The First Manzanar Pilgrims

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Early leaders of the pilgrimage reflect on the movement.

Attendees gathered at the cemetery monument on Dec. 27, 1969 for the first organized Manzanar Pilgrimage. Before that, Rev. Sentoku Maeda, a Buddhist minister, and Rev. Shoichi Wakahiro, a Christian minister, had visited Manzanar every year since the camp closed in 1945. (Evan Johnson Collection/National Park Service photo)

By MARTHA NAKAGAWA, Rafu Contributor

Back in 1969, Jim Matsuoka, a former Manzanar prisoner during World War II, returned to the site of his childhood imprisonment as part of the first organized Manzanar pilgrimage, and was asked to say a few words in front of the i-rei-toh (慰霊塔).

Fifty years later, Matsuoka was again asked to say a few words but this time as a recipient of the Sue Kunitomi Embrey Legacy Award.

The similarities stop there.

Fifty years ago, there were no paved roads, no Interpretive Center and certainly no National Park Service staff to welcome Matsuoka back to Manzanar. In 1969, the site was still owned by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

“Things are so much better organized today by a long shot,” said Matsuoka. “Back in ’69, we didn’t really know where to go and how to get there. And because the land belonged to the Department of Water and Power, in a way, we sort of barged our way onto the land.”

Others who had attended the 1969 pilgrimage and who were able to attend the 2019 pilgrimage included Ken Levy, Ron Wakabayashi and Warren Furutani, who co-hosted the 2019 pilgrimage with traci kato-kiriyama.

Warren Furutani was one of the original pilgrims in 1969. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

Wakabayashi, who was born in Reno and carried into Manzanar as an infant during the war on a visit by his parents, concurred with Matsuoka that the first organized pilgrimage was a learning experience.

“We didn’t know what we were doing,” said Wakabayashi via email. “We wouldn’t have done it in December, that’s for sure. There was a strong wind. We had planned to pitch tents and could only do it by tying them to our cars.”

Prior to the first organized Manzanar Pilgrimage in 1969, Rev. Sentoku Maeda, a Buddhist minister, and Rev. Shoichi Wakahiro, a Christian minister, had been making a pilgrimage to Manzanar every year since the camp had closed.

“They really started the first Manzanar pilgrimage,” said Furutani. “And the reason for that was that although the government had said all the bodies in the cemetery had been exhumed, Rev. Wakahiro and Rev. Maeda confided in us and said there were still bodies in the cemetery. That’s why ever since then, the past 50 pilgrimages that we have been a part of and the 75 pilgrimages that they were a part of, we’ve focused on the religious ceremony at the cemetery because we’re here to pay homage and to pay our respect to those who are still here.”

In 1969, the pilgrimage also attracted mainstream media attention. “We had a lot of media,” recalled Matsuoka. “NBC, CBS, you name it. They all came, but the minute they had the religious ceremony and got their pictures, they split because it was so cold.”

In contrast, this year, there was an enormous amount of interest from the Japanese media, while the presence of mainstream American media was very low.

Additionally, the Japanese consul general and Japanese business leaders from the Japanese Chamber of Commerce from Northern and Southern California have become regular participants over the past decade.

THE BEGINNINGS

In 1969, the pilgrimage was sponsored by the Organization of Southland Asian American Organizations, an umbrella group composed of campus groups, community organizations and individuals.

Furutani recalled that back in the 1960s, there were hundreds of marches, calling for justice and equality, occurring all across the United States. Some well-known marches included the United Farm Workers march to Delano, the Poor People’s March in Washington, D.C., and the anti-Vietnam War protests across the world.

After one anti-Vietnam War demonstration in Oceanside, Furutani said he and Victor Shibata brainstormed about ways to galvanize the Asian American community. They thought maybe they could plan a march from Los Angeles to a camp called Manzanar, which they had heard about but knew nothing about. They soon learned that a march would be impossible since it was over 200 miles from Los Angeles to Manzanar.

Instead, organizers planned a pilgrimage. The details were mostly hashed out at the JACL office, since Furutani was on staff and Wakabayashi was the JACL’s national youth director. The organizers decided to hold the pilgrimage on Dec. 27, which they thought was conveniently between Christmas and New Year’s.

That December, it was so cold that Matsuoka joked that this was the first time he’d seen Furutani speechless due to clenching his mouth shut tight to prevent his teeth from clattering.

Before the Dec. 27th pilgrimage, some of the Japanese American gang members had come up earlier to scrape the peeling paint off the i-rei-toh and repainted it, while others trimmed the overgrowth or pulled weeds.

“By that time, all the fighting had stopped,” said Matsuoka, who had been a member of the Black Juans and whose nickname was The General. “By that time, it was the Yellow Brotherhood.”

During the height of Nikkei gang rivalry, Matsuoka and Moritsugu “Mo” Nishida, a member of the Constituents, were arch-enemies. But the pilgrimage brought them together.

“We all came up early and cleaned this up,” said Nishida, who had spent his childhood imprisoned at the Amache (Granada) WRA camp in Colorado. “Of course, it later evolved into high school kids here in Lone Pine coming up here and doing that, so about 20 years ago, there was this evolution developing between the Manzanar Committee, the local young people, AADAP (Asian American Drug Abuse Program), and the at-risk community in Los Angeles coming together.”

Matsuoka felt that the rise of Nikkei gang rivalries after the war was a reaction to their incarceration during the war. He also felt that all the different forms of protest in camp were connected.

“They’re not separate issues,” he said. “I know it’s hard to believe that a no-no and a renunciant are the same as a striker but to me, they’re one and the same because it’s a manifestation of people responding to their incarceration. And people don’t always respond in the same way. They come at you in a million different ways, and the worst part is when you don’t connect it all. When you isolate that one little group, they do look like loonies, crackpots and as if they’re little aberrations. And everybody buys the narrative that all of our people were loyal what-have-yous.”

The 1969 attendees estimate that they had around 150 to 200 people participate. Although most were Sansei, they noted that there were also Issei and Nisei.

“It was a total inter-generational thing,” recalled Nishida.

NON-JA PERSPECTIVE

Back in 1969, Ken Levy was one of the few non-Japanese Americans attending the pilgrimage. He had seen a little announcement in the local newspaper.

“At that time, I had a class called American Culture & Minorities,” said Levy, who was enrolled at Pitzer College, one of the Claremont Colleges in Pomona. “We had to do some field work, about 15 hours, so my field work was this trip up and back.”

Levy, who is Jewish and lost family members in the Holocaust, said he has always been interested in social justice causes. During the Vietnam War, he was a draft counselor and feels fortunate he wasn’t arrested.

Now a psychotherapist, he recalled one incident after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the U.S.

“A Nisei woman came into my clinic terrified,” Levy said. “She was terrified because she thought it was all going to be happening again. I tried to tell her there are some differences and that I didn’t think the Japanese Americans were going to be at risk, but she was terrified. You know, the monster is still with us.”

Levy also recalled people from Northern California on his bus. “I remember one Nisei activist from the Bay Area … He was saying, ‘When we demonstrated against the (Vietnam) war, it wasn’t just the police taking pictures. The Army was too.’”

Steve Nagano, who attended the 1970 pilgrimage, concurred that there had been a group of Northern Californians who had attended the 1969 Manzanar Pilgrimage because while looking through archival photographs at Visual Communications, he found a 1969 image of his uncle, the Rev. Lloyd Wake, at Manzanar.

“That means there was a group that came from San Francisco for that first pilgrimage,” said Nagano.

Everyone credited Sue Kunitomi Embrey, a Nisei who had been imprisoned at Manzanar, and the Manzanar Committee for continuing a successful pilgrimage for 50 years.

Wakabayashi said he thought the pilgrimage would run out of steam after most of the Nisei generation had passed away, but he realized that Manzanar symbolized more than just a former World War II camp.

“The presence of the Muslim folks underscores the value of the pilgrimages,” said Wakabayashi, who works for the Department of Justice. “When 9/11 happened, I was in a position to convene the local U.S. attorney, FBI and immigration director with leadership in the Muslim community because of the backlash they were suffering. Back then, I was asked by Muslim folks, who knew my JACL redress background, if I thought there could be camps again. I was so sure that the work we did would not allow that to repeat. I was wrong again.”

Wakabayashi noted that he sees the rift that occurred in the Japanese American community happening amongst the Muslim community.

“Because I work with the Muslim community, I can observe some other parallels,” he said. “The polemic that we had with loyalty issues on one side and asserting rights as citizens housed in the ‘No No Boy’ issues repeats within the Muslim community today. I’ve been in those conversations at mosques and masjids. And while those two issues are not mutually exclusive, they very tend to polarize both in our historical experience and within the contemporary Muslim community.

“Another thing that jumps out to me as I reflect about a friend, is an imam, that told me about his Hajj experience, where he took his family to Mecca. His son, Mohammed, he told me, returned so excited about the experience. He had many souvenirs from the Hajj decorating his room. More recently, he told me that Mohammed told him that he wanted to change his name to Michael and that he had taken down all of the items he displayed from the Hajj.

“Ironically, we had another AADAP group at this year’s pilgrimage. In fact, they helped me put a human chain by where the Muslim folks did prayer to give them a little more privacy and security. You see, AADAP existed because Sansei were dying of drug overdose. And, when you probed it further, the link with the camp experience where the take-away was that being Japanese was a liability. Recall the remarks about folks not being able to speak Japanese.

“Identify formation, self-esteem, whatever you call it — it killed a lot of Sansei. Muslim communities are going through the same thing. Being a suspect community is hard.”

Levy was encouraged by the presence of the Muslim community at the pilgrimage but was less optimistic about what was occurring at the southwestern border.

“It’s sickening,” he said. “It is the most shameful, hateful, cruel, needless torture. As a therapist, you’re really sensitized to trauma, and those kids are going to have a lifetime of distress. They’re lucky if they ever get reunited [with their parents]…

“Homeland Security — what a loaded term. When I heard that organization’s name, it just sounded like the Gestapo. But if Homeland Security reunites those kids with their parents, kids still need constancy.…This belongs in the International Criminal Court, not that we recognize it, but every one of them should be in the dock.”

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