By MARTHA NAKAGAWA
(Second in a three-part series)
Read Part 1
Former Manzanar inmate Ben Ogami, 85, came from Africa to attend the 42nd annual Manzanar Pilgrimage held on April 30.
“It feels like I’m coming home,” said Ogami, who retired in Africa after helping another former Manzanar inmate, Dr. Gordon Sato, on the Manzanar Project in Eritrea.
Sato, an award-winning cell biologist, had created the Manzanar Project to try to curb world hunger, utilizing a low-tech aquaculture method of combining sewage and other wastes to feed brine shrimp, which in turn would feed larger fish. Marine life is nurtured among the mangrove trees, which grow in coastal salt waters.
Sato brought the concept to Eritrea, which, at the time, was fighting for independence from Ethiopia.
Ogami met Sato in Manzanar but the two took different paths before hooking up again. During the war, Ogami’s parents saw no hope for the family in the U.S. and insisted they go to Japan, over the objections of American-born Ogami and his brother Arthur.
From Manzanar, the family went to the Tule Lake Segregation Center. The brothers were then sent to the Department of Justice camp in Bismarck, N.D., before the entire family was shipped to Japan in December 1945.
This year, Ogami was brought to the pilgrimage by his nephew, Eugene Ogami, who was born in Japan but was given U.S. citizenship through his father’s work connections with the U.S. occupation forces. Eugene’s father also had his U.S. citizenship restored earlier than most, while Ben went through attorney Wayne Collins.
For Eugene’s father, a 2010 return to Bismarck marked a turning point. “I think he felt that it was a closure, starting with his internment at Manzanar all the way to his deportation to Japan,” said Eugene. “Going back to Bismarck and Fort Lincoln and being ceremoniously healed by the tribal Indians got him very emotional.”
George and Yoshie Kitayama Moriyama had lived in Florin, Sacramento County, before the war. They were sent to the Fresno Assembly Center and then to the Jerome WRA camp in Arkansas before ending up at Tule Lake.
One bright spot at Tule Lake was that the two married there, with Rev. Odate officiating.
George said he came to the Manzanar Pilgrimage because some of the Florin Nikkei had been sent to Manzanar.
“A lot of people from Florin were sent to Manzanar,” said George. “My uncle came here so I wanted to see what this place looked like. I guess it’s all the same. The barracks are the same but it is picturesque compared to Tule Lake.”
As an Issei, George did not have to renounce his American citizenship, but his wife did renounce.
“I was the only one in the family to renounce,” said the wife. “I wasn’t angry but it was to keep the family together.”
Like George Moriyama, Mitsuo Yamamoto had attended the Manzanar Pilgrimage to see how his friends had lived. Yamamoto lived in Elk Grove before the war and was sent to the Jerome and Gila River WRA camps.
“From where I lived in Elk Grove, about half a mile or a quarter of a mile on one side — those people were sent to Manzanar,” said Yamamoto. “We were sent to the Fresno Assembly Center, so I don’t know how they determined which families go where.
“Some of my friends came here, so I was kind of curious to see what Manzanar is like. I’m really impressed with all the displays here.”
Harry Honda, Pacific Citizen’s editor emeritus, first visited Manzanar in 1943. “I was in the service and they weren’t allowing Nisei soldiers to come back to the West Coast,” he said. “They didn’t want the Nisei soldiers to be confusing the MPs (military police), so they kept us out.
“My thing was that I wanted to come back and pack up our things so my folks can evacuate, but I couldn’t come out here to help them. But after ’43, they allowed us to return, so you see a lot of pictures of Nisei soldiers in camp — those were taken after ’43.”
Honda’s parents were sent to Rohwer but Honda, who lived Los Angeles before the war, made a trip to Manzanar to see his friends. “I came out here in ‘43 and stayed at Maryknoll (Japanese Catholic Center), at the rectory, and that’s how I was able to look around J-Town. At that time, it was all Bronzeville (African American community).”
Although Barbara Kato Shirota, a former Heart Mountain (Wyo.) camp inmate, had stopped by Manzanar on her own a few times, this was her first pilgrimage. She was surprised by the number of people and the work put into the site by NPS.
“When we came, it was just the plaque at the guard shack and the auditorium that CalTrans was using,” said Kato Shirota. “Now the blocks are numbered so you can kind of visualize the barracks…We may have to come back on our own so we can see everything at a leisurely pace.”
Kato Shirota was just turning 10 when she entered Heart Mountain. Her memories of camp were positive ones such as learning to ice skate on the frozen pond or playing baseball.
“Another thing I remember is (Army Air Corps gunner) Ben Kuroki coming to camp,” said Kato Shirota. “I was in the Girls Scouts, so we were in the parade.”
Kato Shirota’s husband, Jon, is the award-winning author and playwright from Hawaii. Although Hawaii had a large Nikkei population, the islands did not undergo mass Nikkei imprisonment, largely from fear that the Hawaiian economy would collapse. Jon, however, was encouraged that the NPS was leading the effort to preserve several camps such as on Sand Island and Honouliuli.
“You know, if you can forget about the camp days and just look at this scenery, it’s a beautiful place,” said Jon. “But then, how can you forget about the camp days? Then it becomes sad.”
Fumie Ishii Shimada and her family were never in camp during the war. Her father worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad in Nevada, which was outside the restricted military zone for Nikkei. But during the war, Ishii Shimada’s father was fired and had a difficult time providing for the family.
“Because my father was fired and we had five children in our family, my mother asked to go into camp, but they said no because we were not from the West Coast,” said Ishii Shimada. “And there was a certain period when my dad wasn’t allowed to work. I don’t know why.
“That meant my oldest brother, who was a senior in high school, and my sister, who was a junior, had to go out to work to help support the family. And my mother did work for different farms, and my other brother did odd jobs.”
She credits people like Andy Russell and “Years of Infamy” author Michi Weglyn in helping to get Nikkei railroad and mine workers reparations. She also appreciated that the Los Angeles chapter of Nikkei for Civil Rights and Reparations (then known as National Coalition for Redress & Reparations) had sponsored her trip to Washington, D.C. to discuss the issue with Bill Lann Lee, then assistant attorney general for the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division.
Continue reading this story. Part 3