Editor’s Note: Over the course of the next couple of months, college students who participated in our annual Katari: Keeping Japanese American Stories Alive program will share their thoughts here on our web site about their experiences in the two-day, intensive, immersive, place-based learning experience about the unjust incarceration of Japanese/Japanese Americans during World War II, a partnership with the National Park Service staff at the Manzanar National Historic Site. The following is the first of their reflections.
Both of my grandfathers were incarcerated in camps during World War II. But they both passed before I was old enough to hear their stories first-hand.
Growing up, I learned about the Japanese American internment experience from Japanese cultural summer camps, and a little bit from school, which gave me a surface-level understanding of what the internment camps were and what caused them. More recently, I dove deeper into the topic by interviewing women in my church community about their experiences. The interviews had a huge impact on me; they gave me a more nuanced understanding of the camps and an understanding of post-war life. But Katari, being the immersive program that it is, was able to even further expand my understanding of what my ancestors went through.
At the Manzanar National Historic Site, I took in the full picture, which included learning about racist legislation, native lands, camp living conditions, post-war life, and much more.
In a way, my weekend at Katari even made me feel closer to my grandfathers. Before we went up to Manzanar, I was able to send in the names of my grandfathers to one of the Manzanar park rangers, Sarah Bone. She sent back several documents: birth certificates, high school photos, draft cards, naturalization papers, etc. It was amazing to see that so much was preserved. At Manzanar, Sarah gave me and my long-time friend, Kaela, the camp rosters with our grandfathers’ information. We discovered that both of our maternal grandfathers were sent to, and transferred to the exact same camps.
Not only did I learn about my family history, but I also felt more connected to my Nikkei Student Union (NSU) peers. Even for those who do not have personal connections to the camps, I felt like learning about Japanese American history created a sense of inspiration and community among us. I already love NSU as a community, so it was comforting to share this learning experience with others as we reflected on Japanese American history and what it means to us and for our society.
What broke my heart the most was what I heard during the oral histories. As I was listening to these individuals tell their stories about post-war life, one thing stood out to me: they all remembered feeling ashamed to be Japanese. I felt a sense of guilt as I was sitting there, surrounded by my peers, and thinking about how I had such a strong Japanese American community growing up in Venice-West Los Angeles. It rekindled a deep appreciation for my community and reminded me to never take it for granted.
The vulnerability of the speakers brought a whole new dimension to my empathy and understanding for everyone who was affected by the camps. I want to use these feelings of guilt and heartache to fuel my activism and inspiration for keeping their stories alive.
Katari was a powerful weekend where I was able to think about how Japanese American struggles can be used to ensure that the government, and those in power, do not repeat their mistakes. I learned a lot about how our history has many parallels to the discrimination that minorities in America are facing today. Keeping our ancestors’ stories alive is not only personally significant, but it should also inspire Japanese American allyship with other communities that are being discriminated against.
While Katari was intense and heavy at times with the experiences and struggles we tried to fathom, I see that there is inspiration and hope to be drawn from everything we learned about. Katari has inspired me to ask my family more about my grandfathers and learn more about individuals in my Venice-West LA community, and it completely widened my perspective of what the Japanese American incarceration experience means, and what can be drawn from it. I am beyond grateful for this life-changing weekend of learning, remembering, and connecting with family, history, and community.
20-yeqr old Ally Yamashita, a Los Angeles native, is a junior at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she is majoring in Psychobiology and minoring in Applied Developmental Psychology. She is a member of the Nikkei Student Union at UCLA and serves as the Co-Chair of their Cultural Activities and Community Service committee. She also serves on the 2023 Manzanar At Dusk Planning Committee.
The views expressed in this story are those of the author, and are not necessarily those of the Manzanar Committee.
LEAD PHOTO: 2022-23 Katari students are shown here in the Visitors Center at the Manzanar National Historic Site on November 12, 2022, during an exercise on racist laws that helped set the stage for the unjust incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. Photo by Gann Matsuda.
Katari Program Needs Your Support
Katari, which means, to “tell stories” in Japanese, is a self-sustaining educational project that is working to bridge the generation gap that has made it much more difficult for young Japanese Americans to teach others about the unjust incarceration of over 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans in American concentration camps, and other confinement sites, during World War II. Teaching others about this subject is absolutely critical given the current political climate.
We need your support to raise the funds necessary to defray the costs of lodging, meals, and transportation from the Los Angeles area to the Manzanar National Historic Site in California’s Eastern Sierra/Payahüünadü (Owens Valley). You can donate to our Katari program by sending a check to the Manzanar Committee, 1566 Curran Street, Los Angeles, California, 90026-2036. Please be sure to write “Katari” in the memo line on your check. Thank you!
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