By RYOKO OHNISHI
RAFU STAFF WRITER
MANZANAR.—Some came to relive memories of World War II, others came to pray for deceased loved ones — all came to pay tribute and share the history of Japanese Americans during the 41st annual Manzanar Pilgrimage, held last Saturday. While there were fewer internees able to make the trek to the remote desert site, the number of high school and college students, including a group of Muslim students, increased this year, bringing the story of the concentration camp to a new generation.
“Last year was the 40th anniversary and it was more celebratory, but this year, in light of the passing of the immigration law that targets certain groups and legislation changes, I learned how important it is to relate current events to past experiences,” said Megan Sarakane, president of the Nikkei Student Union at UC San Diego. She said that 12 NSU members drove from San Diego to attend the pilgrimage.
Thanks to the recent El Nino, the desert area, which is 3,500 feet above sea level, was covered by tiny yellow California native flowers called “desert dandelions” (Malacothrixglabrata) and was surrounded by snow-powdered mountains which contrasted with the clear blue skies during this year’s pilgrimage.
More than 1,200 people gathered in the cemetery area, where 150 graves had once been during the time the camp was in operation. The pilgrimage ceremony started with a Taiko drum performance by the group UCLA Kyodo Taiko.
This year’s theme was “Civil Rights: Unfinished Business.” Darrell Kunitomi, the nephew of the late Manzanar Committee leader Sue Kunitomi Embrey, served as emcee.
During the ceremony, the Campaign for Justice for Japanese Latin Americans was recognized for its quest to gain redress and reparations for Japanese Latin Americans. Both Bill Michael of the Eastern California Museum and the late Keith Bright of the Inyo County Board of Supervisors received Sue Kunitomi Embrey Legacy Awards, known as “Baka Guts Award,” meaning “Crazy and Gutsy Award.”
The keynote speaker was former Heart Mountain internee and draft resister Takashi “Tak” Hoshizaki, 84, who is active with the Heart Mountain, Wyoming Foundation, a non-profit organization that is working to establish an Interpretive Learning Center at the site of the Heart Mountain camp near Powell, Wyoming. Kunitomi noted that he reconnected to Tak through the social networking Web site Facebook, while he was looking for information related to a Belmont High School reunion.
Hoshizaki spoke about his experiences, particularly when he filled out the loyalty questionnaires, answering yes to number 27 but no to 28, and thereby ended up staying in Heart Mountain.
Hoshizaki also noted, “After September 11th, 2001, Congress passed the Patriot Act which has reduced our civil rights liberties, privacy and the democratic tradition of the United States. In addition, on April 23, the governor of Arizona signed the new Immigration Act. We should become more aware of and be sensitive towards current events. We need to think, plan and organize.”
During the pilgrimage ceremony, representatives from four different religious groups including Buddhism, Shinto, Christianity, and Islam, prayed for the deceased in front of the ireito, the 20-foot tall memorial obelisk. At the end, the participants circled and danced to two Japanese ondo songs—Tankobushi (Coal Miner’s Song, 1932) and Ichi-Tasu-Ichi No Ondo (One Plus One Ondo, 1970).
After the pilgrimage, a more personal memorial took place. At the former site of Block 6, in a field surrounded by trees, Dan Kwong brought a small portion of his mother Momo Nagano’s ashes for a memorial ceremony. Nagano, who passed away on March 31 at 84, was an accomplished weaver who later recalled that her love of weaving started at Manzanar where she worked on the camouflage nets.
Kwong and Nobuko Miyamoto, the leader of Great Leap, sang a requiem for Momo. A public memorial for Nagano will be held on Sunday, May 23 at 1 p.m. in the Main Hall of the Japanese American National Museum.
“My mother was 15 years old when she was interned. She talked a lot about her experience in the camp. Even though it was only three years of her life, it really meant a lot in her life,” said Kwong.
In the evening, students and former internees were able to speak more about what they had experienced at the Manzanar After Dusk (MAD) program held at the gymnasium at Lone Pine High School.
Jane Kurahara and Betsy Young traveled from Hawaii to attend the pilgrimage. As volunteers with the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii, Kurahara and Young helped to uncover a former internment site in Honouliuli several years ago. They were also instrumental in compiling historical information on the World War II Hawaii internees’ experiences for high school students.
“When we broke down to a small group discussion, I was so impressed by the college students in my group. They are so sincere and intelligent,” said Kurahara. “I am glad to see that our experience is taken over to the next generation and we would like to employ such programs to our Honouliuli site which we are going to open this year.”
* * *
To see more images from the 41st Annual Manazanar Pilgrimage check our photo journal here.