Inafuku Legacy Recalled as Retirement Nears

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Manzanar Superintendent Les Inafuku makes an offering at the cemetery monument during the Manzanar Pilgrimage in 2009. (Photo by Martha Nakagawa)

Manzanar Superintendent Les Inafuku makes an offering at the cemetery monument during the Manzanar Pilgrimage in 2009. (Photo by Martha Nakagawa)

The man who has guided the development and maintenance of Manzanar National Historic Site (MNHS) since 2008 will retire next month, leaving a legacy that includes stewardship of the former wartime camp and a campaign to protect its future.

The site’s first superintendent of Japanese ancestry, the soft-spoken Inafuku brought a personal connection to the mission of researching and preserving the artifacts and stories related to the Japanese American World War II experience. Inafuku retires after 38 years with the National Park Service. A successor has not yet been named.

He has seen attendance at the Manzanar Interpretive Center surge to 82,000 visitors annually. Crowds at the Manzanar Pilgrimage and Manzanar After Dark programs held in the spring also grew to approximately 2,000.

Most recently, Inafuku challenged the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) to relocate a planned 1,200-acre solar ranch across the highway from Manzanar, citing the area’s historic and cultural significance not only to Japanese Americans but also to Native Americans and longtime local residents.

Inafuku was instrumental in convincing the LADWP to hold a public meeting in Los Angeles so that members of the Japanese American community could provide input on the solar project. During the Nov. 16 meeting, he reminded LADWP officials that Manzanar is a “site of conscience.” Overwhelming testimony against the solar ranch led the officials to extend the environmental impact report (EIR) comment period beyond its original Nov. 4 closing date.

Community members will thank Inafuku for his dedication to Manzanar’s educational mission at a Songfest on Sunday, Dec. 15, at Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Church, 815 E. First St., Little Tokyo, from 2:30 p.m.

The program will feature Mary Nomura, the “Songbird of Manzanar”; former Nisei Week Queen Lauren Kinkade Wong; Brian Maeda; Jonathan Lee; Dan Taguchi and the cast of “Manzanar: Story of an American Family”; and more. A silent auction will also be featured.  Tickets are $20 for general admission and $5 for seniors over 65. Purchase tickets by emailing [email protected], calling (818) 203-2779, or visiting friendsofmanzanar.org.

The event is presented by Friends of Manzanar and the Manzanar Committee. According to FOM fundraising chair Rose Ochi, proceeds from the Songfest will benefit the Block 14 Project, which will expand the Manzanar exhibition area by adding seven reconstructed camp buildings — mess hall, two barracks, men’s latrine, women’s latrine, ironing room, and sewing room.

After the war, all but three of the camp’s 800 buildings were sold for scrap lumber or relocated for other uses. Numerous features from the camp remain, including elaborate rock gardens.

Prior to serving as MNHS superintendent, Inafuku was chief ranger at Kaloko-Honokhau National Historical Park and Pu’uhonua o Honauau National Historical Park, both significant archeological and cultural sites to Native Hawaiians on the Big Island of Hawaii. He previously served as park ranger at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska.

While attending UC Santa Cruz, he worked as an interpretive intern at Ano Nuevo State Reserve. Inafuku grew up in the South Bay area. He and his wife, Dawn, have two daughters.

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