phase II (tentatively scheduled for November 3-4, 2018), we hope to expand this pilot project into a permanent, ongoing effort that will include a larger number of students at more college campuses in the future. As such, support for this project has greater potential, reaching beyond our current group of students.

Please Support This Important Project

The Manzanar Committee has launched a fundraising campaign to help defray the costs of food, lodging, and transportation for the students participating in the project, along with some supplies. We estimate our costs to be approximately $5,300.00. Donations can be made at GoFundMe.com (https://www.gofundme.com/katari-jastories), and may be tax deductible (consult your tax advisor).

Your support will help us take a giant leap towards ensuring that the critical stories of those who were unjustly incarcerated in America’s concentration camps will live on, long after their own voices have gone silent. We also believe that this year’s pilot project could expand into a much larger one that will impact more students in the coming years.

Thank you for taking the time to learn more about our project. We look forward to your support. Questions? Please use the contact form below.