We continue here with our series of reflection pieces written by our students who participated in our project, Katari: Keeping Japanese American Stories Alive, November 2-3, 2019, at the Manzanar National Historic Site.
While I was growing up, my family stopped at Manzanar every year on the way home from Mammoth. From the early trips to Manzanar, I don’t remember much, other than my uncle taking us to the reservoir and walking around the museum with my cousins. This past April, I attended my first Manzanar Pilgrimage, and I thought that was the most memorable and impactful trip to Manzanar I would attend. But Katari impacted me in ways I didn’t think was possible.
Going into this trip, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew we were going to hear stories from former incarcerees, but I didn’t expect them to spend the entire weekend with us and tell stories at different locations within the camp. I was excited for the long weekend ahead, but I was also scared because I wasn’t sure how the stories would affect my emotions and I felt almost every emotion possible. I remember laughing during some of the stories we heard, crying during others. I was angry, excited, sad, any emotion you can think of throughout the day.
By the end of the trip, I was nothing but grateful. I am very thankful for all the hard work and dedication that the organizers put into our program, and I’m beyond thankful for the former incarcerees that decided to spend a weekend with 14 college kids. Primarily, I’m thankful for the Katari project and the opportunity it gave me to learn about Japanese American incarceration in a way I never have before.
Back in high school, we had a writing assignment on someone who we saw as a hero in history. I did my research on Sadao Munemori, who served as part of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. In the process, I learned a lot about the internment of Japanese Americans. From my assignment, I realized the importance of sharing Japanese American history as a means of preserving the memory of those interned.
Katari helped to further reinforce what I’ve learned and also to teach me new information that cannot be obtained from the Internet or even books. While at Manzanar, I was able to provide the rangers the names of family members who were interned. I received documents related to their internment and from those documents, I learned more about their history.
I learned that my father’s side of the family was interned at Gila River and my mother’s side were interned at Heart Mountain. Both family documents stated that they were, at some point, moved to Tule Lake, and later, at the end of their internment, all left to return to Japan.
The saddest reality I realized during the project was that those who were younger in the camps are now starting to pass away. One of my aunts was eleven years old when she was in the camps and has recently passed away this year. I was always afraid to ask my family what it was like in the camps and what their experience was partially because I did not want to have to make them recall any bad memories, but mostly because I was afraid of the burden of knowing and remembering how much injustice they faced. The only thing that I had ever known was that my great grandmother had passed away before the United States had apologized for their internment and it makes me uneasy thinking about how many others faced the same circumstances.
I now realize that by not learning about their history, I am allowing for their story to die with them and, in the same way, allowing for the memory of them to fade. In order to advocate more, I made a presentation for the Orange Coast Optimist Club Junior Optimists, a Japanese American youth group.
When I spoke to the group, I started by asking questions and they would stand up if their answer was “yes” to any of them.
I asked, “Do any of you have relatives who were interned?” Few stood up. I later asked, “Are any of you unsure if your relatives were interned,” and the majority of them answered, “yes.”
At that point, I was unsure if what I was about to talk about would get through to them, so I changed up how I would present all the information. I gave a brief history of the camps and then went into further detail of re-telling the stories that I had learned through Katari. I stressed to all of them the importance of these stories and how each one is different for each person. What I wanted them to take away from the presentation was to talk to their families and not be as afraid to do so, as I was.
I feel it is important to speak to and engage youth more. Whether or not they listen to what I have to say is not as important as the fact that I still want to continue to tell the stories and allow the legacy of others to live on so that these events in history will not be forgotten.
Megan Matsumoto is in her third year at California State University, Fullerton where she is studying Psychology. The 20-year-old native of Brea, California is Co-Vice President of the CSUF Nikkei Student Union and serves on the 2020 Manzanar At Dusk organizing committee.
Kobi Kozai is a 19-year-old native of Cypress, California who is in his second year at California Polytechnic State University, Pomona, where is studying Mechanical Engineering. He is the Director of Cultural Affairs for the Cal Poly Pomona Nikkei Student Union and serves on 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: Students are shown here at Manzanar National Historic Site’s Block 14 demonstration barracks, looking at archival documents and photos while hearing about living conditions in the American concentration camps from Yoshiye Okimoto Hayashi and Minoru Tonai (not pictured). Megan Matsumoto (left) and Kobi Kozai (second from left) are pictured here. Photo: Gann Matsuda/Manzanar Committee.
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