MANZANAR NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE, NEAR INDEPENDENCE, CA — To most in attendance at the 40th Manzanar Pilgrimage, it was probably just another award, like so many that are handed out at community events. But a closer look at the affable recipient tells a very different story.
On April 25, 2009, during the 40th Manzanar Pilgrimage, the Manzanar Committee honored long-time Committee member Tak Yamamoto as their first recipient of the 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, was presented to Yamamoto in honor of his many years of toil, hard work, and dedication to the Manzanar Committee.
“Tak’s great,” said Manzanar Committee Co-Chair Bruce Embrey, son of Sue Kunitomi Embrey. “There were very few—I can remember when the Manzanar Committee was pretty damned small and there were a handful of people. Tak would take on hours of work in the blazing sun [at the Pilgrimage] with a couple of other people to put on this program year after year because he had that inner strength, tenacity and the understanding.”
Yamamoto’s tenure with the Manzanar Committee began in the mid-Seventies, when he first met Sue Kunitomi Embrey.
“It was great for me to be part of the group since 1976 or 1977 when I joined,” said Yamamoto. “My getting involved was the fact that I met her at the Asian Studies Group at Cal State LA. She came to a class and I was so taken by her. I had to find out who she was. I was taking evening classes at the time.”
“They were meeting on Weller Street [in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo] at the time,” added Yamamoto. “So that’s where I went. I thought, ‘this was kind of a strange place.’ But she was there and I thought she was dynamic. She had this kind of sit-back appearance, but when she had an idea, she’d go forward with it. I thought, ‘this woman has a lot of power for being a person of such small stature.’ I was really taken by that.”
Sue Kunitomi Embrey was also one of the few Nisei (second generation Japanese Americans) who were willing to speak openly of their experiences in camp.
“I had sisters who were maybe half the age of Sue, so they really didn’t have all that much experience and they didn’t want to talk about it after camp,” said Yamamoto. “But when I was able to talk with Sue, and she was up front with it all, it was interesting because these were experiences that my sisters had, but they didn’t want to talk about it. So when I spoke with Sue and got some background, then I was able to bring it back to the house and have them talk about it relative to their own experience and they were more comfortable with it because someone had already broken the ice.”
“Here was this woman who was so into it and I thought we need to keep working at this so that there are more people who understand this experience,” added Yamamoto. “That experience is very general. I don’t care if you went to Arkansas or Tule Lake, the experience is very similar. All the kinds of bad things that happened [were the same] in all the camps. It was one way to generalize from that what it was like to help people understand.”
Not only was Sue Kunitomi Embrey inspiring, but Yamamoto learned from her as well.
“[Sue] believed in what she was doing,” Yamamoto explained. “She felt that she needed to get this information out as best she could. I was really impressed with that and then she had all this knowledge. So from my being associated with her I learned a lot about camp. I was only seven years old when I got out of camp so I wasn’t a big historian at that point.”
Yamamoto went on to become, not only Sue Kunitomi Embrey’s right-hand-man, so to speak, but also a key organizer of the Manzanar Committee who did just about everything.
“I was always here, said Yamamoto. “Whereever Sue needed me, I’d be there.”
After his retirement from the Manzanar Committee, Yamamoto was honored at a dinner by his friends and supporters.
“We had a dinner for Tak when he retired,” Bruce Embrey explained. “Reverend Paul Nakamura—Tak asked him to say a few words. He got up and said Tak Yamamoto is one of those individuals, in times of crisis and hardship, who stands up and takes on the work and tasks that others haven’t, can’t or won’t. [Reverend Paul added] that in the Bible, those were men of valor and Tak is a man of valor.”
“I think that was really a beautiful summation,” Bruce Embrey added. “Tak and others like him took up the call to take on recognizing what happened, breaking the silence and doing what they needed to do to make sure [the Pilgrimage] happened every year so that people could come—those who were able, those who were willing to learn and to heal and to build these alliances and bonds.”
Yamamoto was not imprisoned at Manzanar during World War II, spending his time behind the barbed wire at Poston, Arizona. Nevertheless, he understood the importance of Manzanar and the Manzanar Pilgrimage.
“He wasn’t interned at Manzanar but he understood it,” Bruce Embrey said. “He came back every year because he knew what it meant to the community and how important the Pilgrimage was in the whole struggle for redress and the role it played in giving people the strength to confront and talk about what they experienced.”
“Without that happening, without the annual Pilgrimage and without Tak and my mother organizing it every year, regardless of who came and regardless of the political climate, the community would not have undergone the transformation it needed to go through to confront its past and demand that it be redressed.”
During Yamamoto’s 33 years of work with the Manzanar Committee, he has experienced his share of high winds, searing heat and bitter cold…not to mention some incidents that were rather memorable.
“It’s just one incident—the thing about it was the fact that it was something we all got together to do and it was terrible,” said Yamamoto. “You know how we have storms up here? Someone said, ‘we’ll just create a shelter with these big buses.’ Wrong. We created the shelter and in the middle there was a huge whirlwind of dust. We had to split the buses up because they [weren’t] going to make it. It was the worst we ever had.”
“The other time I remember…it was a dry, hot day,” added Yamamoto. “[A group] decided they needed to have a bonfire. I thought, ‘oh my God! I can see this all going up in flames! This is not winter!’”
“They dug a hole to keep [the fire] really low. I was really nervous because once [the fire] gets started where do we go? It could end up in the mountains. That was an event I couldn’t forget because I was constantly watching to see if there were any embers flying out.”
Yamamoto, who was the Committee’s treasurer, can now watch from the sidelines as the organization moves forward, but recognizes that the challenges ahead are probably a little different now.
“I think the fact that we are obviously very diverse now, and I don’t know if the World War II thing is all that relevant anymore,” he said. “I think discrimination is, but how do you focus on something that is so general now?”
“Arab Americans went through the craziness and that’s part of it,” he added. “But as a Japanese American, how do we work with that so that we can make it more positive for all of us? I don’t know. I just don’t see how we can get into all of it. Even with our own community, we have people saying, ‘no, you shouldn’t do this,’ that we should really be the ‘Quiet Americans.’”
Despite his retirement, Yamamoto, who is not shy about giving his opinion about anything, had a few words about the 40th Manzanar Pilgrimage.
“I think the snacks, though, are a bad deal,” he said with a laugh, referring to the Manzanar Committee selling snacks at the event.
For those who know Yamamoto, they will be pleased to know that even in retirement, some things have not changed a bit
Gann Matsuda is the Manzanar Committe’s Director, Communications and Social Media/Web Editor He writes from Culver City, California.
The views expressed in this story are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the Manzanar Committee.
LEAD PHOTO: Long-time Manzanar Committee member Tak Yamamoto (second from left) received the Sue Kunitomi Embrey Legacy Award at the 40th Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage, April 25, 2009. Photo: Gann Matsuda/Manzanar Committee.
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