How does a story evolve after those who experienced it are long gone? Is history just a giant game of telephone, where the message fades, getting more convoluted the more times it is retold?
I thought about this as I rode on the bus to Manzanar. I had hoped that the trip would be an opportunity to share a nice, maybe even emotionally moving experience with my dad. Unfortunately, he didn’t feel up to it. It was probably for the best. The 85-degree High Sierra weather is draining to anyone, let alone a Nisei in his 90s.
Dad wasn’t an incarceree at Manzanar; the Arkansas swamps of Rohwer were where he and his beloved companion Lois spent their war years. He is of the George “Horse” Yoshinaga generation that speaks more of sports and fun times they had in camp. Over the years, Manzanar for him has been a place to stop at briefly after fishing in Mammoth.
But last year, Dad and Lois went to the Minidoka Pilgrimage and enjoyed it tremendously. All incarcerees are treated like honored guests at such events.
On the bus, Kanji Sahara was a knowledgeable tour guide; the riders were a mix of repeat visitors, first-timers, non-Asian and, surprisingly, a fair number of Japanese nationals. Last year, the Gardena Valley JCI bus broke down, so it was with some relief when Kanji announced we had driven past where the their ill-fated carriage had gotten two flat tires.
I talked to John Tamura, a repeat pilgrim, who was on last year’s bus. He said despite the mechanical problems they were in good spirits but by the time they made it to Manzanar, the pilgrimage was long finished.
Memory, impermanence and time: even if my Dad had taken the trip, his memories of camp have faded; his parents, the ones who really suffered during the war, have been gone for decades. But in Dad’s gestures, his choice of words, I get a sense of the life he lived and how the incarceration informed the man he became, and in turn, the woman I am today.
We’re losing that day by day. I was lucky to happen upon a mother and her two sons, taking a photo next to the cemetery monument. Fumi Yota was there with her sons Jeffrey and Masato. A Terminal Islander, Fumi graduated from San Pedro High and worked in the cannery. During the war, the family was first at Manzanar, and then later, Tule Lake. One of the sons joked that he “tried to escape” as a two-year-old toddler.
These are times and moments to cherish.
But when memories fade, and most of us are gone, will this story be remembered?
Tom Ikeda, the charismatic leader of Densho, during a recent visit to Southern California, asked that question. The mission of the digital repository of the Japanese American incarceration experience is to ensure that this story is known by Americans 100 years after the signing of Executive Order 9066.
By then, most of us will no longer be here. Certainly no one with direct knowledge of what happened to Japanese Americans.
Tom asked, if we fail and the story is forgotten, consider what may account for this failure. It could be a lack of organization, collapse of institutions, or a shrinking Japanese American population. It’s good that leaders like Tom are thinking that far into the future.
In this era of “fake news” it’s easy to see how revisionist history takes seed and how a story like the incarceration can be lost. The speed of the news cycle makes everything seem ephemeral; facts that seemed long ago decided are suddenly questioned.
Nothing is for certain, but in the young, diverse crowd gathered at Manzanar, I saw some cause for hope. This story is compelling, and new technology will make it easier to share.
Aboard the bus to Manzanar, the other voice besides Kanji’s I had in my head was Manzanar’s famous songbird: Mary Kageyama Nomura. This was thanks to the Tessaku podcast, created by Diane Emiko Tsuchida. Podcasting is a bit like radio and almost anyone can produce a podcast. Personally, I subscribe to podcasts on topics like politics, food, and even “Game of Thrones.”
The audio format allows for intimate conversations on complex topics. In this way, the incarceration is perfect for this medium.
In Tessaku, Mary shares with Diane some things that I don’t think I had ever heard her mention, even though she is so well known here in the Southern California Japanese American community.
She talked of losing both parents at an early age and how her older brother took care of his younger siblings, and paid for singing lessons. How she was courted by Shi Nomura, who was smitten with the young Mary from the first time he saw her perform.
Mary spun her life story as I watched the scenery change from city to the Mojave Desert alive with the pale yellow flowers of spring. I dozed off, closing my eyes with the sounds of a song she recorded with Lou Frizzell.
It was lovely.
More information on Tessaku can be found at https://www.patreon.com/tessaku. You can also subscribe for free to the podcast on Apple or other digital platforms.
Gwen Muranaka, senior editor of The Rafu Shimpo, can be contacted at [email protected]. The Rafu Shimpo’s management and staff continually strive to maintain high editorial standards for professionalism as well as accurate and balanced news coverage. The inclusion of a particular piece, including columns and op-ed submissions by contributing writers in print and/or digitally, does not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the owners, management, individual staff members, and editors. The Rafu Shimpo welcomes responses to any article published in print or digitally. Responses may be sent to author directly or emailed to [email protected]