Editor’s Note: The following is the final installment in our series of reflection pieces written by our students who visited the Manzanar National Historic Site back in November 2018, part of a two-day, interactive, 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.
The first time I was exposed to the topic of Japanese American internment, I was in fourth grade during the history section of class. In that class, we spent approximately ten minutes going over what Japanese American internment was, barely even diving into the topic and only talking about the hallmark dates: February 19, 1942, when Executive Order 9066 was passed; 1945 when the last internment camp was closed; 1988—over 40 years later when the United States Government finally acknowledged their wrongdoings with the passage of the Civil Liberties Act, and that was it.
There was no further discussion about the topic and we moved onto our next subject. This was the first school subject that discussed my heritage, Japanese American culture, and our class spent less than an hour on such an important event in our nation’s history. I never returned to the topic, neither in school, nor in my own free time, until I came to UCSD and was a participant in the Katari: Keeping Japanese American Stories Alive project.
For the Katari Project, myself and seven other participants from colleges around the Southern California area visited the Manzanar National Historic Site, where over 11,000 Japanese Americans were interned during World War II. The weekend was full of information and emotionally heavy discussions, all of which overflowed my mind. Although I am not able to remember all of the information that was given to me, what struck a chord in me and still sticks with me today, is the impact of being able to learn about all of this while being at the Manzanar National Historic Site itself.
In classrooms, we are detached from our environment. We learn about our history, but we never experience it. We never go out and interact and utilize the vast knowledge we learn behind our desks. Being at the Manzanar National Historic Site was, to say the least, overwhelmingly and incredibly powerful. We walked on the sands that those who were incarcerated there walked upon throughout their daily lives. We ate at the mess hall that some of them had their breakfasts, lunches, and dinners in. We strolled through a park where couples would go to get away from the world. We sat in a replica of one of the barracks that they slept in for over three years.
The connection to the land and its history was so great that every single thing I learned was amplified to the point where my emotions would often get the best of me and honestly, I’m glad they did. It only made the experience that much more impactful for me.
Of all the things we saw over the weekend, the experience that stood out to me the most was when we visited the replica of the women’s latrine. As we entered, we saw toilets lined up side by side, with nothing separating them except emptiness. As I pictured how the internees felt, I couldn’t help but imagine just how embarrassing and demoralizing it was for people to go to the bathroom. It was designed with no personal space, no privacy and absolutely no attempt at treating the internees with respect. It was almost as if the design was made so that they were treated as a unit, instead of thinking of the individuals. Going to the bathroom is one of the few times during our days where we are allowed to have privacy and get away from the world and even that was taken away from the internees.
This weekend was one of the most rewarding, educational, and impactful times of my entire life. Just experiencing a sample of what the internees went through (as we will never be able to understand and know what it really was like being interned at Manzanar for over three years) was enough to enhance my entire perspective on both my life and the lives of those in the past. As we drove away from the Manzanar National Historic Site under the colored sky and saw those mountains that towered over the camp disappear over the horizon, I realized that our lives are a product of our ancestors and we have a duty to them to keep their stories alive so that something like this will never, ever happen again.
I want to thank the Manzanar Committee for organizing the weekend to make it the most productive and educational it could be and I would also like to thank the donors who helped sponsor this trip so that I had a chance to go through this striking experience without having to fund myself entirely. I hope to see this project grow and expand so that we can truly try and keep alive the 120,000 stories of the Japanese Americans who were interned, and remind the public about this scar in America’s vast history.
Kevin Amemiya, 20, is in his second year at the University of California, San Diego, where he is a Biochemistry: Biochemistry Cell Biology major. He is currently the Culture Chair for the UCSD Nikkei Student Union and is a member of the 2019 Manzanar at Dusk Organizing Committee.
The views expressed in this story are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the Manzanar Committee.
LEAD PHOTO: Kevin Amemiya (center; to the immediate left of the easel), is shown here during the wrap-up discussion on day 2 of the Phase II Katari trip to the Manzanar National Historic Site. Photo: Gann Matsuda/Manzanar Committee.
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