INDEPENDENCE — With the help of volunteers from throughout the U.S. and Japan, Manzanar National Historic Site’s cultural resources staff has recently completed preservation work at two of the dozens of Japanese gardens at Manzanar.
Both the Block 12 Mess Hall Garden and the Arai Family Fish Pond in Block 33 provide visitors with a glimpse of one way that some of the 11,000 Japanese Americans coped with their confinement during World War II. Visitors can see both gardens via short walks from the auto tour road.
Japanese Americans created gardens to improve their prison-like surroundings, using whatever materials they could find. Like other gardens at Manzanar, the Block 12 mess hall garden illustrates many traditional characteristics of Japanese gardens, with features representing a mountain, a stream, waterfalls and cascades, and crane and tortoise rocks. The Arai pond featured a stream, rock borders, three islands, a fish tunnel, and even water lilies. It was a “place of beauty and serenity,” according to Madelon Arai Yamamoto, the daughter of the pond’s creator.
Manzanar National Historic Site was established to protect and interpret historical and cultural resources associated with the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. Garden preservation and restoration is an important part of meeting the site’s mission, but most of the gardens at Manzanar had been long abandoned, buried, and forgotten.
Preservation work included removal of invasive vegetation, archeological excavation and mapping, cleaning and repair of damaged concrete, resetting of displaced rocks, and, in some cases, reconstruction of damaged or missing features. In the summer of 2013, disastrous flooding reversed much of the stabilization work that had already been completed.
Manzanar’s historic preservation specialist, John Kepford, noted that the labor contributed by volunteers was critical to overcoming not only the slow deterioration and burial caused by decades of abandonment, but also the rapid damage caused by the recent floods. Thanks to the volunteers, Kepford remarked, “the gardens can now help tell the story of the resiliency of Japanese Americans during their internment.”
According to Professor Kendall Brown of CSU Long Beach, the Japanese gardens at Manzanar are noteworthy because they were created during World War II, when resources were scarce and when anti-Japanese sentiment was at an all-time high. Even more remarkable, Brown says, is that “this is garden art of a very high order … I think arguably this is the most interesting, compelling collection of Japanese gardens in America.”
Ten Japanese gardens at Manzanar have been documented and stabilized to date, but more await archeological investigation and preservation. Volunteer opportunities are posted on the Manzanar website as they become available.
The Manzanar Visitor Center features extensive exhibits, audio-visual programs, and a bookstore. It is open 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. Manzanar is located at 5001 Hwy. 395, six miles south of Independence. For more information, call (760) 878-2194 or visit http://nps.gov/manz.