Returning to Manzanar


Manzanar Mosaic: Essays and Oral Histories on America’s First World War II Japanese American Concentration Camp

By Arthur A. Hansen (Denver: University Press of Colorado, 2023, 336 pp., $42; $29.95, hard cover; paperback)

In the field of Japanese American studies, there is no denying the impact of Dr. Arthur A. Hansen’s work. His essays and oral histories on Japanese American World War II incarceration have influenced how scholars study and write about the Japanese American experience to this day. Despite the breadth of his contributions to Japanese American Studies, Hansen returns to Manzanar in this book, where he says his “strongest identity has remained” and where he has “spent the most time as a visitor, consultant, volunteer, and invited speaker.”

For Hansen, Manzanar has been a “staple in (his) life,” moving him “intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.” It is within this spirit that Manzanar Mosaic came to life, a collection of previously published essays and oral histories, that continue to hold deep significance because it sheds light on the Japanese American community during the pre-war years and demonstrates how these dynamics shaped their incarceration experience. Notably, Hansen and David Hacker’s co-authored essay, published in 1974 on the Manzanar Revolt, was one of the first in-depth analyses of the event since Togo Tanaka’s 1942 assessment. As a result, “Manzanar Mosaic” is essential scholarship to understanding Japanese American community formation, where Hansen reminds us of the stakes in writing and preserving history.

The book opens with Ronald C. Larson and Art Hansen’s “Doho: The Japanese American ‘Communist’ Press, 1937-42.” Originally published in 1975, this reprinted article analyzes the newspaper to look at how national and global issues impacted the Japanese American community during the prewar years. Doho itself is significant because it was an alternative newspaper to what seemed like a “monolith” in the “community’s information system.” Despite the limitations of the essay’s focus on the English section of Doho (which Hansen acknowledges and contends with), Larson and Hansen make visible how Doho was not merely a Communist newspaper, but rather a communal space where progressive Japanese coalitional leftist politics could converge.

I was interested to learn that Doho was both anti-war, anti-militarist and thus warned against the growing Japanese empire in the Pacific, but also staunchly rooted in American democracy (although not without critique in relation to racial equality). This rootedness in American democracy would become increasingly problematic as it would create tensions within the community that would be exacerbated by incarceration and the War Relocation Authority’s administration.

Having the Doho essay and Hansen and Hacker’s “The Manzanar ‘Riot’: An Ethnic Perspective” in one place is an important contribution of this book. The Doho article’s analysis of the Japanese American prewar community and the reactions and critiques to the global consequences of Japan’s increasing militarization are seen acutely in the analysis of the Manzanar Revolt, all of which would intimately impact community relations under incarceration. As a historian, I appreciated Hacker and Hansen’s treatment of writing history where they highlight what they call the “ethnic perspective” that acknowledges the cultural significance of the revolt within the Japanese American community as a means of promoting “analysis and understanding rather than ideological reification” of the Japanese American Citizens League. Moving away from the dominant, official narratives about the Manzanar “riot,” Hacker and Hansen’s shift in naming what occurred at Manzanar from “riot” to “revolt” is significant as it situates what happened as not an aberration but a continued expression of resentment and resistance against carceral authorities (and those who supported it). Instead, a revolt is purposeful and a “logical culmination of developments originating” in the administrations’ attempts to “bypass and dismantle Issei leadership with their own carefully crafted JACL leadership to promote Americanization.” A contentious historical event to this day, Hacker and Hansen respectfully historicize how incarcerees disrupted and resisted their imprisonment and the harsh conditions of it. I appreciate their attention to the ethnic perspective, so often overlooked in traditional historical accounts that proclaim objectivity, truth, and fact over the voices of Japanese Americans themselves.

In addition to the two essays, “Manzanar Mosaic” includes a collection of oral history interviews conducted by Hansen with prominent community members who are tied to either Doho or the Manzanar Revolt. These interviews are with Sue Kunitomi Embrey, Togo W. Tanaka, Karl G. Yoneda, Elaine Black Yoneda and Harry Y. Ueno. These interviews are precious windows into World War II incarceration and more specifically, life at Manzanar. Together, the essays and oral histories provide (to use the metaphor of) a mosaic that illuminates an important time in history, one that continues to teach us about incarceration, resistance, survival, white supremacy and the fragility of American democracy.

Earlier this year, I had the honor of interviewing Dr. Hansen for the Manzanar Committee’s annual pilgrimage program. I was in awe of his intellect, spirit and his commitment to Japanese American history. But what moved me the most was his connection to Manzanar and the people he met from his work. More than historical subjects, Hansen is an example of how our subjects deeply impact us and how we affect them in turn. “Manzanar Mosaic” is a gift, bringing to life the voices and perspectives of those who continue to need to be heard.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *