A stirring memoir of adolescent Manzanar stories weaved with senior hiking adventures

Manzanar_to_Mount_WhitneyMANZANAR TO MOUNT WHITNEY: The Life and Times of a Lost Hiker
By Hank Umemoto (Berkeley, Calif.: Heyday, Books 2013, 224 pp., $16.95, paperback)

My first trip of many to the World War II Manzanar concentration camp site occurred in the spring of 1972. On that occasion I accompanied my California State University, Fullerton, Nisei colleague, Kinji Yada, on his personal pilgrimage to the place in eastern California’s Owens Valley where, as a young teenager in 1942, the U.S. government had imprisoned him and his family “for the duration” and to which he had not returned since his 1945 departure.

Four decades later, in May 2011, I found myself again in the Manzanar vicinity to attend a Manzanar National Historic Site ranger’s retirement party held in an Independence park. There I met Hank Umemoto, the author of the volume under review. When he disclosed that he had entered Manzanar at 13, I asked if perhaps he had known Kinji Yada, whom I regarded as “my best friend.” Startled, Hank sputtered, “At Manzanar Kinji was my best friend. Moreover, we were in the Army together in post-Occupied Japan, and later I was his best man at his wedding to a Japanese woman.” I discovered, too, that Hank’s Sansei daughter was Karen Umemoto, an urban and regional planning professor at the University of Hawai‘i with a UCLA background in Asian American studies, and that her Sansei husband was Brian Niiya, a scholar-journalist then preparing to edit an online Japanese American history encyclopedia for the Seattle-based Densho organization.

What Umemoto did not reveal was that he was finishing a book rooted in his three Manzanar years. This I found out somewhat later when Niiya informed me that Heyday was publishing his father-in-law’s book. Maintaining that Umemoto is a great storyteller, he extolled his autobiographical manuscript as manifest evidence. “But Hank,” cautioned Niiya, “is among those Nisei who has little to say bad about his wartime camp experiences.” Hearing Niiya’s appraisal of Umemoto’s narrative, and reflecting upon how his caveat about his outlook on camp seemingly applied as well to Yada and many others of my acquaintance in their common Nisei age group, I eagerly anticipated reading “Manzanar to Mount Whitney.”

Having now read the book, let me emphatically affirm Umemoto’s extraordinary flair for relating true-life stories. His typically unflinching and often quite witty accounts cover the full extent of the author’s taxing and intriguing lifetime, from his pre-World War II childhood in the Sacramento-area California farm community of Florin, through his present-day retirement in suburban Los Angeles County. Along the way, he recounts his late wartime short-term leave from Manzanar (with several 16-year-old Nisei buddies) to secure remunerative agricultural labor (and taste personal liberation) close by the Central California inland port city of Stockton, his immediate postwar resettlement experience in Los Angeles’ transitional Nihonmachi, his Korean War-era Military Intelligence Service duty in Tokyo, and his Cold War and beyond Southern California pursuit of gainful employment, advanced education, and individual and family enhancement.

What strikes me as the most significant of Umemoto’s several story strands for fashioning a new and richer narrative for Japanese American history is his palpable representation of the precarious existence undergone by Nikkei resettlers during the still greatly understudied “after camp” period. Less satisfying in this same regard is Umemoto’s strand treating his Tokyo army experience. Since he was stationed in this metropolitan nerve center right after Japan regained its national sovereignty, it is unfortunate that Umemoto not only neglects a fortuitous opportunity to paint a miniature portrait of that nation’s state of affairs at this critical juncture, but also ignores a chance to offer readers a personal perspective on the transnational role Japanese Americans played in relation to this situation.

Mostly, though, Umemoto’s memoir consists of an artistic interweaving of his adolescent Manzanar stories and his senior hiking narratives, culminating in his graphic and gripping depiction of his multiple septuagenarian ascents of Mount Whitney — the contiguous United States’ highest peak in the towering Sierra Nevada mountain range above Manzanar. Contained within this exemplary rendering is a Horatio Alger rags-to-riches, onward and upward motif, but it varies significantly from the standard-issue model. Those readers who interpret Umemoto’s “Manzanar to Mount Whitney” title too literally will likely expect his book to convey them on a journey from the lowly abyss of American civil rights, race relations, and social justice symbolized by Manzanar to the lofty physical, psychological, aesthetic, and spiritual Shangri-La epitomized by Mount Whitney. This would be a mistaken expectation, however, since life at Manzanar for Umemoto was apparently itself something of a “peak experience,” leastwise as compared to both the dark months he, his family, and their Nikkei neighbors had endured in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor “as anti-Japanese sentiment became stronger with each passing day” (pg. 66) and during the unsettling years of so-called “resettlement” following the closing of Manzanar and the other War Relocation Authority camps “(when) the future appeared bleak, unpredictable, and uncertain … (and when Japanese Americans were) starting a life from square one, with a twenty-five dollar stipend … (and when) the hardships and challenges had just begun” (pg. 115).

Perhaps this representation of his past experience by Umemoto accounts for the rose-colored impression of Manzanar that he purportedly felt at his final departure: “I came to realize that my warm, friendly, sheltered, and carefree life would soon be over, and Manzanar would be but a memory” (pg. 115). After all, whereas Umemoto titles his camp chapter gently as “Hello Manzanar,” the title choices for both his post-Pearl Harbor chapter, “’Because We’re Japs, That’s How Come,’” and his resettlement chapter, “A Life in Skid Row,” are contrastingly harsh. It may also explain why Umemoto in his “Closure” chapter stresses how upon arriving at Manzanar in 1942 as an “angry and frustrated teenager … full of aggression and rage,” these initial feelings soon “began to wane, in part because there were plenty of upsides to being a young person in camp” (pg. 184). It may well be the underlying reason, too, why he so honors his parental Issei generation for living by the Japanese phrase of “Shigata ga nai, which means ‘Whatever will be will be’” (pg. 185) and why, in spite of having “great respect and admiration” for those Nikkei who fought to achieve redress and reparations from the U.S. government for their community’s mistreatment, he chose to decline his $20,000 redress payment on the grounds that he would prefer that Japanese Americans “go down in history as a patient, proud and courageous group (who endured their wartime exclusion and detention) … with pride, courage and determination” (pg. 190) rather than as victims of injustice.

One could plausibly argue that if Umemoto, as well as others in his peer group at Manzanar and the other WRA lockups, can look back positively on their camp time because there were “plenty of upsides to being a young person in camp,” it was also the case that their very status as young teenagers in camp shielded them from many of the “slings and arrows” that even their slightly older Nisei and Kibei-Nisei siblings and neighbors had to confront and withstand. These included, most notably, the loyalty registration and military draft, since the response to one or the other could lead to being remanded to a high-security segregation center and/or an alien enemy internment camp, consigned to the perilous war fronts of Europe and Asia or a federal prison, or plagued by the loss of U.S. citizenship and postwar life in war-devastated Japan.

Hank Umemoto makes abundantly clear in his stirring memoir that he is aware of all of these downsides of camp life, but mostly from the perspective of an intimate observer than of an engaged participant. When he turns his attention from Manzanar to Mount Whitney, his perspective is dramatically and, for me, mercifully reversed.

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