41st Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage Highlights the Unfinished Business of the Civil Rights Struggle

MANZANAR NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE AND LOS ANGELES — 68 years have passed since Executive Order 9066 was signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, sending over 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry and their immigrant parents on the West Coast into American concentration camps during World War II.

No charges were filed against these people. No trials were held. Despite that, they were imprisoned behind barbed wire for more than three years in some of the most desolate parts of the United States, forced to endure extreme weather and other harsh conditions.

At the 41st Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage, held on Saturday, April 24, 2010, 1,220 people came together at the Manzanar National Historic Site to remember the past, honor those who were imprisoned there and vow that such a dark chapter in American History will never be repeated.

The Los Angeles-based Manzanar Committee, which has sponsored the annual event since 1969, chose the theme, Civil Rights: Unfinished Business, noting that recent developments make it clear that our society and our nation still has a long way to go in terms of protecting everyone’s constitutional rights.

“I think the civil rights angle really is what’s relevant,” said Manzanar Committee Co-Chair Bruce Embrey. “Talk about the issues of the day! You can’t keep up with it—how many struggles can you talk about? There’s one after another.”

“In Arizona—talk about in the news today—they passed a blatantly racist immigration law,” added Embrey. “I think the Pilgrimage—it’s relevance, it’s importance—it’s not just key to the Japanese American community. It’s vitally important to everybody. It’s a central part of the struggle around civil rights.”

Arab and Muslim Americans, who have been victimized by racial profiling and other acts of discrimination and racism since the tragic events of September 11, 2001, have attended the Pilgrimage in large numbers since 2007, and this year’s event was no exception.

“It’s interesting to learn about what’s compelling people to come here from other communities,” Embrey noted. “The Arab and Muslim community was represented, there was an incredible number of Latinos here. It was a large, multi-racial crowd and to see how different it has been from the past.”

“It’s relevant to other people’s struggles,” Embrey added. “That’s why people can come here and get a sense of the history of struggle, and that’s why it’s inspiring. It’s not just a question of coming to pay respects to our families. It’s also a source of inspiration for others who are grappling with the same issues.”

Indeed, the parallels drawn from what happened at Manzanar nearly seventy years ago continue to be a major concern today.

“You can change the names of the people, the face of the community may be different,” Embrey stressed. “But the issues of democracy, civil rights and racism are the same.”

As the years pass, something that has become quite apparent at each Pilgrimage is the increasing number of young people in attendance, not to mention those attending their first Pilgrimage.

“It’s striking to see all the young people,” said Embrey. “There are more this year, and they’re from all over. There’s a huge student contingent.”

“What also struck me was how many first-timers we had,” added Embrey. “The vast majority of people here had never been to a Pilgrimage before, and you have to re-think what we’re doing. We’re not repeating ourselves, because we’re talking to new people every time.”

The unfinished business of civil rights is something the young people Embrey referred to are keenly aware of.

“Each time I come to the Pilgrimage, I get something new out of it,” said Edward Kobayashi, President of the UCLA Nikkei Student Union. “I really feel the continuity of our generation from generations past. Now, even more, I feel that our generation has the responsibility to carry on the lessons and fight for what we have to fight for and the issues that affect us today, especially with a lot more Muslim families and students coming to the Pilgrimage.”

“I see the relevance of the things we do today and that we really need to go on the Pilgrimage to reconnect with our past.”

In stark contrast to the increasing number of youth attending the Pilgrimage, the number of former internees in attendance is declining rapidly.

“Even more striking is how few former internees there are,” Embrey lamented. “I’m looking out over the crowd and I’m struggling to see them. They’re dwindling. How many more years are we going to have them around to tell us what happened directly? We’re going to be recounting stories instead of being able to hear stories.”

Even though the number of former internees attending the Pilgrimage has been in decline for several years, the importance and relevance of the annual event has not diminished. Indeed, as Kobayashi indicated, the need to educate people about Japanese American Internment and the lessons that can be learned from it, is as strong as it ever was.

“Before college, I didn’t even know about the camps because I’m a Nisei [second generation Japanese American, the first generation from his family born in the United States],” said Kobayashi, 21, a UCLA senior from Burlingame, California. “All of my relatives were in Japan during World War II. The only exposure I got to the Japanese American Internment was the three or four days we spent in high school history class.”

“The car I was driving was full of first-year students and it was their first time at the Pilgrimage, but I could tell they gained a lot from it,” added Kobayashi. “It was real interesting for me because I was reflecting a lot on my first time because I knew this was my last time going there as a UCLA student.”

“For them, it was something completely new. Some hadn’t even heard of internment before coming to college. I really got to hear their thoughts and it reminded me of how coming here has really allowed me to grow in ways I didn’t see before.”

One fellow UCLA student shared similar sentiments.

“I had a couple of new people in my car,” said twenty-year-old UCLA undergraduate Eryn Tokuhara of Granada Hills, California. “Going up, they weren’t really sure what to expect. But once they got there, it was like, ‘oh, all of this was where people lived?’ They have to deal with what the internment was. That’s kind of overwhelming—going out there and seeing how vast and barren everything is.”

“It’s a humbling experience that brings you back to where it all started,” added Tokuhara. “This is what we should be focusing on. I think it’s good for first-timers and those returning to reflect on that.”

Kobayashi’s first trip to the Manzanar Pilgrimage in 2006 made a huge impact on him.

“I was really interested in attending the Manzanar Pilgrimage ever since coming to UCLA, being part of the UCLA Nikkei Student Union and performing in our annual Cultural Night,” he explained. “I didn’t know what to expect at all. A lot of it was based on our 2006 Cultural Night because, that year, it happened to be about the internment. So I knew the importance and significance of going to the Pilgrimage.”

“I remember seeing the mountains—I’ve never been in an environment like that,” he said. “I was trying to picture myself being in the [former prisoners] shoes and what I would’ve felt like. We were on a pilgrimage and I knew we were going there, knowing we’d come back, so I tried to picture myself being there and what it would’ve been like, not knowing what to expect.”

“Throughout the whole Pilgrimage experience, through the ceremony, and through the Manzanar At Dusk program, I was able to gain a whole new level of appreciation for all the generations that have come before us. I was really grateful for the opportunity.”

The members of UCLA Kyodo Taiko, whose powerful, energetic Japanese drum performances have become a tradition at the Pilgrimage in recent years, place great value on their annual trip to Manzanar.

“It’s a perfect opportunity for Kyodo Taiko to reflect both on where we come from as part of the UCLA Nikkei Student Union and what we represent as a cultural group,” said Tokuhara, who is a Co-Director of UCLA Kyodo Taiko. “Taiko has evolved over the years as a very Japanese American art form and I think the experience at Manzanar represents a coming together of where we were and how far we’ve come.”

“It’s an honor for us to perform and to honor those who came before us and to show that even today, we’re taking what they did back then and building upon it,” added Tokuhara. “We’re performing, not just for us, but for everyone else who came before us and everyone who’s there and sharing that experience. It just makes you feel good that the audience can share part of your cultural history with you and appreciate it.”

Indeed, the Manzanar Pilgrimage provides a unique educational opportunity, one that Tokuhara and Kobayashi believe more young people should take advantage of.

“Even at a top university like UCLA, it’s rare to experience something like the Pilgrimage,” said Tokuhara. “Everyone talks about it and they talk about their history. But I think being in such relative proximity to something that holds such significance for us, it’s very important to recognize that opportunity, to be able to go back every year and learn something new and gain something more.”

“Some things, you have to learn by experiencing it,” Kobayashi emphasized. “As much as we talk about our Japanese American History and community during the year, this is one of the most realistic experiences you can have. That’s what draws people to it and that’s what inspires people to come back and tell the next generation to come.”

Gann Matsuda, who writes from Culver City, California, is the Manzanar Committee’s Director, Communications and Social Media/Web Editor.

The views expressed in this story are not necessarily those of the Manzanar Committee.

LEAD PHOTO: Manzanar Committee Co-Chair Bruce Embrey welcomes the crowd at the 41st Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage on April 24, 2010. Photo: Gann Matsuda/Manzanar Committee.

SECOND PHOTO: UCLA Kyodo Taiko member Edward Kobayashi performs at the 41st Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage on April 24, 2010. Photo: Gann Matsuda/Manzanar Committee.

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