RABBIT RAMBLINGS: Confronting ‘trauma’ at Tule Lake, and a call to action


bioline_Chizu OmoriAnother Tule Lake Pilgrimage is over. This last one, held over the Fourth of July weekend, from July 1-4, was the 21st. First held in 1974, this amounts to roughly 42 years of activity, an impressive accomplishment for this biennial gathering. I went several times while I lived in Seattle, and our trusty leader, Stan Shikuma, was our bus monitor then, and he still fills that role. In addition to being a nurse, Stan also leads the taiko groups and serves as the guide who takes hikers up Castle Rock.

He is one of the many volunteers who work so hard. He takes on the responsibility of making the arrangements, taking care of the participants and organizing a program that allows everyone to have a memorable experience. The National Park Service helps out with rangers and putting up a tent at the memorial service, so they are extra cooperative and helpful. This year, the number of attendees, which have to be limited because of the logistics of accommodations, meals, transportation and the like, was expanded to around 440, so it was the biggest ever. We also had more new people than ever before, so things are expanding.

And there is one more interesting fact that makes me curious. The Pilgrimage to the former California concentration camp is filling up within a few days of our enrollment announcement. We are careful to note every postmark to ensure that a first come first served policy is strictly enforced to be fair to all applicants. Now, these include applications from all over, and some from overseas. What accounts for the popularity and devotion to this event? Many, of course, have ties to this particular camp, and those who were actual inmates there are especially urged to come. But they have to apply like everyone else, so it could be that many simply don’t apply in time. Many who might be interested don’t know about the Pilgrimage and therefore never have attended.

But with this strict policy, theoretically anyone can come, and since it isn’t possible to talk to everyone in attendance, I wonder about the attendees’ makeup. What motivates those who apply? It is apparent that this pilgrimage has a special pull, an experience that goes beyond the standard visit to a former camp site, be it Manzanar, Topaz, Poston, or one of the others. For one thing, it requires a commitment of four days. Everyone is expected to take the buses provided and the scene is set on the bus ride, as everyone is asked to give their name, where they come from, and why they are participating in the Pilgrimage. All are encouraged to share their experiences, their stories, their interests in their family histories, and so forth. And once they arrive, they are immersed in a warm and friendly atmosphere with the understanding that the others at the Pilgrimage are also there to share in all the activities.

There are trips to visit special historical sites, a memorial service to honor those who died at Tule Lake, group activities and movies to watch, so there’s always something going on for everyone. There are old friends to visit, new people to meet, and serious larger group meetings, like the talk that I gave with Barbara Takei called “Tule Lake 101.”

Then, there are the intergenerational small group meetings, where people are encouraged to talk freely and openly, and many of the groups are comprised of family members. These are intimate, often emotional, and tears are shed. In some cases, this is the first time that some stories are told and shared. These are safe spaces where feelings can be expressed and families can touch on sensitive areas that have been hard to explore.

My guess is that Japanese America has yet to come to terms with the group trauma that was inflicted on the whole community when we were herded into concentration camps during World War II. It’s been 74 years, and many families have rarely confronted the pain and anger that they have carried all these years. This is an opportunity to listen to others, to think about what you are hearing and to share your own experiences and feelings. At times, it can be profound.

At this last Pilgrimage, one extended family of 15 members came and they formed an intergenerational group all on their own. It would probably be the last one the grandparents attended, so the family got together, and talked and talked; their meeting spilled over into the afternoon hours. I would love to know what they said, but of course, unless they want to tell me, I’ll never know. Some have said that the Pilgrimage is a life-changing event.

I wonder how much longer the Pilgrimage will continue in its present form. As many former camp inmates are now in their 80s and 90s, their presence will disappear.
We need new blood to volunteer and keep it going. We need more public knowledge about this history. We need to educate the younger generations about their family stories and what it all means. How are we going to do this?

Chizu Omori, of Oakland, is co-producer of the award-winning film “Rabbit in the Moon.” She can be reached at chizuomori@gmail.com. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

One response to “RABBIT RAMBLINGS: Confronting ‘trauma’ at Tule Lake, and a call to action”

  1. mas sato Avatar

    Oh so very true regarding attendance reasons, global interest, and so many are aging such that cannot attend anymore. A very good point is made also about trauma factor at Tule Lake. Thank you.

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