By MARTHA NAKAGAWA, Rafu Contributor
More than 2,500 people turned out April 27 to the 50th anniversary of the first organized Manzanar Pilgrimage, where the running theme among speakers was the parallels between what happened in 1942 and what is occurring today.
Manzanar Committee Co-chair Bruce Embrey, whose mother, Sue Kunitomi Embrey, co-founded the Manzanar Committee, described these as dangerous times.
“The current administration and the president of the United States have manufactured a non-existent national emergency,” said Embrey. “They speak of an invasion, a so-called invasion by people who come from other cultures, and this hysteria that emanates from the White House is being whipped by white supremacist groups and being codified into xenophobic policies by our own government. Honestly, there is no difference between the actions of our government today and the actions of our government in 1942.”
Embrey felt the pilgrimages were necessary more than ever since he noted that Manzanar was not only a place to heal but also a site where justice-minded people gathered to support each other. Some of the past issues that were brought up at past Manzanar Pilgrimages include the support of indigenous tribal members who occupied Wounded Knee in 1973, the call to end the Vietnam War and most importantly, the demand for redress for those who had been imprisoned in U.S. concentration camps during World War II.
“This is important for us to think about because in 1942, no one stood for our community,” said Embrey. “No one outside the Nikkei community demonstrated or protested the forced removal. There were no editorials; there were no protests; there were no vigils. There was no one on the floor of Congress to say this is wrong.
“Today must be different. Today, we must stand together against hate and not stand silent when white nationalists take to the streets of our cities. We cannot stand silent when armed vigilantes patrol our southern borders. We must remember that the Manzanar Committee declared 50 years ago that Manzanar should not just be a symbol of what is wrong with our nation but that Manzanar should be become a monument to our core values of democracy and civil rights.”
Most recently, the Manzanar Committee worked with the local indigenous tribal members when the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power proposed to build a solar power farm across from the Manzanar site.
Kathy Jefferson Bancroft, tribal historic preservation officer for the Lone Pine Paiute Shoshone Reservation, said her tribe works hard to preserve the valley, which they consider a sacred place, and was thankful that the Manzanar Committee had supported their fight against the DWP.
“I didn’t realize how many other people cared when we were facing a big solar project right across the valley here,” said Bancroft. “When the Manzanar Committee stepped in, they started listening because we were all banding together. It was really nice to meet and to get to know other people who cared as much about this valley as we did.”
MUSLIM AMERICAN SUPPORT
At this year’s pilgrimage, the presence of the Muslim American community was highly visible.
Nihad Awad, executive director and co-founder of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), shared how he gifted his children with three books when they were young to teach them about American history. Among them was a book on the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.
After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, with anti-Muslim propaganda on the rise, Awad said this about his daughter: “Feeling that what had happened to Japanese Americans may happen to her and her brothers, she packed her suitcase, and she was ready to be picked up by the federal government.”
Awad said he and other CAIR members were committed to fighting the mass incarceration of a marginalized group so that people like his daughter do not have to live in fear and also to honor the memory of those who had been imprisoned in camps such as Manzanar.
“This white supremacy is creeping back into our politics today, and we, as Americans, have to stand united against any suggestion of a Muslim registry or a Muslim ban or Muslim discrimination or against racial profiling against African Americans or not giving or allowing Native Americans access to their lands and natural resources or any separation of children from their parents,” said Awad.
“An attack on one community is an attack on all of us. This should be our commitment. If we believe in this, if we love those people who spent years in here (Manzanar), we should act as one community against injustice.”
Roula Allouch of CAIR’s national chapter felt that visiting Manzanar should be a rite of passage for all Americans. Allouch recalled a panel she shared with a former Nisei incarceree during the 2016 presidential campaign.
“The one thing that stayed with me the most was his reflection and recollection of the number that he and his family had been reduced to,” she said. “He was a six-year-old child when he was assigned that number, and as a man in his 80s, he could share it easily. I was struck by that, and I continue to remember that moment as a reminder to myself and to each of us that we each have to do everything we can to ensure that no one in our country is ever reduced to a number again.”
Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of CAIR, thanked the Nikkei community, recalling that the first phone call he received after the 9/11 terrorist attack was from a Japanese American friend,“unfortunately telling me to ‘prepare yourself and your community,’” he said. “I didn’t imagine what would happen, and since then, we’ve been honored building bridges together.”
But Ayloush was disturbed by a different type of mass imprisonment today. “Seventy-five years after that shameful moment in our history, we still have to deal with camps in our country, where migrant children are separated from their parents and placed into camps,” he said. “When we say ‘never again,’ let’s make sure it never happens again.”
Karen Korematsu, executive director of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute, shared how she first learned about her father’s Supreme Court case — which challenged the constitutionality of the wartime incarceration — in high school after her friend had read about someone named Korematsu in Roger Daniel’s book “Concentration Camps USA.” Up until that time, she did not know what her father had done during the war.
For challenging the government, Korematsu learned, her father became a pariah within the Japanese American community, but during the 1980s, Prof. Peter Irons and a group of Sansei attorneys, led by Dale Minami, reopened her father’s case under the writ of error coram nobis.
Her father’s case was vacated in 1983, affirming the righteousness of his wartime stand, and at this point, the daughter said, her father could have denounced the Nikkei community for ostracizing him during the war.
“My dad could have very well have said, ‘Hey, Japanese American community, you didn’t want anything to do with me. Why should I have anything to do with you now?’” said Korematsu. “But he wasn’t like that. He wanted to help the community. Wherever he was asked, he would show up and worked with the JACL and worked on redress and reparations because he didn’t want something like the Japanese American incarceration to happen again.
“We need to stop the hate, the racism, xenophobia, and this racial and religious profiling going on. The executive branch, we cannot depend on. Now, the judicial branch, we cannot depend on. The legislative branch is our only hope, and so I encourage you to get out there and support civic engagement. Support those who want to run for office. We cannot be complacent.
“Remember what my father said. He said, ‘Stand up for what is right. When you see something wrong, protest but not with violence. Otherwise, they won’t listen. But don’t be afraid to speak up.”
Minami, who worked on the coram nobis cases of Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi and Minoru Yasui, reminded the attendees that the U.S. government lied in 1942.
“The justification (for the camps) was military necessity or call it national security,” said Minami. “Manzanar reminds us that those justifications were absolute lies. When we filed our petitions to overturn the convictions of Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi and Min Yasui in 1983, we had evidence that was discovered, official documents that contradicted exactly what the government was claiming.”
Minami said that the same abuse of power, coupled with racism, is occurring today. “It’s important to fight this war because it’s a fight for the soul of this country. Will we be a country that embraces diversity as a natural part of a multicultural fabric or will be a country where white supremacy succeeds and triumphs with its ethnic, religious and racial cleansing that Trump is essentially proposing? So it’s up to us to stand up for those principles. That is one of the lessons of Manzanar.”
Like the others, Mia Yamamoto, a transgender woman who was born in Poston (Colorado River) WRA camp, couldn’t help but make comparisons between 1942 and today.
“This citizen against non-citizens is simply just discrimination,” said Yamamoto. “It’s something as old as World War II … The fight against fascism is not over. They’re still putting people in camps. They’re still having armed people on the border, trying to keep refugees and immigrants out. We thought we fought a war against the Nazis and fascism, but they’re back. That fight’s not over, and they call themselves Republicans now.”
As an attorney, Yamamoto also had little hope for the current Supreme Court. “From my point of view, that’s a fascist court,” she said. “I don’t expect much from people like that. I don’t expect much from sexual harassers, sexual predators. Those are people who should not be on the court. They should not be in government. They shouldn’t even have a job. People that would violate the rights of other people in that way don’t belong on a court.”
Jim Matsuoka, a former Manzanar prisoner who was this year’s Sue Kunitomi Embrey Legacy Award recipient, shared what he said to a Muslim American friend. “I told my friend at the Corona Mosque, ‘No one can tell you to go back to where you came from because you are already home.’ This place belongs to all of us, all of us. We reject the people who call for exclusion and those idiots who want to build a bigger wall.”
Former Assemblymember Warren Furutani, one of the earliest organizers of the pilgrimage, noted that one of the issues of the 2020 presidential election may be a call for reparations to African Americans for having been enslaved.
“So as this debate unfolds, don’t be surprised if the African American community comes to our community to talk about how we did it,” said Furutani. “We can share with them the different ideas and the different ways it was done because their cause is our cause.”
Lauren Matsumoto, co-president of the Nikkei Student Union at UC San Diego, highlighted the fact that the Nikkei community did not have too many allies in 1942 and she encouraged attendees to get involved.
“As we stand on land that was once behind barbed wire, there are other communities today who are behind barbed-wire fences,” said Matsumoto. “Some of them are immigrants placed in detention centers that are replicas of these concentration camps that we said would never happen again, so let’s have those discussions and let’s also take action.”
Several people who had gone to the Crystal City Pilgrimage and held a peaceful protest in front of the Dilley detention center in Texas were also at the Manzanar Pilgrimage. They included Kiyoshi and Akemi Ina; Stan and Christine Umeda; Tony Osumi, Jenni Kuida and Maiya Osumi; and Victor Uno.
Kiyoshi Ina, who was born at the Topaz (Central Utah) WRA camp and held in Tule Lake and Crystal City, felt that pilgrimages were important not only to honor those who had been incarcerated, such as his own parents, but also to remind others that prison camps are not acceptable. He discovered on the bus ride to Manzanar that two CAIR members were also involved in protesting the current detention centers imprisoning asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants.
“It’s interesting that everybody is supporting each other,” said Ina. “And that’s really the way it should be. That’s why we’re here.”
Maiya Osumi felt pilgrimages such as the one at Crystal City and Manzanar make a big difference. “They bring people who might not know exactly what Manzanar is or what the camps were,” she said. “There were a lot of people on the bus who had never been to Manzanar, so this is a good experience for them to learn about the past so we can make sure these mistakes don’t happen again.”
According to Bernadette Johnson, the superintendent at the Manzanar National Historic Site, last year there were 104,000 visitors to the site, where the National Park Service staff works hard to educate visitors about the injustices of the World War II camps.
She noted that one visitor had left a line drawing of the Sierra mountain range in the visitors’ book with a note that said, “The Sierra stands as a silent witness.”
“Today, the Sierra is witnessing all of you coming together on this hallowed ground, this very special place where we can all remember what had happened here and to make sure that we influence other people to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” said Johnson.
Cindy Orlando, acting deputy regional director of the Pacific West Region of the National Park Service, shared that she been superintendent of Hawaii’s Volcano National Park prior to her current appointment. She talked about the history of Honouliuli, one of the detainment camps that held resident Japanese shortly after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and referred to the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans as “one of the most atrocious civil rights abuses of the 20th century.”
“We at the National Park Service are humbled by the responsibility to steward and to preserve these very important experiences and stories for all of you so that visitors from around the world can learn about the Japanese incarceration to remind each of us to work together to make sure this never happens again,” said Orlando.
This year, Tomochika Uyama, consul general of Japan in San Francisco, whose territory includes the Manzanar site, was able to join the gathering. He addressed the attendees in English and Japanese. Last year, he also attended the Tule Lake Pilgrimage.
“While my knowledge is certainly deeper this second time (visiting a WRA camp), it is not easier the second time, seeing this site with my own eyes and coming to terms with the injustice that occurred here,” said Uyama. “I came here today with members of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Northern California, made up of mostly Japanese business leaders and their family members, who are committed to educating themselves and their communities about this key moment in history and to apply these lessons to the modern generation.…We cannot undo the injustices but at the very least, we can remember them and honor these memories by building a better society today.”
Traci kato-kiriyama, who co-emceed the pilgrimage, thanked the consul general. “I just want to acknowledge how beautiful it was to hear Japanese being spoken here. We were reminded on our bus ride here by one of our big sisters, Mia Yamamoto, how the Issei, the first generation, really suffered and were truly marginalized from their own sense of self, their own self dignity, their own language, their own cultural practices.
“I know I had people in my family that did not want to speak Japanese or study it ever again. There’s a reason why I, as a younger Sansei, don’t know Japanese. I think it is directly tied to that, so I love and appreciate all the languages being spoken here.”
Bishop City Councilmember Stephen Muchovej, who sponsored a resolution to rescind three Bishop wartime resolutions in connection with the Japanese Americans imprisoned at Manzanar, could not attend the pilgrimage due to a family emergency, according to Johnson.
Photos by MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo