Second of two parts
By MARTHA NAKAGAWA, Rafu Contributor
This year’s Sue Kunitomi Embrey Legacy Award went to Wilbur Sato, a former Manzanar prisoner and community activist.
Sato, who was born in 1929 at the start of the Great Depression, shared about his childhood. Like other Japanese Americans of his time, he was delivered by a sanba-san (midwife) at home. He was a breech baby, which meant he came out buttocks or feet first, rather than by the head.
“So they pulled me out by the butt end, and in doing so, they injured my eye, so I ended up with only one eye,” said Sato. “That’s what happens when you’re poor. You don’t have medical care.”
He also noted the various discriminatory laws such as females losing U.S. citizenship if they married non-U.S. citizens.
“And if you were poor and Japanese and you wanted to, for instance, travel to Oakland, you got in your car and you packed a lunch. You went halfway, parked, and slept in your car. Why? Because restaurants could refuse to serve you. Hotels could refuse to give you a room. This was a part of life,” he said.
“Not only that but there was blatant racism from the media, the newspapers, Hollywood and so on. Japanese Americans were called all kinds of names, and not only called names but there was violence. These were terrible, terrible times for Japanese Americans. Then, what happened? We were put into places like Manzanar without being charged with anything. They took away our freedom, our rights. They said we were not American. This all happened to us.”
However, Sato was optimistic that the country’s democratic system was still strong, despite the ongoing activities of the Trump Administration. He pointed to how several cities were switching from an at-large election to electing members by district, an action that is being forced through by lawsuits.
“Trump is just a blip on the screen,” said Sato. “He’s not going to last and democracy is going to win.”
This year’s speaker from the Muslim American community was Yusra Khafagi, the leadership development coordinator with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Greater Los Angeles area chapter.
Khafagi shared about the meaning of her name. “My first name means ‘ease,’ the ease that comes after hardship. It’s a word that is used in the Koran, and for me, my name carries so much for my identity, my history and for us, as Muslims.
“And it is this type of ease that comes when allies create a circle of love around Muslims, who were protesting outside of LAX after the first executive order for the Muslim ban was passed. That’s the type of ease I’m talking about.”
Khafagi, however, admitted that she hated her name when she was growing up because no one could pronounce it properly.
She also waded into controversial territory when she noted that “the worst name I have ever been called is Israel, which is the colonial project that stole Palestine.”
She encouraged every attendee to learn new names in an effort to build relationships.
“If people change my name or not pronounce it right, it is because it is easier to kind of erase that which you don’t know. It’s the same thing here with Manzanar, right? It’s easy to erase or put away a group of people that you just don’t understand, so you have to understand the significance of our names and make sure our names are heard because when I’m telling you my name, I’m telling you the message that my life is speaking into my name and the message that my name is speaking into my life …
“So as we stand here today, remembering Manzanar and what happened here and those who suffered not only in the incarceration camps but in camps across America, I invite you to learn the names of someone new because building genuine relationships across communities is a form of resistance. The more we know each other on a personal level, the more we will fight for one another on a deeper level.”
The name of the high school student who won the student essay contest this year was withheld due to his status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. His participation in this year’s Los Angeles DOR and Manzanar Pilgrimage seems apropos at a time when more than 100 Central Americans seeking asylum are currently blocked from entering the U.S. at the San Ysidro port of entry.
In his essay, titled “Keeping Our Families Together,” he drew parallels between what had happened to the Nikkei community during World War II and what was happening to the Latino community today.
He also shared about how his uncle had been torn from his wife and children and deported to Mexico.
“The second time he crossed the border, he arrived horribly malnourished,” said the student. “My uncle came to his destination full of cactus spines on his feet and back. When he arrived, he explained the excruciating journey he had endured. My uncle always wondered what ever happened to his family.”
The student noted that although his uncle eventually rebuilt his life in the U.S. and remarried, “my uncle is still trying his best to locate his children so he can be reunited with them.”
“The government’s immigration policy often causes the separation of immigrant families because they think they are doing the right thing even though they are doing wrong,” he said. “Even though they don’t mean to split families apart, they do. Children who have done nothing wrong often pay a brutal price.”
Barbara Takei, representing the Tule Lake Committee (TLC), said TLC and Modoc County are still trying to settle a lawsuit TLC had filed in 2014 to prevent an eight-foot wall from being constructed in the middle of the former campsite as part of a local airport expansion.
“We’re looking at arranging a visit for the officials of Modoc County and the business people to come down to Manzanar and see the site and to talk to the local business people and local politicians to see the impact of this National Historic Site,” said Takei.
For more information on this ongoing effort, go to the TLC website at tulelake.org.
Ken Koshio, who has been participating in the Manzanar Pilgrimage since 2000, even after he moved to Arizona, expanded his repertoire this year by including a traditional Okinawan song, “Tinsagu nu Hana,” also called “Chinsagu no Hana.”
Although Koshio is not of Okinawan descent, he noted that his move to the U.S. and his interaction with the indigenous tribes had given him a greater appreciation of the minorities oppressed in Japan such as the Okinawans, the Ainu and even the hibakusha or atomic bomb survivors, who are shunned for fear that radiation exposure may be transferred to future generations.
“I’m not any of them, but somehow I hope to pass down through my music a better understanding of who we are,” said Koshio.
In recounting the passage of the redress bill, Bruce Embrey, Manzanar Committee co-chair, noted that it was everyday citizens that helped get the bill passed.
“To get the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 passed, the odds were not in our favor,” said Embrey. “The odds at that time were stacked against an apology, much less a recognition that our country had committed a racist act.
“It’s important that while we understand that laws are passed by Congress, that we never forget that it was the telling of these stories by ordinary people that drove this movement and provided our political representatives with the moral authority.
“Our victory, however, won’t be worth the paper it is printed on if we do not stand up when anyone else’s civil or constitutional rights are threatened. The real reason of our long struggle for redress and reparations, the real lesson, is that our democracy is fragile and it must be defended at all times.
“Today, threats to our democracy emanate from the very halls of power where the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was passed and as we gather here today, the president’s Muslim travel ban is before the Supreme Court. You’d think or you’d hope this couldn’t be happening in this day and age, but do not forget the Supreme Court ruled against Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi, Mitsuye Endo and Min Yasui and upheld E.O. 9066.
[In the Endo case, the Supreme Court technically did not rule against Endo but concluded that the government could not detain U.S. citizens if they were found to be “loyal” to the U.S. This ruling helped to reopen the West Coast to Japanese Americans after their release from camp.]
“Scapegoating entire communities for our country’s economic problems or supposed threats to our national security, unfortunately, is not a new phenomenon in our country. And what is going on today is no different than what our families endured during World War II. So do not turn a blind eye. Stand up. Speak out. We cannot say shikata ga nai if our victory is to be meaningful and enduring. We cannot, we must not be silent.”
Photos by MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo