Jim Matsuoka to Receive 2019 Sue Kunitomi Embrey Legacy Award

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Jim Matsuoka, shown here with activist/actor/artist/producer/writer traci kato-kiriyama, during the 2019 Los Angeles Day of Remembrance at the Japanese American National Museum on Feb. 16. (Photo by Gann Matsuda/Manzanar Committee)

On March 21, the Manzanar Committee announced that long-time community and redress activist Jim Matsuoka has been named as the recipient of the 2019 Sue Kunitomi Embrey Legacy Award.

The award, named after the late chair of the Manzanar Committee who was one of the founders of the annual Manzanar Pilgrimage and was the driving force behind the creation of the Manzanar National Historic Site, will be presented at the 50th annual Manzanar Pilgrimage on Saturday, April 27, starting at 11:30 a.m. at the Manzanar National Historic Site, located on U.S. Highway 395 in California’s Owens Valley, between the towns of Lone Pine and Independence.

Each year, over 1,000 people from diverse backgrounds, including students, teachers, community members, clergy and former incarcerees, attend the pilgrimage, which commemorates the unjust incarceration of over 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry during World War II in ten American concentration camps, and other confinement sites, located in the most desolate, isolated regions of the United States. Manzanar was the first of the American concentration camps to be established.

Born in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo, Matsuoka, 83, was among the 11,070 Japanese/Japanese Americans who were incarcerated at Manzanar.

After the war, Matsuoka’s family returned to Little Tokyo before they moved to a trailer park in Long Beach. After that, his family moved to the Crenshaw District of Los Angeles, and then to the Virgil Avenue area, colloquially known at the time as “J-Flats.”

After graduating from high school, Matsuoka was drafted and served in the Army. After completing his military service, he enrolled at Los Angeles City College. He later transferred to California State University, Long Beach, where he received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social sciences. During his time in college, Matsuoka also worked in the aerospace industry and served ten years as a union representative.

Matsuoka’s work for the union was a catalyst for his activism.

“I spent something like ten years as a union representative fighting for the workers,” he said. “I really began to develop a social consciousness. Working people are being kicked around and taken advantage of. That kind of leads up into, as I continue on into school, people began to ask me about things like Manzanar and somewhere along the line, I began to see that we’re not being told the whole story.”

Matsuoka was among the leaders of a group of activists who participated in the first organized Manzanar Pilgrimage on a very cold Dec. 27, 1969.

“Jim spoke at the first Manzanar Pilgrimage, even though he recalls that it was the only way he would’ve gone back in the dead of winter,” said Manzanar Committee Co-Chair Bruce Embrey. “Jim was one of the handful of survivors of camp who made it that year. My mother, Sue Kunitomi Embrey, Karl and Elaine Yoneda, Amy Ishii, and a few others flanked Jim as he clearly laid out how camp traumatized our community. He was bold, honest and he cut to the bone. But his words were exactly what needed to be said and more importantly, they needed to be taken to heart.

“Jim was one of the original members of the Manzanar Committee. He knew how important it was to remember Manzanar.”

Matsuoka is often recognized for his work during the fight for redress and reparations in the late 1960s through the early 1990s, especially with Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress (NCRR; originally known as the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations).

“Speaking up for redress and reparations, speaking up about the injustices of the forced removal publicly and without regard for the personal or professional backlash that inevitably took place in the late 1960s and 1970s was not for the faint of heart,” said Embrey. “But that didn’t matter to Jim.

“Jim has been one of the most honest, bold and direct voices in our community. Whether it was redress, workers’ rights or fair housing, Jim was on the front lines. He took a stand. Jim is perhaps best known for his leadership role in NCRR, but his leadership in developing the first Asian American studies programs in Los Angeles, to community organizations, helping ease the damage camp had done to the community — his contributions are immeasurable.

“Jim knew, from personal experience, how hard life was for many after camp. Jim worked tirelessly to help form community groups to assist especially seniors and young people.”

Embrey indicated that Matsuoka is more than deserving of receiving the Sue Kunitomi Embrey Legacy Award. “The idea and spirit behind the award is to recognize people who fought for justice regardless of the risks. We recognize people, some who have never been, who did the right thing before it was popular, and if you know Jim Matsuoka, you know he never hesitated to do the right thing. Not surprisingly, Jim’s moral compass always led him to be one of the first to take on any injustice.

“Jim is no doubt one of our community’s unsung heroes. Jim is a tireless, selfless and honest activist who is a model for us all. We are proud and honored to name him as the recipient of the 2019 Sue Kunitomi Embrey Legacy Award.”

In addition to the afternoon pilgrimage event, the Manzanar At Dusk program follows that same evening, from 5 to 8 p.m., at the Lone Pine High School gymnasium, located at 538 S. Main St. (U.S. Highway 395), in Lone Pine, nine miles south of the Manzanar National Historic Site, across the street from McDonald’s.

Through a panel discussion, small group discussions and an open mic session, participants will have the opportunity to learn about the experiences of those incarcerated in the camps. Participants will also be able to interact with former incarcerees in attendance to hear their personal stories, to share their own experiences, and discuss the relevance of the concentration camp experience to present-day events and issues.

Pilgrimage participants are advised to bring their own lunch, drinks, and snacks, as there are no facilities to purchase food at the Manzanar National Historic Site. Restaurants and fast food outlets are located in Lone Pine and Independence.

Water will also be provided at the site, but participants are asked to bring a refillable water bottle that may be filled at stations located on-site.

Those who wish to participate in the traditional flower offering during the interfaith service are advised to bring their own flowers.

The Manzanar Committee has announced that the bus from Little Tokyo is full, but a waiting list is available. The Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute has also announced that its bus is full; a waiting list is available. Information for the Gardena bus can be found at https://gvjci.wufoo.com/forms/manzanar-pilgrimage-2019.

Anyone wishing to attend the Manzanar At Dusk program that evening should make other transportation arrangements.

Both the Manzanar Pilgrimage and the Manzanar At Dusk programs are free and open to the public. For more information, or to get on the waiting list for the bus departing from Little Tokyo, call (323) 662-5102 or email [email protected]

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