During the weekend of November 2-3, 2019, 14 college students went on a journey that they will likely never forget, as part of our youth education and engagement project, Katari: Keeping Japanese American Stories Alive, a two-day, intensive, experiential, place-based learning opportunity at the Manzanar National Historic Site.
Over the next couple of weeks, each of our students will share their thoughts and feelings about this experience, leading off with UCLA student Kimiko Kodama.
With two simple words, my entire perspective of Manzanar, as well as Japanese American incarceration camps, changed. I had gone into the Katari trip with a vague idea of what to expect: long walks, emotional talks, and dirt roads, all underneath a blazing sun. However, what I hadn’t expected was how significantly this trip would impact me, overall.
There is something so incredibly personal and rare about meeting incarcerees face-to-face and having the opportunity to listen to their stories and memories that shaped them into the people that they are today. Their stories are heart-wrenching and disheartening, but they are also astonishingly eye-opening and moving. While many tend to look at the remnants of the incarceration camps with a heavy heart, there is a significant number of those who see something exceptionally different.
One of the first stories we were told when we arrived at Manzanar was about the long-awaited return of a former incarceree. While many expected to see hatred or sorrow, she instead looked across the desert plains and buildings with a nostalgic smile and said…
When learning about history in school or from textbooks, we often tend to focus on the facts—the plausible statistics and numbers. We forget that these numbers are people with thoughts and feelings of love, fear, and tragedy. They carry priceless and unique memories and perspectives that have the potential to completely shift views and start movements. Where we see an isolating prison, many of those who experienced it also see it as home to a number of cherished memories, including graduations, weddings, birthdays, and dances—human beings and human connections.
Writing this particular reflection for Katari was much more difficult than I anticipated, mainly because I wasn’t sure how to begin to properly express what this trip meant to me. “Home” is a word that holds a lot of meaning to me, and I’ve struggled for a large part of my life to define it.
To me, “home” is defined by the connections and relationships I’ve built with my family, friends, and myself. Throughout my life, I had a very little understanding of the vibrant culture and community that my Grandmother and Dad grew up in. It wasn’t until I joined the Nikkei Student Union at UCLA that I was finally introduced to a variety of cultural traditions and last year’s Manzanar Pilgrimage. I hadn’t realized how little I knew about Japanese American history. But after the Katari trip, I’ve never been more inspired to learn about our community’s history.
The Katari Project was an eye-opening experience, and it allowed me to see the incarceration camps in an entirely new light. A tragic, yet beautiful opportunity for one to see the significant impact that history continues to hold on society today, and the urgency in which we must reinforce the idea that this should never and will never happen again.
Kimiko Kodama is in her second year at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she is majoring in Aerospace Engineering. The 19-year-old native of Fresno, California currently serves as the co-Cultural Awareness and Community Service Chair for the Nikkei Student Union at UCLA, and is a member of the 2020 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: Kimiko Kodama (center) is shown here reading an oral history excerpt at the site of Manzanar’s Children’s Village, where 101 orphans were incarcerated during World War II. Photo from the 2019 Katari trip, November 2, 2019, at the Manzanar National Historic Site by Gann Matsuda/Manzanar Committee.
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