Editor’s Note: The 2020-21 Katari program, which is usually held in early November at the Manzanar National Historic Site, had to be moved to an online format due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the loss of the extremely important placed-based learning component of the program, by all accounts, it seems that we were able to deliver an effective and meaningful educational program for our students, who will be sharing their thoughts about their Katari experience in the following weeks.
This past January, I had the immense honor of participating in the Katari program for the second time. Although we could not return to the Manzanar National Historic Site due to the COVID-19 pandemic, my experience in the online format was just as intimate and valuable.
During my first year, Katari taught me about the importance of empathy when learning about the past, and how imperative it is to keep stories like those from Manzanar alive. After a year of drastic changes in the dialogue around racial injustice and systemic racism, I made more tangible connections to the current day during this second experience.
Katari is incredibly unique because it makes history feel tangible and real—beyond textbook facts and information. I think that, too often, the incarceration is painted as something that is cause and effect. The rangers at the Manzanar National Historic Site—Rose Masters, Alisa Lynch Broch, and Sarah Bone made sure that we understood that it is far from simple, and they introduced us to the long history of anti-Asian laws and legislation in America. We also had the opportunity to speak to Indigenous people about how the incarceration affected their ancestors and tribes that resided in the Owens Valley. In this way, we are taught to see Manzanar as something multifaceted and deeply rooted in the history of this country and its treatment of BIPOC.
The most intimate part of Katari was when we had the privilege of hearing from Pat Sakamoto, Nancy Oda, Hiroshi Shimizu, and Min Tonai. As someone with no family connection to the camps, listening to and meeting with all of these people made me see Manzanar in a whole new light. The personal anecdotes that they told, little things they remembered as they reflected, and seeing their faces made me acknowledge the real people who lived that history. I am very grateful for their generosity and willingness to tell us their story. I was struck by how vulnerable and real they were about their thoughts and emotions.
It is impossible to continue this reflection without acknowledging the recent surge in hate crimes against the Asian American community. The connection between what we were educated about in Katari and the current events is not lost on me.
I think that the most valuable part of Katari, especially this year, was that it creates a base for young people like myself to start or continue their activism and continue to educate people about Japanese Americans, and by extension, AAPI issues. Because Katari taught us about Manzanar and the Japanese Incarceration in this holistic way, I can see the institutionalized racism that gave way to incarceration, and see how it continues to affect real people from all walks of life.
What resonates with me the most is the refusal for this history to be forgotten, erased, or overlooked. The Incarceration is rarely taught about in schools, even in California. The Japanese American community is still fighting for this history to be taught to more people. Even now, as Asian Americans are dying, we are still struggling to be heard in the mainstream media. The fight we are fighting now, for all people in this country to be treated equally, is the same fight that BIPOC have been fighting since the beginning. I know now that every day I choose to be vocal about this history, and every new piece of information that I learn about the camps is my way of keeping this history alive and my way of refusing to let this injustice be forgotten.
The education I received the past two years during Katari is a privilege that all American students should receive. I will take what I learned from Katari and continue to educate myself so I can advocate for what I believe in, and I hope future generations of students like me can experience this opportunity.
Seia Watanabe, 20, is in her third year at California State University Long Beach (CSULB) where she majors in Communication Studies and Film. She currently works as a researcher and serves as the President of CSULB Nikkei Student Union. She is also the Pacific Southwest District Youth Representative for the Japanese American Citizens League, and she serves on the 2021 Manzanar At Dusk organizing committee.
The views expressed in this story are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the Manzanar Committee.
LEAD PHOTO: Seia Watanabe (center) is shown here with fellow students during an exercise about racist laws and anti-Asian sentiment that preceded and led up to the unjust incarceration of Japanese/Japanese Americans during World War II during the 2019 Katari program, November 2, 2019, at the Manzanar National Historic Site. Photo: Gann Matsuda/Manzanar Committee.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and are not necessarily those of the Manzanar Committee.
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