Connections And Common Bonds Are Key At Manzanar At Dusk Program

LONE PINE, CA AND LOS ANGELES — Thirteen years ago, a group of about forty people, primarily college students, gathered for an evening program at a campground just west of Independence, California, about six miles north of the Manzanar National Historic Site.

That evening, they talked about Manzanar and the Japanese American Internment experience, along with its surrounding issues, during an intergenerational group discussion, connecting the past with present-day concerns. They also shared their own experiences through creative means such as poetry and other cultural performances.

That was back in April 1997…the Manzanar After Dark program, now known as Manzanar At Dusk (Manzanar At Dusk), was born.

As the program grew in popularity, it eventually moved to the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall in Independence, attracting up to 135 people. In 2007, Manzanar At Dusk moved to the Manzanar National Historic Site Interpretive Center, which was filled wall-to-wall with 260 participants.

The last three years, Manzanar At Dusk has been held at Lone Pine High School in Lone Pine, California, about eight miles south of the Manzanar National Historic Site, drawing record crowds up to 360 people in 2009.

Although the format has had to change a bit over the years as the popularity of the program has increased dramatically, the Manzanar At Dusk program remains true to its 1997 origins in that participants can share their experiences in small group discussions, connect the past with present-day issues, and talk about “what we can do now.”

Also true to Manzanar At Dusk’s origins is that college students remain the primary focus, and even after thirteen years, the event is as relevant and important as it ever was as young people are able to connect with the former prisoners to hear their stories.

“At the Manzanar At Dusk program, when we were discussing things with those who had been interned, it was always something you don’t talk about,” said twenty-year-old UCLA undergraduate Eryn Tokuhara of Granada Hills, California. “But going to Manzanar opened my eyes to why they don’t talk about it, because it represents so much of America’s negative history that no one wants to talk about.”

“My Grandfather was interned, and as a kid, when we had to do family history projects, he never really spoke of it because it was always really taboo,” added Tokuhara, a member of the UCLA Nikkei Student Union and Co-Director of UCLA Kyodo Taiko. “So I knew of the camps and I knew what they were, but attending the Pilgrimage and Manzanar At Dusk brought it to a whole new level for me in terms of what they had to go through for us to get where we are today.”

“I think being able to go to Manzanar was an experience that brought my own personal history up front for me to confront it and see how it shaped me and how it shaped my grandfather, especially, and his experiences in the United States.”

At the 2010 Manzanar At Dusk program, held in the evening following the 41st Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage on April 24, 2010, more apparent than ever before was the dwindling number of former Japanese American prisoners in attendance.

Each year at the Manzanar At Dusk program, participants are always most interested in hearing the stories of former prisoners, most of whom are in their late-80’s or older. But this year, there were not enough of them to go around.

Indeed, for the first time in the history of the Manzanar At Dusk program, a few of the small groups had to be combined with other groups to ensure that every group had a former prisoner.

“I’ve been lucky enough to have a former internee in my small group every time and they always have different stories,” said Edward Kobayashi, 21, who is the President of the UCLA Nikkei Student Union (NSU). “I think we tend to clump internment into one general experience and I think we forget that each former internee has their own story.”

“That’s the great thing about Manzanar At Dusk, that we get to hear the different stories,” added Kobayashi, who participated in his fourth Manzanar At Dusk program this year. “Because of that, I think it’s important to acknowledge [the Japanese American Internment] and discuss it.”

“These are the lessons future generations can learn the most from—the mistakes that have been made. That’s why Manzanar means so much to me as an individual and, I’m sure, to many other people, because [the Pilgrimage and the Manzanar At Dusk program provide] an opportunity to discuss something that isn’t usually discussed.”

Although Arab Americans, primarily of the Muslim faith, have been present at the Manzanar Pilgrimage each year since the tragic events of September 11, 2001, they began to participate in large numbers starting in 2007.

“We talked about [making the trip to the Manzanar Pilgrimage] at the office and there had been other people in our office who had visited Manzanar,” said Affad Shaikh, Civil Rights Manager for the Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-LA). “It became a conversation where we said we should go as an office and do this as a trip that we all go on together, rather than just encourage each other to go when we have time.”

“The genesis of the first trip was this whole idea that we, as an office doing civil rights work and talking about issues that are affecting our community such as racial profiling, hate crimes and discrimination in the workplace, all these things are great and it’s wonderful that we’re working on it,” added Shaikh. “But we really wanted to understand and be part of that history that existed prior to our community having to face this, to look at that shared commonality of what it means to be American.”

Shaikh had already been to Manzanar and was able to encourage his colleagues to make the trip.

“The first time that I came, I didn’t expect the scope or size of the camp,” Shaikh explained. “I didn’t think of it as being so large, but when I went to the Interpretive Center and started reading some of the things, I was taken aback. It had so many people.”

“When I was talking to people, the reality of the situation sunk in, more in terms of the parallels that I saw between some of the social practices and norms of the Japanese American community and the Muslim community,” Shaikh elaborated. “It was like, ‘oh my God.’ If I was put into that type of situation, or if my parents were put into that type of situation, I can feel that. I can understand where they’re coming from. What a horrible thing it would be for anyone to be put into that type of situation. That’s what really stuck out for me, some of the social and cultural aspects of the camp experience.”

Once word got out that CAIR-LA staff were planning to attend the 2007 Manzanar Pilgrimage, others in the local Muslim community wanted to go on the trip as well.

“We started sharing that we were going together as an office, but when people started finding out, they all started expressing interest,” he said. “At some point, we thought that we could take more community members. We thought we should be doing this as a larger outreach and education effort.”

“People in our community didn’t know about [Japanese American Internment],” he added. “They didn’t understand what happened. They talked about being put in camps and being rounded up. That fear was something that was talked about, but very few in the Muslim community knew or understood that this was something that had actually happened to another community here in the United States.”

Since that first trip in 2007, CAIR-LA and CAIR-Sacramento Valley (along with the Florin chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League) have brought large numbers to the Pilgrimage and the Manzanar At Dusk programs. But it is at the Manzanar At Dusk program where they feel the strongest connection between the issues surrounding the Japanese American Internment and their own experiences.

“Initially, when I stepped out of the van the first time, what got me most was the environment, the immense mountains and the desolate nature of [Manzanar],” said Shaikh. “That took awhile to settle inside of me. I was trying to take everything in. But it was at the Manzanar At Dusk program, being put into those small group discussions, that really allowed me to have the conversations and hear the stories that I could relate to. That’s where the connection for me came.”

“The interactive aspect of the Manzanar At Dusk program really helped me to not just digest [the history and the social justice aspects of the Japanese American Internment], but to also make it something that I could understand and then go out and talk about it afterwards,” added Shaikh.

Many in the Muslim community who attended the Pilgrimage and Manzanar At Dusk were surprised that Japanese Americans were so supportive of their Muslim brothers and sisters in their current fight against racism, discrimination, racial profiling and hate crimes.

“The Japanese American community is very unique,” Shaikh noted. “It doesn’t have to go out of its way to do this. It’s established, it’s here, its loyalties, the community’s presence in the United States, for the most part, is accepted and it’s not questioned.”

“The fact of the matter is that most communities that are established don’t necessarily have to do anything,” Shaikh continued. “But the fact is that so many in the Japanese American community bring up [the similarities between Japanese American Internment and the racial profiling and other issues facing the Arab American and Muslim communities today] when they talk to me about it and I’m astounded. They see this as being their responsibility, that they have to step up and talk about it to remind people and make sure that this history isn’t forgotten.”

“A lot of them say it’s not because of the fact that it happened to them. It’s because of the fact that it shouldn’t happen to anybody because that’s not what this country is about and that’s why we need to talk about it.”

Because of the groundswell of support from the Japanese American community, Muslims in attendance seemed to feel like they were right at home.

“Being there at Manzanar At Dusk, seeing the people, hearing some of the stories and the fact that there was so much support for the Arab and Muslim community, I felt that there was some sort of bond, a connection that I didn’t know about but felt comfortable with,” Shaikh explained. “It’s like an old friend, like when you see somebody after so many years—you can start talking about so many things, so many experiences that you’ve had with this person as if no time had passed.”

“I felt like that with a lot of people I talked to. It was a really heartwarming experience.”

Muslim high school students from Southern California who participated in this year’s Manzanar At Dusk program were surprised to learn of support from the Japanese American community.

<“I was with the high school students [involved in the Bridging Communities program] and definitely with the Muslim students, they walked away in awe that the Japanese American community was so invested in making sure that this doesn’t happen to the Muslim and Arab communities today,” said Shaikh.

“I don’t think they ever imagined that they had allies like that,” added Shaikh. “Most of them are under the impression that they’re doing this by themselves as they face these issues at school and in the community. But to have members of the Japanese American community, as well as hearing from other diverse groups of people at the Manzanar At Dusk program, they got the idea that they aren’t facing this alone, there are people who have their backs. At least three or four students kept emphasizing that when we were having our conversations about what did you walk away with from this program.”

The greater participation of Americans of the Muslim faith has added an entirely new dimension to the Manzanar At Dusk program.

“When the Muslim American participants started opening up, talking about their experiences, it really showed why the internment is still relevant today,” Kobayashi stressed. “More than anything, the thing that was on my mind was the need to take what we learned from the Pilgrimage, whether it’s messages of respect or understanding, or making a difference today. We can make a difference.”

“The way the Muslim American community has come together with us to share the experience—I was shocked,” said Tokuhara, who attended her first Manzanar At Dusk program this year. “That kind of support rarely comes around. Inter-cultural communication and support is very rare these days.”

“I was very moved to be able to have that experience and to talk to them because they all have their own individual perspectives,” added Tokuhara. “It opened my eyes a lot to what’s going on in the world and how applicable anything that has happened in the past is today. How much we can learn from that is invaluable.”

Japanese American high school students, also part of the Bridging Communities program that is sponsored by CAIR-LA, the National Coalition for Civil Rights and Redress and the Japanese American Citizens League-Pacific Southwest District, gained a new perspective at the Manzanar At Dusk program as well.

“What made it even better was that we had Japanese American students also participating in the same process,” Shaikh explained. “The dynamics were incredible because you had fourth and fifth generation Japanese American students, who are pretty far removed from the redress struggle, listening to Muslim students whose parents had been pulled over and called terrorists or they themselves had been called terrorists at school, or having the FBI coming to their homes to interrogate their family.”

“You had Muslim students talking about these kinds of situations and the Japanese American students had an opportunity to listen to the stories and connect them to some of the experiences that existed in their own community both before and after World War II.”

Although Shaikh was mostly focused on the high school students in the Bridging Communities program and their participation at this year’s Manzanar At Dusk event, he emphasized that he gets something from the program each year.

“This was my fourth consecutive Pilgrimage and my personal experience for each one has been different,” he said. “I’ve walked away from each Pilgrimage learning something new and I’ve been able to connect with it on a different level.”

“At the Manzanar At Dusk program, the interaction is different each year,” he added. “It’s all dependent on the group of people you have there that year. This year, I got the whole aspect about the [Owens Valley] community and how some people [in the local area] were opposed to Manzanar becoming a National Historic Site while others just went in for this and knew it was the right thing to do.”

Shaikh was surprised to hear that there was a very vocal minority in the Owens Valley that opposed the establishment of the Manzanar National Historic Site.

“I never thought about that,” he exclaimed. “I never anticipated that there would be opposition. I never considered that possibility. That was definitely something I walked away with this year. It was something that totally made sense, but wasn’t obvious to me.”

A consistent message from Manzanar At Dusk veterans was that they all stressed the importance of the annual Pilgrimage and Manzanar At Dusk programs, especially for young people.

“For me, even though I’m President of UCLA NSU, I’m graduating,” said Kobayashi. “But I know that there are so many younger members who are going to come back [to the Pilgrimage]. For me, the most important thing is to make sure they expose themselves to the story of Manzanar and Japanese American Internment and that they’re willing to take on all these different experiences, learn from them and apply what they learn to today and make that connection that I was able to make through the experiences I’ve had.”

“It’s really important to get students invested in civil liberties and other social justice issues, to get them to see that these issues do affect them, not always directly, but they will affect other people and that it’s their responsibility to be concerned about that,” said Shaikh. “We have to make sure they understand that these issues are all connected and that’s important for them to be talking about them, to be part of the conversations and the action that’s happening around them.”

Gann Matsuda, the Manzanar Committee’s Director, Communnications and Social Media/Web Editor, is the co-coordinator of the Manzanar At Dusk program. He writes from Culver City, Calfornia.

Unattributed views expressed in this story are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the Manzanar Committee.

LEAD PHOTO: A very diverse audience participates each year in the Manzanar At Dusk program. Photo: Gann Matsuda/Manzanar Committee.

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30 thoughts on “Connections And Common Bonds Are Key At Manzanar At Dusk Program

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  1. Thank you Jenni! Coming from you, it’s deeply appreciated!

    For those of you who may not be aware, Jenni Kuida was the driving force (yes, others were involved at the beginnings of MAD) behind the whole Manzanar After Dark/Manzanar At Dusk program.

    My work on the MAD program is really just to keep what Jenni (mostly) created going!

  2. The internment of the Japanese Americans was one incident of prejudice that has been a repeating factor in US History. There was a prejudice against Native Americans, then against African Americans, Chinese, Irish, the Japanese, Jews, Italians, the last few years it’s been Muslims and currently the southwest is showing prejudice against Mexicans.

    Obviously, we haven’t learned from our history because we keep repeating it, but that’s where programs like MAD help. We can’t change the world overnight, but with these programs we at least have a good start.

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