Victor Shibata, one of the founders of the Manzanar Pilgrimage, passed away on April 17. He was 67.
Shibata was part of a group of 150, which also included Assemblymember Warren Furutani and former Manzanar Committee Chair Sue Kunitomi Embrey, who made the trek from Los Angeles to the site of the Manzanar concentration camp, approximately 230 miles away in the Owens Valley, on Dec. 27, 1969. He was primarily responsible for calling the trip a “pilgrimage.”
“He helped to start the pilgrimages to Manzanar and, in fact, coined the word ‘pilgrimage,’” said Kathy Masaoka of Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress (NCRR). “He was very active with youth for his whole life and was very generous with his skills as a healer. We appreciated his contribution to the NCRR delegation to Cuba in 2001. Victor will be missed.”
The Manzanar Committee issued a statement, paying tribute to Shibata and his contributions to the Japanese American community.
“We mourn the loss of one of the original founders of the Manzanar Pilgrimage,” said Bruce Embrey, Manzanar Committee co-chair. “Victor is credited with calling the 1969 trip a ‘pilgrimage.’ Prescient to say the least.”
“Victor clearly understood how important confronting the past was to the Sansei in particular, and the Japanese American community in general,” added Embrey. “He knew that a real, thorough appreciation of the struggles the Japanese American community went through during World War II, and its aftermath, was essential to empowering the community.”
Shibata was born Jan. 25, 1945 in Ogden, Utah, where his parents relocated after leaving the Rohwer camp in Arkansas. He grew up in the Seinan district of Los Angeles and attended Dorsey High School. In the late 1960s, Shibata worked as a youth organizer for the Japanese American Citizens League and coached Japanese American youth in basketball. He was also one of the founders of the Yellow Brotherhood, a self-help group based in the Crenshaw District that helped Asian American youth get off of drugs and stay out of gangs.
Shibata studied at Cal State Long Beach and Cleveland Chiropractic School, and worked as a chiropractor in the Crenshaw area for approximately 35 years, offering healing and holistic health treatment.
Furutani recalled joining Shibata at anti-war marches, when they had the idea of marching to Manzanar.
“I remember when Victor Shibata and I were going to Oceanside to be in an anti-war march,” Furutani said. “The idea was to take the issue of the Vietnam War directly to the Marine base [Camp Pendleton]. We were sitting there, talking about marches. I think we had the Poor People’s March in Washington, D.C., and the farm workers had just marched to the Capitol to talk about their issues.”
“Victor and I said that we had to march somewhere, and that’s when the idea came up of marching to Manzanar,” Furutani added. “[Manzanar] was the closest, so logic said we can march to that, and, in those days, we didn’t have Google Maps, so we took out the map. [A little over 200] miles — that doesn’t sound too far, so we went.”
Like so many younger Japanese Americans, Shibata had little or no knowledge of the camp experience.
“I thought the camps were this big summer camp everybody went to,” Shibata told the Los Angeles Times in 1989.
But in 1969, he was one of those who stumbled upon a white obelisk in the desert, which turned out to be the Manzanar cemetery monument.
“It was stark, it was weather-beaten, but it was still white, and it was interesting, because the backdrop was, literally, [Mount Williamson] and the Sierra Nevada mountains,” said Furutani. “There was an elegance to it, a starkness. It was very dramatic during a cloudy day, which provided all the environmental drama that helped fill in all the spaces relative to the limited knowledge we had.”
“We started walking around, and it was like discovering a shallow grave, where the elements had blown the top layer off, and then the grave was exposed, and you could see a whole history,” he added.
“We didn’t understand it, because we didn’t have the information. The only book out at the time was called ‘America’s Concentration Camps’ by Allan R. Bosworth. Of course, we didn’t have any movies, or any of the things we have now relative to the experience.”
The Manzanar Pilgrimage is held annually on the last Saturday of April, when the weather is usually warm. But Shibata and the rest of those who attended the 1969 pilgrimage were not so lucky.
“In December, it was cold,” Shibata told the blog i102fly. “We weren’t thinking about that, but it was actually good that we did it in the bad weather. You really [saw]what they went through.”
The Manzanar Committee will pay tribute to Shibata during the Manzanar Pilgrimage next Saturday. Funeral services are private. An open viewing is scheduled for Friday, April 27, from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., at Kubota Nikkei Mortuary, 911 Venice Blvd., Los Angeles.