Manzanar

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I recently returned from Manzanar, a place I’ve wanted to experience for a very long time. The visit was important, powerful and poignant. When I tell people where I’ve been they look at me strangely. Either they don’t know what it is/was, or they wonder why I would want to visit such a site in our state’s troubled history.

I had been interested in the Japanese American relocation camp for many years. During library school I compiled an annotated bibliography for an Ethnic Bibliography class in 1980, which necessitated meeting with Japanese American librarians and activists, a visit to the Japanese American Citizens League, and and research at various Japanese American libraries.

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The following year I attended one of the many redressment hearings, at Golden Gate University. I still remember the palpable anger and sadness in that auditorium, as I listened to painful, personal testimonies. In 1988 I was heartened when President Ronald Reagan officially apologized to the 80,000 survivors and offered them each $20,000. It couldn’t undue the lamentable episode in U.S. history, but it was an acknowledgement of the tragic “mistake”.

That said, I learned a lot by visiting the camp, alternately referred to as a relocation, concentration, or segregation camp. The energy of intergenerational psychic trauma at Manzanar was unmistakable. Driving to the camp, parking the car, and walking toward the museum, I was overcome by an inchoate sadness, which I simultaneously tried to embrace and dispel.

I thought I understood the internment of Japanese Americans, but it’s one thing to read history books and memoirs and to watch documentaries, it’s another to actually stand at the isolated site. I didn’t have to imagine the harsh windswept terrain, set against the beautiful Sierra Nevada mountains.

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I recalled my grammar school classmate June Shozi, whose family owned the local strawberry stand in our Southern California suburb. I assume she and her family were incarcerated, but it was never discussed. In fact, the entire episode was not taught, even though it had taken place less than twenty years prior. I wonder to what extent it is now part of California’s curriculum.

The museum is installed in Manzanar’s former auditorium. I learned that Paiute Indians lived in the area before the town of Manzanar was founded in 1905. Apple, pear and peach orchards were planted, until the City of Los Angeles began to secretly buy up water rights in the Owens River Valley, and Manzanar was abandoned by 1929. The area was bulldozed to level the ground in preparation for the building of the camp, which exacerbated the continual blowing of dirt and sand.

We watched the short documentary film, which provided an excellent overview of the historical events. I hadn’t realized the extent to which racist antagonism directed toward the Japanese Americans — mainly jealousy for their hard work and financial success in agriculture and other endeavors — predated the relocation. The attack on Pearl Harbor and the professed fear of espionage was merely convenient propaganda for Executive Order 9066 authorizing “segregation” of an innocent minority group. In most cases the Japanese Americans didn’t understand where they were going, how long they’d be gone, or why they were being moved. They packed what they could carry, leaving their homes and businesses to nefarious or benevolent neighbors.

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We learned about families torn asunder by misguided attempts to prove their Americaness. Japanese-born Issei (who were not allowed to become American citizens) often spoke Japanese, while second- and third-generation Nisei and Sansei spoke English. Traditions were frayed by intergenerational living and eating arrangements, as well as divisive answers to a confusing loyalty questionnaire. Much of this was never spoken by the stoic survivors. “Shikata ga nai” was the attitude: it can’t be helped.

Allen compared the exhibits to Allegiance, based on George Takei’s experience as a child incarceree. Though critical of the Broadway musical, Allen admired how it instigated renewed attention to the underacknowledged episode.

After exploring the exhibits, we walked to the reconstructed barracks, mess hall, and other buildings, seeing first hand the cramped quarters with no privacy for sleeping, eating, or personal hygiene. One surprising realization was an internee’s oral history describing how the camp experience was actually beneficial for his mother, who, freed from her traditional obligations of cooking, cleaning, and other household/family duties, was able to blossom artistically and culturally.

By car, we circumnavigated the one-mile square camp, getting a sense of its magnitude. We stopped at various historic sites including the cemetery and the ruins of Pleasure Park, a beautiful garden created by the internees, later renamed Merritt Park for camp director Ralph Merritt. It was completely consumed by the desert and only recently rediscovered. I thought I would buy a souvenir of my long-awaited visit, but as I perused the well-stocked shop, I couldn’t bring myself to purchase anything other than a postcard of an undated “Manzanar” fruit label.

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Experiencing Manzanar over seventy years after its 1945 closure seemed appropriately timely. Annual pilgrimages take place, involving the friends and families of internees, as well as students. People who were incarcerated as children are now in their 80s. I believe every American citizen should be required to experience the site of this tragic miscarriage of justice.