Exploring Manzanar: Then and Now

During a recent solo trip to the Manzanar National Historic Site in which I spent about 14 hours over roughly two days exploring the site by car and foot, it dawned on me that it was the first time that I was exploring the site in such a detailed fashion or spending as much time doing so.

That realization was spurred by a comment made by Manzanar ranger Rose Masters.

“I can’t believe you’ve never wandered around like this before,” she exclaimed (yes, “exclaimed” is the appropriate verb here).

For those of you who know me fairly well, that must sound really, really strange, if not unbelievable. After all, I’ve been involved with Manzanar for more than 31 years. I’ve been a member of the Manzanar Committee since the mid-1990’s. I served on the Manzanar Advisory Commission from 1992-2002. I’ve been one of the coordinators for the Manzanar At Dusk program since 2008, and now I’m one of the coordinators of a project named, Katari, which I urge you to read about here.

My first Manzanar Pilgrimage was in 1987 with the UCLA Nikkei Student Union—that was also their first Pilgrimage and they’ve been attending every year since. We were fortunate to have Warren Furutani, who was our advisor at the UCLA Asian American Studies Center and one of the founders of the Manzanar Pilgrimage, tell us a little bit about his experiences at Manzanar and about the site itself (see above photo).

Since then, I’ve only missed one Manzanar Pilgrimage. Given that, one would think that I would’ve spent many hours, if not days, exploring Manzanar and that I would’ve seen just about everything there. But the fact is that when I explored the site in the mid-1990’s, that was long before the National Park Service had any real presence at all at Manzanar. I had little idea of what I was seeing.

In 2002, Manzanar Committee member James To and I organized a tour of the site for the UCLA and UCSD Nikkei Student Unions the morning of the annual Pilgrimage, led by Alisa Lynch, Chief of Interpretation, Manzanar National Historic Site. Although one might think I’d get a lot out of that tour, I was focused on taking photos and making sure the students were getting the most out of the tour, rather than on what Alisa was presenting. In fact, the only memory that stands out for me from that tour was that we ran into Archie Miyatake and his wife, Take. Both were incarcerated at Manzanar and Archie was the son of Toyo Miyatake, who is famous for smuggling a lens and film holder into Manzanar. With the help of a carpenter who built a box that looked like a lunch box, Toyo Miyatake was able to make a camera with the lens and film holder mounted in the lunch box. He took photos covertly until he was discovered by camp officials but was later allowed to take photos without restrictions.

Getting back to Archie…he and his wife were taking photos at Merritt Park, the most well-known of the gardens that former incarcerees created during their time at Manzanar. Archie and Take joined our tour group and as Alisa’s presentation wound down, I asked Archie to tell the group about his father’s story.

Archie talked about how his father became Manzanar’s camp photographer, taking family photos, weddings, bridal and baby showers, birthdays—just about anything a professional family photographer would shoot. Archie also told the students about how his father believed that it was his duty to document what was happening at Manzanar for history’s sake.

At that point, Archie finished his story. But something was missing.

“Hey Archie,” I said. “Aren’t you forgetting something?”

“What do you mean,” he asked.

“About how your father had to sneak the lens and film holder into camp,” I replied. “He took photos secretly since he wasn’t allowed to do that.”

At that point, Archie laughed.

“Oh yeah! I guess that’s kind of important, huh?”

For the record, those aren’t exact quotes, but they’re really, really close. I’ll never forget that time with Archie, Take, and our group, even though that was more than 16 years ago.

Even in 2002, ten years after the law to designate Manzanar as a National Historic Site was enacted, there was still very little visible evidence that the National Park Service had any presence on site. Indeed, there might’ve been a little signage, but nothing significant. There were no wayside exhibits and there was certainly no Visitor Center (the grand opening would come two years later). In fact, much of what is visible now, most notably, many of the incarceree-built gardens, including all the ponds at Merritt Park, were still buried by the desert. As such, my wanderings, which were about 5-8 years prior, lacked a tremendous amount of context.

For many, all they know is the Manzanar National Historic Site that has signage marking virtually every feature, wayside exhibits, gardens that have been excavated and rehabilitated, a Visitor Center filled with amazing exhibits, the barracks, mess hall and now, the women’s latrine in Block 14, and much more. But for me? None of that existed decades ago when I last explored Manzanar in any detail. I really had little idea of what I was seeing as I walked the site so many years ago.

To be sure, so many years later, so much has changed at Manzanar. Indeed, when I explored the site this time, brochure in hand that included a map of the site and equipped with a slick, new DSLR camera and a couple of lenses, I set out on a mission to explore and shoot photographs of most of the significant features.

Of course, I took interior and exterior photographs at Block 14—barracks, mess hall, basketball court and women’s latrine. Then there was the main entrance, Merritt Park, the hospital area, and the cemetery.

But I was also able to shoot locations at Manzanar that I hadn’t visited in many years, or hadn’t been to at all, like the guard tower, the administration area (to photograph all the graffiti on the traffic circle), the Arai Fish Pond, the Block 12 mess hall garden, the camouflage net factory, and more.

I even saw my first Manzanar jackrabbit, a black-tailed jackrabbit, not to mention several small lizards. I had never seen any wildlife at Manzanar prior to this trip, other than the occasional, unidentified bird flying overhead.

I also made it to two locations that most people who visit Manzanar don’t go to and I would guess that most people don’t even know about: the Manzanar Chicken Ranch and the Manzanar Reservoir.

I’ve known for many years that Manzanar had a chicken ranch and a reservoir and roughly where they were located. But because of the distance (each is approximately one mile from the cemetery) and given my usual lack of time when I’m at Manzanar, I never gave any serious thought to visiting either one.

But this time, I made it a point to go to both places.

The chicken ranch, located in the southwest corner of the site, is quite large. Construction began in July 1943 and by early 1944, it was operational, providing eggs and fresh meat for the incarcerees.

Even without its buildings—you can see the foundations for each building and what’s left of an incinerator— the wide expanse of land where the chicken ranch once stood strikes you. It reminded me that 11,070 people were unjustly incarcerated at Manzanar and that before the chicken ranch was operational, they had virtually no fresh meat. They ate mutton, canned sausages, and other canned meats, many of which weren’t very palatable then and that hasn’t changed, either (Vienna Sausage is gross).

Visiting the Manzanar Reservoir was an entirely different experience. First off, the road to get there is considerably rougher than the road to the chicken ranch. But after that, the reservoir, and the stories behind it, are fascinating.

The reservoir, which supplied as much as 1,500,000 gallons of water per day to Manzanar from nearby Shepherd Creek, is an even greater reminder of what was going on to the southeast. The size of the reservoir alone tells you that a lot of water was needed to supply more than 10,000 incarcerees at Manzanar.

Then there are the inscriptions. Former incarcerees who worked on the reservoir crew etched inscriptions into the wet cement as they built a wall to increase the capacity of the reservoir, as well as in some rocks that sit just outside the reservoir, and on the walls of the channels that brought the water in from Shepherd Creek. Some of the inscriptions are written in English, while others are in Japanese, and each tells a story. Somewhat hauntingly, they made me feel like they represented the spirits of the reservoir crew and that they were watching over the place, hoping people remember them and what happened there. They also made me imagine what it must’ve been like for the Nisei (second generation Japanese Americans; native-born United States citizens who were the children of immigrants) men who worked on the reservoir crew, especially during 100-degree summer days or frigid winter nights that dropped below freezing.

More importantly, the inscriptions are also an expression of discontent and protest by the men who worked on the reservoir crew. Their graffiti was, in many cases, an act of resistance.

It should be noted here that the National Park Service has published a map of the Manzanar Reservoir that provides directions from the Manzanar National Historic Site, along with the locations of each inscription and translation of those written in Japanese. The map is available at the Manzanar Visitor Center or you can download a copy here (Adobe Reader software required to view/print). The resistance aspects of the inscriptions will become clearer once you get an idea of where they are located and what they mean.

For those who would like to visit the Manzanar Chicken Ranch or the Manzanar Reservoir, take the tour road to the cemetery and look for the brown signs. They will point you in the right direction for each location.

The National Park Service recommends that high-clearance vehicles be used to reach both locations, but I made it in a four-door sedan. That said, conditions for a dirt road can change quickly, especially after rain or snow, so drive slowly and very carefully.

It should also be noted here that the reservoir is located outside of the National Park Service boundary at Manzanar on land administered by the Bureau of Land Management. The road to the reservoir is in their jurisdiction, not the National Park Service.

In terms of locations at Manzanar, the cemetery has always had the greatest significance for me. After all, 150 people died at Manzanar. 15 were buried at the cemetery. Today, six remain buried there. Each of those 150 people died as prisoners and without having their Constitutional rights restored.

The cemetery has also been the site of the annual Manzanar Pilgrimage, which played a key role in the redress and reparations movement and was the catalyst in the effort to preserve Manzanar and make it a National Historic Site. As such, the cemetery has always meant so much to me, and to many others. But the reservoir sure made an impact. I felt things there that I haven’t felt while visiting Manzanar in a long, long time.

Back when the Manzanar Advisory Commission was considering plans for the Interpretive Center (now the Visitor Center), one of the things we determined was that it was very important for visitors to go out onto the site, not just limit themselves to the exhibits in the Visitor Center. We knew back then that, even without signage, wayside exhibits, the demonstration block in Block 14, the excavated gardens, and more, visitors must get out and explore the site on foot and by car to really understand what happened there.

My time exploring Manzanar earlier this week served to reinforce what we realized back then. In fact, getting out onto the site is probably even more important now. Indeed, if you haven’t explored Manzanar on foot and if you haven’t visited the chicken ranch or the reservoir—especially the reservoir—I urge you to do so at your earliest opportunity. You’ve been missing out on a lot.

In the meantime, here are some of the photographs from my trip.

LEAD PHOTO: One of the inscriptions in the wall of the Manzanar Reservoir written by a Japanese American incarceree who worked on the reservoir crew. Photo: Gann Matsuda/Manzanar Committee.

SECOND PHOTO: Manzanar Pilgrimage co-founder Warren Furutani with members of the UCLA Nikkei Student Union at their first Manzanar Pilgrimage in 1987. Photo: Gann Matsuda.

THIRD PHOTO: Alisa Lynch, Manzanar NHS Chief of Interpretation, led college students from the UCLA and UCSD Nikkei Student Unions on a tour of Manzanar in April 2002, just before the annual Manzanar Pilgrimage. Photo: Gann Matsuda/Manzanar Committee.

Exploring Manzanar – Select Photographs

76 photos by Gann Matsuda. ©2018 Manzanar Committee. All rights reserved. Click on any photo to view a larger image, and to scroll/click through the gallery.

Visitor Center, Guard Tower, Administration Area, Camouflage Net Factory, Manzanar Chicken Ranch

Manzanar Reservoir

Gann Matsuda is the Manzanar Committee’s Director of 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.

Creative Commons License The Manzanar Committee’s Official web site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. You may copy, distribute and/or transmit any story or audio content published on this site under the terms of this license, but only if proper attribution is indicated. The full name of the author and a link back to the original article on this site are required. Photographs, graphic images, and other content not specified are subject to additional restrictions. Additional information is available at: Manzanar Committee Official web site – Licensing and Copyright Information.

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