Back on November 2-3, 2019, 14 students participated in an intensive, experiential, place-based learning opportunity at the Manzanar National Historic Site, a project we call Katari: Keeping Japanese American Stories Alive.
Each of our Katari students will share their thoughts and feelings about their experience, and our second student reflection is by Sean Gasha of the University of California, Riverside Nikkei Student Union.
Prior to going on the Katari trip, I really had no idea what to expect. Even though I am Japanese American, I never had any sort of connection to the Japanese American community, and much less to the people who are connected to the incarceration camps. My only connection to the incarceration camps is a distant uncle who I had never really had a conversation with about the camps. Even then, my uncle had a unique story, very different from most people in the camps. He was from Peru, forced to come to the United States, and was incarcerated at the Crystal City internment camp (administered by the United States Immigration and Naturalizaion Service) in Texas. My family saw his situation as a huge, but foreseeable, injustice by the Peruvian government, which, at the time, was a developing nation with a corrupt government who had very little concern about human rights.
Because of the few conversations that I had with my family about the incarceration camps, my knowledge and understanding before the trip was all from history textbooks and things that I had read online. I knew facts and dates, like how Executive Order 9066 was signed on February 19, 1942, but what I did not know was how Japanese Americans felt about the situation or what they had to go through. I did not know that the Japanese American community was in complete shock over the news and, in a way, did not know how to react. I did not know that the passing of the order caused families to be torn apart, as husbands and fathers were taken by the United States Government, causing their wives to suffer mental breakdowns, and ultimately, leading to some children becoming orphans. I never could have been able to imagine how terrible their living conditions were and how scary forced relocation to a site like Manzanar was. I never could have been able to imagine the amount of pain and suffering that these people went through. I realized these were all things that cannot be experienced simply by reading a book or an online article. These were all things that I could only understand by being at Manzanar.
One of my first impressions when driving to the Manzanar National Historic Site was how empty and far away everything was. Although there were sparse amounts of vegetation, everything looked very dusty and just felt so isolated. Even the scenery added to the somber atmosphere of the location. The two mountain ranges that surround Manzanar made me feel like I was trapped. The fact that these mountains seemed to surround the entire camp made it feel even more like a prison. I felt this way even without all the barbed wire and guard towers—the searchlights would have been pointed towards the camp, along with the guard’s rifles. It was all so depressing and hopeless. The worst part is that I had all these thoughts while the weather was quite decent. I could not even imagine the amount of dread that the first people who arrived at Manzanar felt when the severe dust storms made it almost impossible for them to open their eyes or when they had to sleep in barracks that were so poorly constructed that you could see the stars through the holes in the roof.
I think that one of the greatest benefits of the Katari trip is that I was able to feel more of a personal connection to the people who were incarcerated at Manzanar. Often, when I read about history, everything is so grouped together that I see these things as just events throughout history. The stories that I heard that weekend reminded me of how the people in these camps had actual lives. The stories of how the mess halls and the loyalty questionnaire tore families apart, or how one mother had to take care of two children by herself, allowed me to truly understand the pain that these people went through.
Ultimately, because of the Katari trip, I was able to understand how keeping the stories of Japanese American incarcerees “alive” was about more than the injustice. It is about reminding us of something that should never happen again. Before going on this trip, I always harbored a lot resentment towards the incarceration camps. I never could understand how a nation that prides itself on preaching about human rights and the legal protection for its citizens by the Constitution could allow such a horrid event like this to transpire and worse, not recognize the immorality of the situation. But this experience taught me that instead of carrying this hate, it is more important to help other minority groups, such as Muslims, who are constantly harassed, or Honduran parents who are being separated from their children at our southern border. Even though I cannot change any of the pain and suffering that happened in the past, I can tell people these stories and make them understand why nothing similar to this can happen again.
A 19-year-old native of Rancho Cucamonga, California, Sean Gasha is in his second year at the University of California, Riverside, where he is studying statistics. He currently serves as the Culture Chair for the UCR Nikkei Student Union, 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: Sean Gasha (center, wearing reddish sweatshirt), is shown here listening to former Manzanar incarceree Yoshiye Okimoto Hayashi (not pictured) telling her story about life at Manzanar at the site of Block 31, where her barrack was located. November 3, 2019 at the Manzanar National Historic Site. Photo: Gann Matsuda/Manzanar Committee.
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