Family History Rooted in Japanese American Experience

Editor’s Note: Over the next week or two, we will be publishing reflection pieces written by our students who visited the Manzanar National Historic Site back in November 2018, part of a two-day, intensive, placed-based learning experience about Japanese American Incarceration.

To learn more about this critical educational project targeting college students, please check out: Katari: Keeping Japanese American Stories Alive.

I was so amazed, moved, and sentimental and this was three days before we left for the Katari trip with the rest of the Manzanar At Dusk Organizing Committee.

Prior to that first weekend in November, we were asked to relay any information we knew about incarcerated family members to a park ranger at the Manzanar National Historic Site. Ranger Rose Masters, who was a key figure in the planning and execution of our very special excursion, graciously offered to investigate our family histories and obtain any official records she could find. These documents spanned from logs from the Japanese American concentration camps they were held in during the war, to marriage licenses, to draft registration cards, and evidently, for me, so much more.

A few days before our trip to Manzanar, Rose sent me an e-mail with some clarifying questions about the very basic information I had provided about my family. Aside from their names and which camps they resided in, my lack of knowledge compelled me to contact my grandmother. As I was reading out the list of three or four statements and questions, my grandma immediately confirmed what seemed so new to me. I was hearing for the first time that my great-grandparents married before leaving for Amache to remain together, and that my grandma’s maiden name had a “T” that was changed to a “D” due to documentation error some time after their release. Instead of dwelling on my personal findings, let’s just say I went into the weekend with a stronger sense of family history and identity that I was ready to share with my fellow students.

Before arriving at the Manzanar National Historic Site, my biggest expectation for the trip was to learn more about the history behind the site itself and the experiences people had within it. I did not expect to make any personal connections to the site because my family had resided elsewhere during World War II.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Growing up, I was always interested in investigating more into my family’s experiences in the Amache, Heart Mountain, and Tule Lake concentration camps. Hearing about my grandparent’s experiences and the hardships they faced before, during, and after they were in camp, prompted me to take mental note of all the stories they told so I could pass them on to my family. During the two days we were there, being able to walk around the site and explore brought so much truth and concrete experience to the stories I’ve been hearing from my grandparents and great-grandparents. It is so different, so real, to be able to stand at the edge of the barracks or the basketball courts and truly imagine what life was like for my grandparents, my great grandparents, and hundreds of thousands Japanese Americans. Of course, everyone will have different memories and different experiences among the same and different camps. Experiences cannot be generalized and each detail, each person, each story provides a more complete picture of what these camps were like and why this should never happen to anyone else, anywhere, at any time.

Aside from what I learned from physically being on the grounds of an actual American concentration camp, I was in utter shock and disbelief as to how my family was connected to some of the speakers who had joined us on this amazing trip. I was incredibly lucky to have met Min Tonai, who recalled vivid details about my great uncle during their time as Boy Scouts together at the Amache site. I had to downplay my astonishment as he named my grandfather, his brothers and sisters, where they lived previously, and their eventual professions. It meant so much to me to be able to hear more stories about my grandfather and his siblings from someone who knew them in that context.

In addition to Mr. Tonai, I was able to meet Nancy Oda, who spoke about her father’s time in Tule Lake. While we were there, Ms. Oda passed around copies of the Tule Lake Stockade Diary she has dedicated a large portion of her time to complete. Surprisingly, I read through the opening poem and found it to be written by my grandfather’s cousin on the other side of my family. Of course, speaking to these incredible individuals was very personalized and for that I am incredibly thankful.

Through the acquisition of new details in my family history previously unknown to me, experiencing the site from a different perspective, and hearing new stories about family members, I have gained so much knowledge and gratitude. Besides this point, I had learned so much about my peers and how to perceive experiences. Out of the eight of us, only three had family members incarcerated during World War II. Their willingness to listen, learn, and speak up was immensely admirable and truly exemplified the importance of storytelling and passing on Japanese American histories. Each of our experiences during our visit to the site were immensely different, but the knowledge gained brings us together, ready and willing to lead impactful discussions at Manzanar At Dusk this upcoming Spring.

Hailing from Morgan Hill, California, Megan Yabumoto is the Co-Cultural Awareness and Community Service Chair for the Nikkei Student Union at UCLA. The 20-year-old expects to graduate from the University of California, Los Angeles in 2020, with a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology and a Minor in Society and Genetics. She is currently serving on the organizing committee for the 2019 Manzanar At Dusk program.

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

LEAD PHOTO: Megan Yabumoto (center) is shown here reading an oral history excerpt from a former incarceree aloud for the group during a two-day, intensive, place-based learning experience for college students at the Manzanar National Historic Site in November 2018. Photo: Gann Matsuda/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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