As in 2020 and 2021, this year, the 53rd Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage was held online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Likewise, our annual Katari program for college students was also forced to be held online the past two years.
But this year, as conditions improved a bit, even though there was no live, in-person Pilgrimage program, the Manzanar Commitee held a small, in-person program at the Manzanar National Historic Site on April 22, 2022, an extension of the 2021-22 online Katari program. During this trip, students were able to see and experience some of what they learned about during the Katari program, up close and in-person.
Kazuko “Koo” Sakamoto, my grandma, was one of 120,000 Japanese Americans who were sent to internment camps scattered throughout America in 1942. Growing up, I never quite≈ understood the extent to which she suffered in these camps, and Grandma never talked about it either.
Even on our yearly trips to the Manzanar Pilgrimage, she wouldn’t really try to tell my brother and I about her past. On this past trip through the Katari Project, I learned why she wouldn’t talk about it.
On April 22, 2022, I, along with other Japanese American college students, had the opportunity to learn what it was like living in Manzanar, as well as getting to hear from former incarcerees about their experiences. One of them was my aunt, Patricia Sakamoto, who invited me to the event.
The day started out with offerings at the Manzanar cemetery monument, with kanji characters inscribed on the front translating to “Soul Consoling Tower,” created as a way to honor those who had passed.
A quick trip westbound led us to the Manzanar reservoir, where graffiti left over from internees expressed resentment towards Americans. We were later met by Kathy Jefferson Bancroft, the tribal historic preservation officer for the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Reservation, who shared her experiences and struggles of dealing with the destruction of her home as water and other natural resources were drawn from the environment.
As a way to bring in more greenery to Manzanar, a pear orchard was resurrected, where we were then shown some artifacts that were recently discovered around the Manzanar site, which included a stone usu, which was possibly used to make mochi.
One of the park rangers then explained how hapa incarcerees were sometimes discriminated against, and told the story of one such person who ended up living in Lone Pine after being let out of the internment camps.
The barracks were what really impacted my experience at Manzanar. We got to see how compact and minimal the barracks were along with the conditions that they were forced to live in. As everyone gathered in the small housing, we came to one of the stands which depicted a young woman walking with two children, one in hand and one walking by her side. I immediately recognized her as Grandma. Aunty Pat then walked over and gave the background on Kazuko “Koo” Hirano, the twenty-year old single mother who had to raise two children on her own, as well as fight discrimination and hardships along the way.
Her first husband left her to fend for herself at Manzanar, as he was sent to another camp. I had been told the story many times throughout my life, about how grandma was a fighter, someone who wouldn’t give up and kept on pushing, even when times were rough. What I didn’t know though, something that was told on this particular trip, was that Grandma still faced many hardships outside of the camps. She had next to nothing, and had to care for two children, Pat and Janice. This forced her to go on welfare, something she was extremely ashamed of. But she didn’t want to show how much she was struggling to my aunties, so she kept it hidden from them. If they asked how she was able to afford things, Grandma would just say that she was able to, and that was it.
The internment camps stripped her of everything, her family, pride, finances, housing, quite literally everything. But there was light at the end of the tunnel for this story. She was able to make it through and eventually met Paul Sakamoto. They got married and had two more children, my mom, Christine Sakamoto, and Dawna Sakamoto.
Learning about what my Grandma struggled with has made me appreciate what I have right now as well as what my family has been given because of her.
Huntington Beach, California native Gregory Terada, 23, is a senior at California State Univesrity, Long Beach. The Civil Engineering major writes from Long Beach, California.
PHOTO: Former Manzanar incarceree and Manzanar Committee member Pat Sakamoto tells her mother’s story in the Block 14 demonstration barracks at the Manzanar National Historic Site, April 22, 2022. Photo by Jason Fujii/Manzanar Committee.
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