MANZANAR, Calif. — Close to 1,500 people braved blustery winds and gritty dust to attend the 46th annual Manzanar Pilgrimage, held April 25.
While visibly less former Japanese American camp inmates attended the pilgrimage, the crowd has grown to include a mixture of students, non-Nikkei, and this year, a noticeable contingent of Japanese nationals, including the recently appointed Los Angeles Consul General of Japan Harry H. Horinouchi and his wife Sabine.
To acknowledge the first inhabitants of the Owens Valley, Beverly Newell, Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone tribal elder, welcomed attendees to the land that her descendants had lived upon for thousands of years and shared her memories of visiting the Manzanar concentration camp as a 6-year-old during World War II.
“My mother and father and I stood out in front of our house as a parade of cars came by,” recalled Newell. “… I remember going to Manzanar and seeing the guard towers with men with machine guns.
“Realizing how traumatic this period must’ve been for families torn from their homes, I can only hope you have found some resolution because this is also part of our tribal history. These lands were once designated as Indian land, but somehow, in a not-so-distant past, this designation has been removed from all maps for this area.”
Manzanar Superintendent Bernadette Lovato Johnson, the first female superintendent at Manzanar, emphasized the importance of sites such as Manzanar.
“The National Park Service is proud to be able to be stewards of this important but dark part of our nation’s history,” said Johnson. “So with the 70th anniversary of the closing of camp, this particular area is especially important to all of us … none of you and the Park Service will ever let the world forget about this tragic experience.”
Les Inafuku, immediate past Manzanar superintendent, was visible at the pilgrimage as a volunteer, directing traffic.
A new and younger addition to this year’s program included Craig Ishii, founder of Kizuna, a group committed to young Japanese Americans, who served as the program’s host.
“If one looks closely at our institutions and our pilgrimages, I think you see the slow but sure movement of the next generation becoming involved in these organizations,” said Ishii. “And I cannot stress how important these collegiate clubs … are to the fabric of our community. Because what they do is that they provide an environment for students to explore. They explore their values, their history, their identity. And they explore community. These clubs get people involved. They change lives. …”
Julia Teranishi, past president of the University of California, San Diego Nikkei Student Union, shared how attending her first Manzanar pilgrimage helped her learn more about her own family history.
“Before my first Manzanar pilgrimage three years ago, the little I knew about internment (sic) camps, I learned from grade school,” said Teranishi.
“And there wasn’t much about it in our text.”
Voices From Camp
Although most former camp survivors, who are physically able to attend pilgrimages today, were children during World War II, their experiences are just as riveting and educational.
The so-called “loyalty questionnaire” passed out by the government destroyed Pat Sakamoto’s family. Her mother, Kazuko “Koo” Sakamoto, answered “yes-yes” to questions 27 and 28, the two most controversial questions, while her biological father answered “no-no” and was shipped to the Tule Lake Segregation Center and eventually renounced his United States citizenship and went to Japan.
“My father said ‘no no’ and that kind of sealed his fate,” said Sakamoto, who was born in Manzanar in 1944. “He lost his citizenship and was sent to another camp, leaving my mother here pregnant with me.
“She had to fend for herself from then on. She was devastated that he would make that decision. In fact, I never met my father. He never stayed in contact with her.
“When the camps were going to close in 1945, my mother was one of the last to leave because she had nowhere to go, and she had two children. She was 22 and probably had never had a full-time job. She was issued a trailer in Burbank and moved there. She looked for a job but the job market was very poor, then, for the Japanese because of all the prejudices.
“I asked her, at one point, how could you afford to put my sister and I in daycare with the kind of money you made. … Finally, she yelled out at me, ‘I had to go on welfare.’
“It must’ve been the most devastating thing for her to do because she was a proud woman but she made it through, and she eventually met another man, whom I call my father, Paul Sakamoto.”
• • •
Hatsuko Mary Higuchi was born in 1939 and her family was sent to the Poston (Colorado River) concentration camp in Arizona.
“When we arrived, we saw rows and rows of black, tar papered barracks, surrounded by barbed wires and soldiers with guns,” recalled Higuchi. “The day we arrived it was 126 degrees. Our room was small. The cots were lined up, side by side. There was only one bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling. The latrine, showers and laundry rooms were in a distant building. There was no privacy.
Once the family was released from Poston in 1945, Higuchi’s parents farmed in Southern California.
“We returned with nothing except my parents’ determination to rebuild our lives,” said Higuchi. “We lived in an old, wooden shack. My parents rented farmland in Lawndale.
“My sister and I took public transit to Saturday language school. One day a woman got on the bus and when she saw us, she started yelling, ‘Get these Japs off the bus. They don’t belong here.’ We were frightened and started crying.
“In fourth grade social studies, we read about the war with Japan. I remember crying because I felt I was the enemy. I felt guilty, ashamed and inferior.”
Higuchi’s parents were eventually able to save enough money to put a down payment on 10 acres of farmland in Torrance. However, shortly after this, Higuchi’s father died of heart failure.
“I later learned that 40 percent of the incarcerated males died before reaching the age of 60,” said Higuchi. “When my father died, he was only 45. My mother, who was 10 years younger, made a brave decision to not give up the farm. She decided to farm the 10 acres herself, while single-handedly raising four small children.
“The years of incarceration were never, never discussed in my family, nor in elementary, middle and high school, not even at UCLA.
“(My mother) didn’t want to talk about the camps. … I pleaded, ‘Okasan, kodomo no tame ni. Please, for the sake of the children and grandchildren, we need to know.”
“Like so many Nikkei families, the toll on our Nisei parents and Issei grandparents was terrible. Because of them we survived but to what extent we fully recovered is another question.”
This year’s Sue Kunitomi Embrey Legacy Award was given to Rev. Paul Nakamura, who organized the inter-faith ceremony during the Manzanar Pilgrimage as it is known today. He is also a founding member of the Los Angeles Community Coalition on Redress/Reparations, which later became the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations and is, today, Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress.
He went down to Montgomery, Ala. on March 25, 1965 and marched in solidarity with Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights participants.
Nakamura noted that while he appreciated the recognition, he emphasized that he could not have done anything alone, especially without his wife, Kikuno.
“Awards such as this, it’s not about me, about one person. It’s about the community. “You find your own individual fulfillment in the success of the community. That we learn from the community such things as perseverance, honesty, kindness, patience. … And the success we have as individuals, the fulfillment that we have, comes from the community.”
Satsuki Ina, who has a doctorate in counselor education and is a licensed psychotherapist specializing in community trauma, spoke of the healing journey that the Nikkei community has been traveling for the past 70 years.
“Forced removal from our homes, under armed guard, to an unknown destination, imprisoned behind barbed wire fences for an indefinite period of time with thousands of other innocent people — all of this was an atrocity,” said Ina.
“What we suffered was trauma, loss of control, that is profound and outside of the range of normal human experience. It alters the person’s sense of self and view of the world. Captivity is a degrading, powerless experience. …”
“We suffered the loss of dignity, of self-determination, of power, of hope, of faith, of the possibility and a pride of being Japanese. … Experts on collective historic trauma say that the human response to such humiliation is to be silent, to distort and diminish the suffering and even wipe the memory away in an effort to preserve some sense of dignity.”
Ina noted that in order for the Nikkei community to survive after the war, it was necessary to push the painful memories aside, forget and move on.
“It had been necessary to be silent,” said Ina. “To focus on the silver lining, to remember our friendships, the ball games and the gatherings. It often takes generations for this healing to move beyond staunching the pain, anger and powerlessness.
“There was a time when we could only say farewell to Manzanar, and in so doing, we often gave up our place as true Americans. Silenced our voices so as not to cause trouble. We merged our stories with that of the perpetrator, using language such as ‘relocation center,’ ‘evacuation,’ ‘assembly centers.’ To do what all trauma victims do — struggle to survive.”
Ina noted that evidence of inter-generational transference of trauma is evident even today.
“It’s not your fault that you didn’t know. It’s not your fault that you, too, were victims of the trauma, a victim of secondary trauma, of internalizing the unspoken and accepting the government narrative imposed on you, as well.”
Ina, however, pointed out that the Nikkei community appears to be on a healing path.
“During these 70 years, slowly but surely signs of our healing have been evident,” said Ina. “The slowly gathering storm of shared voices of the Nisei and Sansei, have been demanding that the injustices of our incarceration be acknowledged and redressed.
“Slowly the language of our experience has been challenged, and the narrative of our incarceration is changing. Slowly, our words are landing on our true experiences of our families’ struggles.
“‘Evacuation’ to ‘assembly centers’ and transferred to relocation centers’ of ‘alien’ and ‘non-alien’ Japanese from the West Coast — We now recognize this as deliberate euphemism that made it possible to compromise our most fundamental rights as citizens and human beings.
“We are reclaiming our history, sharing our stories, preserving our artifacts, and in doing so, we are shedding our shame, our fear and giving voice to what was once silent in our community.
“More and more, we are saying no no to the language imposed upon us. We are saying no no to demonizing those who were dissidents. We are saying no no to educational systems that fail to teach about the unjust incarceration, and most recently, we are saying no no to people who seek financial gain from auctioning off precious artifacts created in our camps.
“Today’s Manzanar pilgrimage theme, ‘Watashi wa Manzanar: Continuing our Civil Rights Legacy,’ signifies a watershed moment in our Japanese American history. It clearly represents the growing movement over the years, the shifting of our community consciousness from a ‘farewell to Manzanar’ to ‘I am Manzanar.’
“Watashi wa Manzanar means we are writing our narrative. We are telling our stories, using the language of our truth. We are claiming our loss, suffering, grief, anger, sorrow. And we claim our strength, our resilience, our endurance. Giri, gaman, gamatte — We are claiming our Japanese heritage as we go forward.”