Manzanar: Telling the Story


A large crowd gathers to listen to speakers at the 42nd annual Manzanar Pilgrimage on April 30. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)




(First in a three-part series)


More than 1,100 people attended the 42nd annual Manzanar Pilgrimage held on April 30, with attendees coming as far away as Japan, Europe and Africa, and ages ranging from those still in the single digits to 95-year-old Jack Kunitomi, brother of the late Sue Kunitomi Embrey, who led the charge to make the former American concentration camp into the Manzanar National Historic Site.

Mary Kageyama Nomura, known as the “Songbird of Manzanar,” continued to wow a new generation of students as she sang “The Manzanar Song,” written by the late Louis Frizzell, a music teacher at Manzanar.

Darrell Kunitomi, the emcee, encouraged participants to share their experiences with others when they returned home.

“If you don’t tell the story, the story will die,” said Kunitomi.

This year’s theme focused on champions of civil rights and those profiled included Frank Emi, Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, William Hohri and Fred Korematsu.

John Esaki and Amy Kato also screened the docu-drama “Stand up for Justice,” which recounts the story of Ralph Lazo, a Mexican American who entered Manzanar with his Nikkei friends.

Keynote Speech

Mako Nakagawa from Seattle gave the keynote speech. During World War II, she was incarcerated at the Puyallup Assembly Center in Washington, the Minidoka WRA camp in Idaho, and then the Department of Justice camp at Crystal City in Texas.

Mako Nakagawa

Nakagawa is credited with spearheading the successful passage of the “Power of Words” resolution at the 2010 National JACL (Japanese American Citizens League) Convention. The resolution, which passed with 80 chapters supporting and two chapters dissenting, authorizes the formation of a committee to promote the usage of correct terminology, rather than euphemisms to describe the wartime camp experience.

Nakagawa has garnered support from this year’s Sue Kunitomi Embrey Legacy Award honoree Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, author of “Words Can Lie or Clarify: Terminology of the World War II Incarceration of Japanese Americans.”

The resolution gives a list of words to replace current euphemisms. Among them is replacing such terms as “internment camps” or “relocation camps” with “American concentration camps.”

Nakagawa said despite some controversy the resolution passed by a wide margin. But she was aware that the battle was not over yet and encouraged attendees, especially the younger generation, to become active.

“What can you do?” Nakagawa asked rhetorically. “For starters, you can do a lot for JACL. Commend the National Council for the vote on the ‘Power of Words’ resolution that passed by such a landslide. Discuss with your family and friends the issue of euphemism and their role in promoting misinformation and nonsense propaganda. Write articles and letters. Do not shy away from the term ‘concentration camps.’ Read more. Give the literature on terminology a fair hearing. Encourage all the organizations you’re connected with to switch from terms considered euphemisms and misnomers, and adopt terms that are much more accurate and describe the truth in history.”


Yuta Ebikawa, a member of UCLA’s Nikkei Student Union, lays 1,000 cranes folded by NSU members during the annual Manzanar Pilgrimage. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

Martha Lee, deputy regional director for the National Park Service’s Pacific West region, was among those in attendance. She was not visiting on official capacity. Tom Leatherman, former Manzanar superintendent, who now works under Lee, had encouraged her to attend a pilgrimage.

“What’s encouraging is seeing so many young people here,” said Lee. “I love the fact that there are students here from Pasadena City College and UCLA, USC and Cal Poly Pomona. And there clearly are generations here, grandparents with their grandchildren. That’s an exciting thing to see.”

Lee was very familiar with the Manzanar story. “I grew up in Southern California, in Pasadena, and my parents were huge civil rights activists,” she said. “It was a story I grew up knowing. A lot of the kids in my public school in Pasadena were Japanese Americans and their parents lived this.”

While living in Yosemite during the 1970s, Lee made a trip to the Owens Valley specifically to locate Manzanar.

“I knew the story of Manzanar and came down to find the site and to walk around it,” said Lee. “My very first time I came out here, I felt incredibly moved by this place. I felt some power here.”

Lee, who worked at the Kalaupapa National Historic Park in Hawaii, drew parallels to what happened to the lepers and to what had happened to the Nikkei.

“This gut reaction of isolating people is from ignorance and from fear,” Lee said. “I just think we have this great potential here. This is one of those places where we can pause and remember and recommit ourselves as Americans, to make sure that America is a place where we all have equal opportunities and are treated equally.”

Manzanar Superintendent Les Inafuku had a chance to take Lee out to the former Manzanar reservoir site, which is under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

Earlier this year, Inafuku and Manzanar archeologist Jeff Burton had given a tour of the reservoir to the newly appointed BLM field manager and discussed with the BLM’s state officer the possibility of a land exchange so that the reservoir would come under NPS jurisdiction. Lee promised Inafuku that she would contact the BLM.

Inafuku was optimistic that the reservoir, which has a number of former camp inmate names and messages etched into the cement, will one day be turned over to the NPS.

But while the Manzanar staff continues to pursue various projects, Inafuku is worried that the federal government’s budget woes will have an impact in fiscal year 2012. If it is a drastic cut, he dreads having to consider cutting back on staff.

“It’s really going to be tough,” said Inafuku.


The Sue Kunitomi Embrey Legacy Award, unofficially known as the “Baka Guts” Award, was given to Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga. Rose Ochi accepted on behalf of Herzig-Yoshinaga, who could not make the trip.

“Aiko is really an incredible example of how one person, through their dedication and hard work, could actually rewrite history,” said Ochi. “But her pivotal contributions have been pretty much hidden… but Aiko is someone who has toiled behind the scenes in the National Archives to really discover the smoking gun.

“She found evidence of lies. She did this wonderful detective work and found not only information that our government was aware there was no military necessity in rounding up Japanese Americans, but she also uncovered the efforts to bury that information. So she developed critical information that was essential for the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians’ report, which led to the efforts of the Japanese American community and their friends for the passage of the redress legislation.”

Also in attendance was last year’s Legacy Award honoree, Bill Michael, who, as former director of the Eastern California Museum, bore the brunt of the local Inyo County residents’ misdirected anger during the Manzanar Committee’s decades-long struggle to get the former campsite designated as a national historic site.

Manzanar Committee Co-Chairs Kerry Cababa and Bruce Embrey presented special recognition awards to Mo Nishida, Richard Potashin and Alisa Lynch.

Nishida was honored for organizing the 50/500 run from Los Angeles to Manzanar for the past 20 years.

“Every year, Mo organizes and leads a relay run that goes from Los Angeles to Manzanar,” said Cababa. “And they always arrive at the pilgrimage without fail. Along the way, they’ve had tragedies and accidents, but Mo has been so faithful to this whole pilgrimage.”

Nishida, a former Manzanar inmate, said, “The reason why we run, of course, is to honor our ancestors and memorialize the experiences of our people here.”

The other two honorees, Potashin and Lynch, are the longest-serving staff members at Manzanar. Lynch will observe her 10th year anniversary in September but Potashin will soon be leaving to Northern California where his wife, Nancy Hadlock, will be working at the Lava Beds National Monument, which oversees the Tule Lake campsite.

Lynch credited the entire MNHS staff for the park’s success. “I’ve just been here the longest, but we have 16 people on staff here who work very hard and who are a part of everything that we do here,” she said.

“I used to work at Independence Hall, where they have the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Liberty Bell. And people used to ask me, ‘What is a park ranger doing here in the city?’ People assume that park rangers are only at Yellowstone or Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, but actually our National Park Service has 394 sites, most of those sites are historic and cultural sites. There are a lot places like the Tuskegee Airmen, Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, women’s rights sites, so we are very proud, all of us at the National Park Service, to also have these amazing civil rights sites, which hopefully will remind us never again.”

Potashin could not attend the ceremony as he was leading a group tour.


Continue reading this story. Part 2



  1. It’s saddens me that as much as I want to see real change going on in the world, I have to come back to that damned place called Manzanar. I am a contributor to the Mike Malloy Show on KTLK and share my Asian American perspective, but then I had to break my silence by telling Mike that white folks, though empathetic to the plight of the people of color, white folks including liberals and progressives don’t know what it’s like. I am going to share this site with Mike and if time permits, he’ll read my mail. But mind you, I am not a nationalist. i do not hate the U.S. I do not succumb to the model minority, but I di hate Roosevelt for what he did and what Truman did afterward

    Great reporting

Leave A Reply