In the fifth installment of reflection pieces written by the students who participated in our project, Katari: Keeping Japanese American Stories Alive, November 2-3, 2019, at the Manzanar National Historic Site, one of our students shared her thoughts on how her perspective about her community’s history has changed and about the impact that the first-hand stories she heard during that weekend had on her.
For most people, when they hear, Manzanar, if they even know what Manzanar is, they might think of a white, pointy, stone pillar with some kanji (Japanese characters) written on it, located in the middle of nowhere. People with a slightly deeper understanding, or simply know textbook information, know that it was an incarceration camp for many Japanese Americans during World War II. But this is surface level knowledge.
Someone who might know a little more about Manzanar could tell you that it is the location of one of the ten camps where more than 120,000 Japanese/Japanese Americans were unjustly incarcerated in 1942, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Some additional facts may include the following: on February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066; there was a total of 11,070 individuals who were incarcerated at Manzanar, and on November 21, 1945, the last incarcerees left the camp. But what most people might not know is that the Owens Valley Paiute and Shoshone, the indigenous people of the area, inhabited Manzanar for more than 10,000 years, or that a major reason that Manzanar was chosen as a location for one of the incarceration camps was because it was close to a source of fresh water (the Los Angeles Department of Power and Water owned the land and water rights).
People may also be unaware that some of the incarcerees built gardens, or that there was an on-site orphanage with a total of 101 children, or that the incarcerees were only given $25.00 and one-way bus fare when they left, or that the kanji on the front of the cemetery monument translates to, soul consoling tower. Just to throw in a few more facts, 150 individuals died at Manzanar and 15 were buried there, although only six remain, and the location of the monument is also the location of the cemetery.
It is easy to get lost in all the numbers. Personally, I do not care for history classes too much. It is difficult for me to remember all the dates, names, and places, so when one of the rangers started off the weekend saying, “History is about real people,” tears welled up in my eyes and I suddenly wanted to cry.
It sounds so simple and so obvious, but it is so easy to forget. She told us how she used to think of history in black and white, like these people existed as they appeared in photos, and I understood exactly what she meant. It is hard to relate to something that has no personal connection to something in your own life. When we read about historic places and figures in textbooks, especially during a class at school that we only took to fulfill some sort of degree requirement, it is easy to ignore the fact that those people and places existed in our reality.
That ranger’s words put me in the shoes of the incarcerees. I remembered that these individuals would have been me and my family, had we lived in that time. In fact, my grandfather was an incarceree, though not at Manzanar. However, I was left with another gap in my personal history because I never met him. He passed away before I was born. I will never be able to fully understand what it was like to live in those conditions, but the Katari trip put me in the head space to try and understand.
Manzanar is so much more than just a stone pillar in a valley surrounded by mountains. Manzanar is a national historic site that holds so many stories and memories for so many different people. In fact. one phrase that really stuck with me from the weekend was a slogan from the National Park Service: Manzanar: One Camp, Ten Thousand lives. One Camp, Ten Thousand Stories.
Throughout the weekend, we heard so many different stories at each building, each barrack, each garden, each space. We also heard stories from three individuals who were children in the camps, Yoshie Okimoto Hayashi, Pat Sakamoto, and Minoru Tonai. It was a lot to take in all at one time, but that was the point. It really emphasized the fact that each person incarcerated has their own story about their own experiences.
Just as no two people are the same, none of the stories that we heard were the same. Even twins, although genetically the same, grow up as separate individuals who have separate stories to tell. Again, in textbooks, there are a lot of dates and names to get caught up in, so the lives and emotions of the individual can get lost in all the facts. When the stories become specific to an individual, that is when a connection can be made, so I hope that other visitors to Manzanar are able to find a story that they can connect to. Having the opportunity to make these sorts of connections was truly an honor, and I could not be more appreciative of the rangers who guided us throughout the weekend.
A 20-year-old native of South Pasadena, California, Juliana Tom is in her third year at the University of California, Riverside, where she is studying Biology. She was involved in various youth programs at the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple in Los Angles’ Little Tokyo and she participated in Kizuna’s leadership program. She currently serves as President of the Nikkei Student Union at UCR, and 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: Juliana Tom (center) is shown here with fellow students listening to a presentation at the Manzanar Reservoir, November 3, 2019, on Bureau of Land Management land, just to the northwest of the Manzanar National Historic Site. Photo: Gann Matsuda/Manzanar Committee.
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